Silence in the Classroom is Not Perceived to be Golden

Imagine you are taking a psychology class and most of the students ask questions and
participate in class discussions.  However, some students are very quiet and rarely ask questions
or participate in class discussions.  Would you infer that they are quiet people and attribute their
quietness to their personality, or would you attribute it to them being bored with the class?  If
you attributed their behavior to their personality, what personality characteristics do you feel
they would have?
   In a study I conducted (Bell, 1995), participants were randomly assigned to read a brief
description of a hypothetical student who was described as either very quiet or very talkative in a
particular psychology class. The description involved several other things about the student
(e.g.,  has a 3.2 overall GPA and attends several parties each month).  The sex of the student
was also varied in this study (by the name of the student).  After reading the brief description of
the student, the participants evaluated the student on how talkative, shy, friendly, creative,
sincere, intelligent, helpful, dynamic, and honest they perceived him or her to be.  The
hypothetical student was perceived to be more talkative, friendly, creative, and dynamic when
described as very talkative than when described as very quiet.  Moreover, the hypothetical
student was also judged to be less shy when described as very talkative than when described as
very quiet.  There were no statistically significant effects for the sex of the hypothetical student.
  It is not clear whether these findings reflect negative beliefs about people who are quiet,
positive beliefs about people who are talkative, or both.  However, other research findings
suggest it might be more of a negative view of quiet people than a positive view of talkative
people.  Daly, McCroskey, and Richmond (1976) had people evaluate a hypothetical person
who varied in the percentage of time he or she was described as talking in a small group.  They
had them answer questions pertaining to the hypothetical person that reflected a number of
dimensions (e.g., sociability, competence, and composure).  The vocal activity varied from 0 to
95 percent.  On some dimensions, the effect clearly appears to be more of a negative perception
of quiet people than a positive view of talkative people.  For example, the mean for the
sociability measure was 9.6 for the 0 percent vocal level, 20.0 for the 50 percent vocal level, and
20.8 for the 95 percent vocal level.
  In my study (Bell, 1995), the student was described as being very quiet or very talkative in
only one particular class.  The participants did not know how the student behaved in other
situations.  Yet participants made judgments about the student's personality based on this one
situation. The participants in the study may have dismissed plausible situational explanations for
the student's behavior.  The possible situational explanations would include being bored with the
class and having personal problems that reduced their normal level of talkativeness.
 The findings are important because expectations about students can affect the scoring of essays
(e.g., Chase, 1979).  It's possible that students who are very quiet in a class may be judged as
less creative in their written work.  If they are judged to be less creative, they may receive lower
grades for their papers.  Thus, it is important that teachers be aware of this possible bias.    
Being aware of the possible bias may help to reduce it.


Bell, B. E. (1995).  Judgments of the attributes of a student who is talkative versus a student
  who is quiet in a class.  
Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 10, 827-832.
Chase, C.I. (1979).  The impact of achievement expectations and handwriting quality on scoring
 essay tests.
Journal of Educational Measurement,16, 39-42.
Daly, J. A., McCroskey, J.C., & Richmond, V. P. (1977).  Relationships between vocal activity
 and perception of communicators in small group interaction.  
Western Journal of Speech
, 41, 175-187.