SIP 10.5 Making Small Talk with Students

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?


Students and an instructor in a nursing class.Last week’s SIP (10.4) encouraged faculty to make the most of class arrival time by accommodating students’ staggered arrival times with learning activities that allow students to join in as they show up. One simple suggestion was to use the time to mingle with students and encourage the entire class to engage in small talk. While this sort of everyday activity may seem prosaic if not banal, research has associated it with several positive outcomes (Angelo & Cross 1993, Docan-Morgan 2014). Pre-class small talk:

  • Helps to create a welcoming classroom environment and gets students to lower their affective guard, preparing them to engage with the content that will soon be presented.
  • Allows faculty and students to get to know one another better (opportunities that can be rare on commuter campuses such as MSU Denver’s) and communicate instructor approachability, thereby increasing student engagement and retention.
  • Facilitates quick advising sessions, as well as informal assessments of students’ understanding of class material and progress on assignments.
  • And for students for whom English is not their first language (up to 15% of MSU Denver students are not native English speakers), small talk also provides a semi-structured opportunity to practice speaking English in a casual conversation (Verner).

Take a SIP of this:  Making Small Talk with Students

While faculty are content experts and masters of delivering lectures on complex topics, stepping out from behind the lectern and mingling with students is a different mode of interaction. For some faculty, this might feel intimidating, and topics for small talk may be difficult to come by. If this is the case for you, consider these mingling techniques and topics for small talk.

  1. General greeting questions such as: How are you? What’s your major? How’s your semester going? How’s life? What’s new? Are you planning any summer internships? These non-threatening, easy-to-answer questions build rapport, lead to small talk and can sometimes result in self-disclosures. From asking these questions, faculty can learn about students’ involvement with campus organizations, upcoming events worthy of announcement to the entire class and why a student has missed consecutive classes, for example. Along with general greeting questions, talking about the weather is, despite the clichéd reputation of the topic, one of the simplest ways to make chitchat or small talk with someone you don’t know well. Asking personal questions is a great way to make chitchat, but the questions should never be too personal. Politics, age, weight and income are all highly personal topics and should not be discussed, but most students are open to discussing where they grew up, their plans for the weekend or an upcoming vacation, if/where they work, etc. Current events, movies and TV programs, and University and local sports teams are great topics for casual conversation. Did you hear about…? Did you see…? What do you think about…? are all great ways to strike up a casual conversation.
  2. Course assignment questions such as: What questions do you have about assignments? What progress have you made on our upcoming assignments? How can I support your efforts to complete your assignments? Question such as these provide an opportunity to informally assess students’ understanding of and progress on course-related work. Students are more likely to pose questions and share concerns one-on-one in casual conversation than in front of the entire class.
  3. Course-content review questions require students to recall and/or summarize previous course content and allow for an informal assessment of students’ understanding of course material. When asking these questions, do so in a nonthreatening and/or humorous manner, for example: Let’s pretend you’re creating fortune cookies for our class – if you had to write a fortune based on content we’ve been learning about this week, what would you write? If you had to explain to your elderly Aunt Betty what we’ve been learning about in this unit, what would you say? In a nutshell or two, what did you take away from our last class period?

With a just little bit of preparation, experimenting with different questions and fine-tuning your timing, you will quickly improve your ability to engage in small talk and increase your comfort level while mingling with students.

In addition to mingling with students yourself, encourage students to do the same with their classmates. Make your intentions explicit, share your observations, and facilitate student interaction with icebreaker and learning activities such as discussed in SIPs 2.1: Ice Breakers4.7: Making the Most of Class Arrival Time7.5: Normalizing Asking for Help and more.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of making small talk with students

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