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TD Magazine Article

Caught in Awkward Silence?

Stimulate learner participation with these tips for asking better questions.


Fri Mar 31 2023

Caught in Awkward Silence?

Let's say you're facilitating a virtual training session. You ask a question and wait. No hands go up. Nobody unmutes. A few people look away from their cameras. You question your question. Did it make any sense? What do you do now?

Gaining learners' attention and inspiring participation can be tricky in any environment. The online space poses its own set of challenges but also offers facilitators an array of tools unavailable in person. Yet before exploring techniques and tools, let's first acknowledge two important elements of attention and participation: distractions and connection.


At this moment, how many things are competing for your attention? A Harvard University study estimates that people are distracted during almost 50 percent of their waking hours. Given that, it's no surprise that learners in your training courses seem distant or don't always respond. To help overcome that, two things are essential for you to do at the beginning of every virtual class before you start diving into course content:

Ask everyone to share what's distracting them. The lists of distractions in the virtual chat will be long, but the activity will help participants acknowledge their split attention. Research supports that distractions not spoken of become amplified in people's brains. Listing the distractions won't eliminate them, but it does help learners focus.

Focus on connection before content. Include a connecting activity. If you're facilitating a program that's longer than a day, spend more time connecting. The activity can be as simple as inviting participants to share in the virtual chat three words that describe themselves or asking learners a series of questions to discuss in breakout rooms before moving to content.

After acknowledging distractions and establishing connection, which set the foundation for attention and participation, it's time to use questions and discussion to further build on maintaining participants' attention and engagement.

Seven methods for asking questions

Questions are at the heart of learning. A well-planned question helps with learning, grabs learners' attention, and becomes a powerful source of engagement and participation. So, how do you ask the best questions to get the best responses?


Start with an easy question. An easy question builds learners' confidence and primes their brains for more-difficult questions. It gives participants something safe to answer before you ask them to think more deeply. Begin with a question about what learners observed, such as: "What did you notice during this activity?" or "What stood out for you about this information?"

Don't confuse an easy question with a question that has a predetermined response. Use a quiz for predetermined questions, and let discussions revolve around thoughtful questions that lead to insight.

Also avoid rhetorical questions such as "That was fun, wasn't it?" or simplistic questions with obvious answers such as "How many paragraphs did your reading have?" Simplistic questions don't help to prime learners' brains and can sometimes feel condescending, shutting down participants rather than engaging them. And because rhetorical questions don't require answers, they fail to spark the energy and engagement you are working to create.

Ask one question at a time. Notice what happens when I ask "What is something you notice about where you are seated, and what do you like about sitting there?"

Two questions force you to pause to decide which you are going to answer. People's brains are incapable of answering two questions at once; individuals must process one before they can think about the next.


That's why it's key to ask one question—and to say it in the clearest and simplest possible way. In addition, provide the question in a visual form. Participants can easily miss or mishear a verbal question, so reinforce it by putting it in writing. When possible, type your question into the chat or show it on a PowerPoint slide. If learners can see the question, they will be more likely to answer it.

Wait for responses. During a virtual class I attended, the trainer asked a great question. I sat for a moment considering the question—it was a tricky one. I placed my fingers on the keyboard and started typing my response. But before I could click Enter after completing my second sentence, the trainer had moved to the next topic and question. I deleted my response.

Participants need time to respond to questions. Learner time and facilitator time are not the same—time seemingly speeds up for you when you ask a question and slows down for learners as they process their responses. You may be fueled by anticipation of the next item on your agenda and a hint of anxiety over whether learners will respond, but remember that to answer the question, learners must go through at least six mental steps to respond. They are thinking:

  1. Do I understand the question?

  2. Do I have an answer for the question?

  3. Do I feel safe sharing my response?

  4. How will I respond?

  5. Do I need to raise my hand?

  6. Where is the unmute button?

Give learners enough time to think through their responses. Keep in mind that the first response will be from the fastest thinker in attendance, so wait for individuals who need a little more processing time to respond as well.

Keep waiting. The ability to sit with silence is the most difficult skill for a trainer. Consider counting backward from 20 as you wait for responses. Sometimes a little humor can help mitigate your discomfort. I sometimes say, "I'll wait a while." And then do so. After all, you are giving learners space to consider the question, which can be just as powerful for them as hearing others' responses.

Repeat your question. You can nudge learners to respond by repeating the question just as you asked it, which gives everyone another chance to hear it. Avoid rephrasing your question unless someone specifically asks you to, because rephrasing it can bifurcate learners' thinking, leaving them confused about which question they should answer.

Don't hijack the discussion. When you ask participants to respond, listen to them. Let the discussion stay with the group you are leading; it will foster more responses and save time. Avoid hijacking their comments by filling the space with your own meanderings. By talking less, you're giving participants an opportunity to have something left to say.

Acknowledge responses. If you want learners to continue to participate, acknowledge when they do. Names and repetition are the best acknowledgments—paraphrase or repeat what the respondent said and thank the learner by name.

What if there still is little participation?

Admittedly, even if you use those seven techniques you may nonetheless get little to no responses. That's when it's time to bring in some response methods designed to get learners sharing their thoughts or asking their own questions. These five response techniques allow learners the time and space to answer your questions. By using a variety of strategies, you can appeal to individuals' unique needs in the learning space, which will lead to higher engagement and acknowledge that not everyone participates in the same way.

Give me three answers. "I'm looking for three responses. Who has number one?" That phrase prompts everyone to pay attention—the class has a goal. I learned this classroom technique from Sharon Bowman, author of Training from the Back of the Room.

Asking for a specific number signals that the question is not rhetorical. After stating the goal, I scan the screen as I hold up one finger. I wait. I may squeeze my toes to distract myself from the awkward silence. A few people may look away. Some may look up and to the right. I breathe. And then the first person responds. I hold my fingers up to the camera with each response. Getting to three provides a sense of accomplishment.

Return with two questions or insights. Send small groups of two to four people to breakout rooms, asking them to come back with two questions or insights from their discussion. Ask the class a visible, specific question and then state: "When you return from the breakout room, be ready with a question or insight about what we just covered."

With this method, learners have a specific goal and a time limit. When they return, adjust the total number of questions or insights the group shares based on your available time.

Quiz them. What's your intent when asking learners questions? If you ask questions to check understanding, replace them with a short, ungraded quiz. Consider letting small groups work together to complete the quiz. If you need learners to know answers with memorization, don't allow them to use notes. But if participants only must be familiar with the concepts, notes are appropriate.

Use tools such as Kahoot, Mentimeter, Zoom quizzes, or even a simple PowerPoint slide with options for learners to either annotate or respond in chat. The tool isn't as important as the method.

You can include quizzes in learning by:

  • Creating low-stakes tests interspersed throughout a program

  • Using fun testing applications

  • Asking learners to develop quiz questions

  • Requesting participants to quiz each other

Present an FAQ annotation. Some groups can be reluctant to respond for a variety of reasons, whether cultural, interpersonal, or fear of psychological safety. For the most reluctant groups, turn the tables and give them questions from which to choose. Create a list of frequently asked questions (for example, those that learners may have in mind or that others have asked in past classes) and invite participants to point to their questions using annotation or putting the question number in the chat.

If you want to keep learners actively engaged, consider sending them to breakout rooms with a frequently asked question, and instruct them to return with their insight.

Create a wonder wall. This is among my favorite tools for helping capture learners' curiosity. Rather than asking participants what questions they have or some variation of that, I drop in a wonder wall. It is an otherwise blank slide with the phrase "What are you wondering about?" at the top. I then ask learners to either type into chat or annotate onto the wall anything they may be wondering about the course topic.

The screen will begin to populate with everyone's wonders. Seeing them on one screen is easier to read, and you'll get far more responses through wondering because it's psychologically safer for people to be curious than to show they don't understand something. "What are you wondering?" becomes a more powerful question than "Do you have any questions?" or "What are your questions?"

Look who's talking

Participation and engagement look different for every learner. If someone is quietly listening without saying much, it doesn't mean they're disengaged; it can mean they're thoughtful and introspective. Not responding to questions can be about psychological safety, not the merit of your question or someone's attention. Using multiple response and question methods gives everyone a chance to respond in a way that is comfortable for them.

Learner participation in the virtual space doesn't happen without connection, acknowledgment of distractions, and active involvement. You can use virtual tools to create a psychologically safe environment for everyone to participate in a comfortable way. Just like no class you deliver is alike, no two learners are the same.

Assume the best of all learners, and with a variety of response methods, you will grab their attention and keep them engaged throughout your training program. Curious if you really have their attention? Ask yourself who is doing the most talking. I hope you can say the learners are.

Trainers' FAQs, Answered

When it comes to getting learners engaged, trainers and facilitators may have several questions about the best way forward. Here are some common ones.

Q. How long should I wait for a response?

A. Wait longer than feels comfortable. Count slowly backward from 20. If you reach 20 without a response, say, "I'll keep waiting." Count again. Say, "Take a guess." Your time waiting will feel longer than learners' time formulating their responses.

Q. What if nobody answers?

A. If no one responds, consider your question. Was it confusing? Can you reword it? Ask for a response using a different method. For example, ask learners to put their response in the chat, send it in a private message, or even hold it up on a piece of paper in front of their camera.

Q. Why can't I call on someone?

A. Learners thrive in a safe, nonthreatening environment. Calling on someone at random can create a stressful environment for some participants that will detract from their learning.

Q. What if someone looks like they want to respond?

A. When a learner displays body language that makes them appear as if they want to respond, call on them by saying, "Connor, it looks like you have something to say." They'll appreciate being recognized. If they did not intend to respond, you've made it easier for them to say no.

Q. Why are questions so difficult in online learning?

A. Virtual classrooms require a different set of communication norms compared to in-person learning. Facilitators need to set the norms for participating to make it easier for learners to know whether they're expected to raise their hand, just shout out, type into the chat, or remain muted until called on.

Learner Engagement Types

Learners engage in training in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons.

Contemplative observer. This individual gauges their level of safety and their need to respond. They will respond if necessary.

Quiet observer. This type of participant is continuously listening. They take everything in, hoping they will not need to unmute or call attention to themselves. They give few nonverbal cues.

Distracted. This learner is multitasking, hoping to avoid being put on the spot. They believe they are successful in their multitasking.

Visibly engaged. This individual has their camera on and is willing to respond to questions. They look for the opportunity to talk and show a lot of nonverbal cues.

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