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April 22, 2009 8:15 PM   Subscribe

How do I force myself to speak up more in class?

I'm in graduate school. A big emphasis is placed on speaking up in class and discussing your opinions and ideas on the week's readings. That's my problem right there.

I DON'T talk in class. It takes me a long time to come up with something to say. Usually, it's already been said by the time I think of it, or the teacher doesn't necessary notice me until a couple of hands have gone down (or there's a lull in people blurting out their thoughts). I get freaked out when I do speak up, and a lot of times my responses don't come out self-assured and confident at all. Once I got picked on, and I spent a full five minutes staring at my binder while the speaker and the class looked on, before coming up with a weak response. Most of my classmates and my regular professors have caught on that I find it very tough to speak up, and I've noticed instances where they try to help me out by providing leaders or being extra patient. I don't always take their leads (if I even notice it at the time--I usually don't until after class is over and I do a bit of reflecting), and I think I've noticed a bit of frustration on their part at times.

I'm naturally quiet. I don't speak much at home or outside of school normally. But I also spent childhood (and a few years in undergrad) being constantly criticized for everything I said and thought, and I'm well aware of how that has affected how much I reveal to people. However, this is grad school, and whereas I could get by with saying one or two pertinent things in undergrad, this is seriously unacceptable now.

I do well in my (written or formal presentation) assignments, and I like what I'm studying. It's too late to make it up for this semester. I'm taking summer classes though, and I'd like to make a fresh start when classes start again in June. So, any tips for getting myself to be more confident and to speak up more? I've considered talking to a counsellor about my anxiety.
posted by anonymous to Education (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Definitely talk to that counselor.

You should come up with something to say before you are asked. Can't you come up with a few things to say while you are reading? Take notes, you can even start by typing up what you mean to say verbatim.

That won't help you when you are asked a specific question, but take it from someone who has always been one of the big talkers in his classes: the more you speak up when you have something to say, the less you'll be expected to speak up when you don't. Take advantage of that.
posted by grouse at 8:21 PM on April 22, 2009

I agree with Grouse-- try writing up some notes prior to class so you have some ideas of what you'll say. You should get better at anticipating what the prof will want to discuss and can better prepare.

I get kind of antsy when I have something to add and I have to wait through several other responses. What I do is jot down some notes for my comments. It helps me not lose my train of thought before or during my chance to talk. I rarely use them, but I know they're there if I blank.

Also, just know that the more you talk, the easier it will get. So maybe it's overwhelming now, but when you blurt out something and successfully don't beat yourself over it, the next time you'll do even better. But you do absolutely need to deal with this. Being able to speak up for your ideas is a crucial skill in academia-- thin skin won't work.
posted by parkerjackson at 8:27 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've considered talking to a counsellor about my anxiety.

I think this is an excellent idea. Not because I think you have anything pathological, what you're describing is fairly normal. But it's also not doing you any favours at school and could definitely be improved. In particularly I think you should go see the ones at your University. University counsellors are there to help you do well at school as well as fix the mentally ill, and helping students work out how to speak up in class is something they'll have experience with. It is totally appropriate to go see them about this. They may also be able to refer to you to courses run by your University's learning unit (whoever teaches exam skills or endnote classes etc at your Uni) that can help you with this.

I also know several grad students with similar issues who have joined Toastmasters to help with both giving presentations and with being a more assertive speaker in general. At least one of them goes to a chapter hosted right at the University, there are that many students involved. They've all found it worthwhile and I've also noticed an increase in confidence in one of my friends when speaking up in our big research group meetings so apparently it does help.
posted by shelleycat at 8:36 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have a sheet with conversation and sentence starters with you. You can check them off when you say certain things, and it will give you something to connect your points.

"First thing I'd like to say is..."

"Based on what you just said, we could agree that..."

"That's an interesting idea. It makes me wonder what would happen if..."

You can even include some starters that are fancy ways of saying "I don't know." You could participate this way sometimes by just keeping the conversation going.

"I would have to think about that. What does everyone else think about...?"
posted by fantasticninety at 8:37 PM on April 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

I feel you. I'm naturally quiet as well, and I can count on one hand the number of times I spoke up in my undergrad classes. Now I'm in grad school as well, and participation is a big part of my grade in each class. I was dreading it, but I want to do well, and so I had to get over it.

A few things that have helped me:

- Dividing the portion of my grade that is base on participation across the class sessions. So each class is worth, say, two points. All I have to do to get my two points is speak up once during class. That's it.

- Thinking about what I want to say in class during the days preceding it (or making a couple notes in class as things occur to me). Not a lot of time, just jotting a couple notes or thoughts based on the readings, or making sure to bookmark an interesting or relevant news story or blog post or whatever.

- Realizing that nobody knows what you're going to say before you're going to say it, so even if *you* think it came out completely fumbly and garbled, no one else knows this. And I definitely don't remember the specifics of what everyone else said in class, so I highly doubt that anyone else remembers the finer points of my contributions.

Just keep at it. One thought or contribution per class session, and I think that before long you'll find yourself building on it. It gets easier the more you do it, I promise. Now I'm the girl who can't shut up in class (though hopefully not the girl that all the other students want to kill because of it).
posted by anderjen at 8:40 PM on April 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

This is definitely an issue for me as well, but I've been able to improve by doing what the above posters have said.

When doing the readings, I pick a few aspects to focus on and make sure whenever those come up in class my hand shoots up. Rather than just have a good understanding of the readings generally, isolate a few very specific points and make sure when they come up you're on them.

I've noticed a second trend which slows me down: I generally want to follow the flow of the conversation; to add something to the current idea or respond to what the last person just said. This obviously makes for better discussion, but can limit your opportunities to speak. If I'm still thinking about something said three minutes ago, I try to work it in even if I'm shifting the conversation. I don't always like doing it, but I've realized that many other people do the same thing and it doesn't always have to come across as interrupting the flow. Just adding "to respond to John's point earlier..." can work and demonstrate that you're thinking.
posted by Adam_S at 8:44 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

You have two options:

1. See a life coach and evaluate post-graduate programs that would more suit your focus on writing.

2. See an occupational psychologist at your university who will work through your fear of speaking up and help you be able to do it in more situations. If I knew where you were, I bet we could find someone like this on your campus.

Why is this anonymous?
posted by parmanparman at 8:52 PM on April 22, 2009

Have you tried thinking about potential responses before class? It helps me sometimes to write down the main arguments and your responses to them. I try to come up with connections to other material and write down some questions I have. It may take you awhile to be able to identify what likely discussion topics will be so you can respond to them ahead of time, but it'll come with time. Also, what about identifying a possible ally in class that you can meet with and have your own discussions ahead of time so you can both sort out your thoughts?
posted by lilac girl at 9:03 PM on April 22, 2009

I really like the advice you've received so far... and here's a little more:
1. remember that your grade is dependent on class participation - not class awesome, or class blow-the-professor's-mind. You just need to participate.
2. So one easy way to participate is to be prepared, do the reading, and then...
3. Instead of thinking "oh, people made the point I was going to make already!"
4. Let go of your prior plans, and really listen to your classmates.
5. Let it go when a comment doesn't strike you - but if you really agree or DISagree with a comment - that's the time to raise your hand.
6. STATE your position - "well, jumping off from susie's point... " or "I have a really different perspective than anna..."
7. Basically if you can cite what another student said, cite the reading, and give a new perspective - YOU WIN. that's all you have to do!
8. The point is to get the points, dig? If there's a participation grade, it's because your professor wants confirmation that you've done your homework and that you are listening in class - that's all.
posted by moxiedoll at 9:13 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was going to suggest something similar to anderjen's strategy (the "two points" thing). It seems like you have a lot of anxiety about how other people are judging what you say. Making it a requirement of yourself to say something, anything, just once in every class might help change the focus from quality (which you have anxiety about) to quantity (which might be an easier goal to achieve).

Also, what everyone is saying about jotting down comment ideas ahead of time is very good. You don't say what your field is, but if it's anything like mine, you don't have to respond directly to what other people are saying in class; you can turn to what you feel more in command of. ("Classmate A has a good point about the role of the aardvarks in this story, but I actually was wondering about the armadillos. It seems to me that they might symbolize . . .")

And I'd like to underline anderjen's last point: nobody else, not even the professor, puts as much time and energy into over-analyzing and criticizing what you say in class as you do. Anecdote: Once, in a graduate course, I tried to comment on how interesting it was that the text didn't tell us anything about X. One of my classmates pointed out that X was, in fact, explained quite clearly on the very first page of the reading. (Moreover, it involved bizarre and highly memorable details.) I was mortified and felt like I had a neon sign over my head that said "IDIOT." But when I brought up the exchange a few weeks later in conversation outside of class, my classmates didn't even remember the incident. If the professor took any note of it, it didn't stop her from giving me an A for the semester. From that experience, I concluded that I really didn't need to worry too much about what anyone else might think about my in-class comments. The worst-case scenario—making myself look like a fool—had already happened, and had generated no consequences at all.
posted by Orinda at 9:25 PM on April 22, 2009

Read the literature for the discussion a couple of times before the class so you have a very good recall of the topic. Make notes in the margins and dog ear the pages for quick and confident reference. Outline salient points you would like to cover. Do this without pressuring yourself to perform live yet.

Rehearse the argument with someone you trust. Take opposing positions, play with it, switch sides. When I was in college, my partner and I would take a topic like the death penalty and argue both sides and switch; our arguments could go on for weeks, all in good academic fun, nothing more.

If you are having fun, turn the heat up a notch and get comfortable with someone putting you on the spot in an argument. It only sharpens your wit to joust. In fact, you could practice with this very bright hive mind right here. Note how folks who abuse the system are handled by others who shepherd the threads back to a more productive discussion. Their methods for deflating abusive posters are a great guide to countering criticism.

Most instructors are so grateful for students who participate, so view your comment as a real contribution to class. Try to transform your current anxiety from internalized criticism to outward active expression.
posted by effluvia at 9:33 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Be confident by knowing your facts. If your opinions are backed by facts, which you can bring those up if anyone questions you, QED.

If you're in a lecture/class/whatever - and come up with an idea - write it down. During the boring bits, start thinking about the idea/question/though and ... write down what you want to say. When question period opens up; read what you had time to edit/produce.

Learn to laugh at your own ignorance. Blurt out questions and be prepared to go, "Oh, ah.. haha, right. Given <additional "bunch of facts">, right. Nevermind. Stupid question. <smile>

As for anxiety - have you made any friends in the program? Do you get along with some of the brighter (not necessarily more aggressive*) members of your class? Ever talk to them about the topics?

Either shooting the shit or arguing with the smarter people in your program in a "non-official" setting is exceptional practice for speaking up in class/official settings.

*aggressive people: they can be very right or very wrong (or anything in between) but you probably won't learn a lot of basic skills from them. Advanced skills? Yeah, they're honed by debating with opinionated and aggressive (but smart) people. Then again, just because they're aggressive and opinionated doesn't make them smart or their opinions right. Choose your practice partners wisely.
posted by porpoise at 9:36 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why is this anonymous?

For good reason, if the asker cares about their graduate career. But they seem pretty astute at understanding what is expected of them.
posted by grouse at 9:41 PM on April 22, 2009

If a student ever approached me in my seminar and told me that they had things to say, but were too hesitant to get a word in edgewise, I would immediately clear a space for their contribution.
posted by umbú at 9:52 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another thing which occurs to me, don't be afraid to make your point if someone already made it. Sure you can't get away with this always, but it can be a good way to get used to contributing. To do this you first acknowledge that someone else already said it, and say that you agree. Then repeat the idea/statement/argument/whatever consicely in your own words. For example

I agree with what Shelley said earlier. Seeing a counsellor about this kind of classroom anxiety is a good idea and isn't something you should be ashamed of, they see people like this all the time and will be able to help you.

This shows you've been following the conversation, you noticed that the other person made this point. And by putting the idea in your own - prossibly pre-rehearsed - words it shows you've thought about it yourself rather than just saying 'me too'. Sometimes there are only so many opinions and ideas possible about a peice, supporting someone else's viewpoint is totally valid. If you're really lucky there'll also be smoeone who made an opposing viewpoint so you can disagree with them at the same time, giving you two things to talk about.

I really like the idea of aiming to contribute just once in every class, at least at first. As the semester goes on and you get into the swing of thigns you may warm up but if you don't then once is still acceptable. Everyone else's ideas in this thread are great, but it can also help to have an 'out' like this one which you can pull out occasionally when you're really stuck.
posted by shelleycat at 9:59 PM on April 22, 2009

One simple thing that could help is sitting in the front row, especially if part of the problem is just having a naturally quiet personality. You won't have to worry as much about yelling across the room and feeling awkward about making sure you're heard, and risking having to repeat everything all over again because you weren't.

Another thing is that you don't have to worry about the entire class turning around to face you all at once. That can be very unnerving and make you feel even more like you're in the spotlight.

All in all, it'll eliminate a few of the aspects that might make you hesitant to respond to the teacher. From personal experience, if I'm up front at one of our office meetings, I'll chime in all the time, but if I'm in the back, I won't feel as inclined to yell something unless it's really important, and sometimes I end up wishing later that I'd said that something.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:01 PM on April 22, 2009

Keep this in mind: you're in a school. School is for learning. It's for exchanging opinions and clarifying ideas and thinking and questioning.

If you've done the week's reading, it's OK to admit a genuine personal opinion or a question. It's just something you can take to class and offer up for the purpose of learning. It's only an opinion, which means it's just the way the readings seemed to you -- just a reasonable conclusion you've drawn. A humble opinion is not really anything unrealistic to expect from yourself. You can't do much else.

So say it with me, "It's OK to have an opinion or a question, whatever it may seem to be" :) Be a little cooler, a little more curious, a little more honest, a little more humble; be willing to get your conclusions questioned and to question other people's conclusions as well, and the whole thing will be a lot more fun. If you don't know, just say "Shit, I don't know. But here's what I suspect: ____ ".

Don't get so wrapped up in it. It's not about you, it's about the ideas. Focus more on the ideas, on the pleasures of cracking good academic discussion, and not so much on yourself. Who cares if you are assertive or whatever. People WILL criticize what you say, and that's GOOD, they should! They are not criticizing you. And you should criticize what THEY say, too. If you fuck up or miss something from the reading, be thankful that you've got your classmates and your teacher there to set you straight, and that you can do the same for them, because you're all there to learn, after all.
posted by Theloupgarou at 10:35 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding umbú--I actually talked to my German professor this semester to let him know that I had things to say about the literature we studied, I was just not used to taking classes where students lead the discussion. Also, I am foreign and my usually light accent becomes rather noticeable when I am nervous. He was great about it throughout the entire semester: "halogen, what do you think?" was something he'd say every once in a while, and it opened up opportunities for me to speak out.
posted by halogen at 10:41 PM on April 22, 2009

It might help to recognize that disagreement is not necessarily a sign of disrespect — especially in academia.

Look at it this way: you don't bother looking under the hood and kicking the tires unless you're thinking of buying the car. It's the same way with ideas. If people are trying out objections to an argument, or probing its weak spots, it's because they think there's a chance it's worth buying into. If people really thought it was a dud, they'd ignore it and move on.

Now, I don't know your classmates or your program, and I haven't seen a discussion there in action. Some programs really are just awful and combative ALL THE TIME, and if you're in one of those... well, you've got my sympathy. But more likely, at least some of the criticism you're getting so upset about is really meant as positive attention: your classmates find your ideas interesting, even if they aren't convinced right away, and so they want to draw you into debate and explore them further.

It's also worth realizing that there's no shame in being wrong. Frankly, being wrong is part of the process. You can't tell if an idea is going to be good or not before you've had it. You've got to just float the damn idea and see what happens. Sometimes it'll get poked full of holes, sometimes it'll come out intact and even win some people over, sometimes it'll get tweaked and modified by the group into something stronger than any of you could come up with on your own.

Rather than trying to craft the perfect irrefutable argument in your head before unleashing it on the class, just try out some half-baked ideas. Worst case, they're wrong AND NOBODY CARES because they've been there too. Best case, they're more clever than you realized, the heat of the subsequent debate "bakes" them the rest of the way, and you wind up wth a full-fledged, road-tested, genuine solid idea that you can take credit for and be proud of.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:09 PM on April 22, 2009

Great advice so far.

(1) Seconding TheSecretDecoderRing : one hack that worked for me is sitting in the front of class, so it's as though you and the instructor are having a one-on-one conversation. (This will benefit from going to office hours and getting to know the instructor's conversational style.)

Besides not feeling very conscious of the rest of the class zooming in on you, this also worked when the class is communally avoiding to ask any questions -- this sense of dread can be quite infectious.

(2) The classes I found the most to talk about in required weekly written journals that helped to sort out the questions and facts in one's own head. You can also choose to make this oral.

(3) In a pinch, glancing ahead (or afore) at the syllabus also helps with placing your thoughts in a grand structure. Or like others have pointed out, makes you question your assumptions (particularly that of the professor's intent), which you can then bring up in class. This has been usually quite engaging to both professor and classmates (if done respectfully).

(4) Having the same thing to say as someone else--ie. agreeing with others--is completely valid.

All the best to you, dear.
posted by popsciolist at 2:05 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not sure how relevant this is to your field, but what I tend to do when I'm listening to scientific seminars is to make a note of the questions I want to ask, with a kind of check box next to each one. Then when the speaker is taking questions after their talk, I can tick off items in my list as other people raise them, so I don't accidentally raise a point that's already been discussed. Perhaps you could do this before your classes?
posted by primer_dimer at 2:15 AM on April 23, 2009

What about getting a tutor for a few times and getting some confidence talking with them about the subject(s)? Having them ask you questions in a non structured setting. You might find that after talking one on one ( or maybe if there are one or two other people besides yourself being tutored at the same time) you'll get more confident in your questions and answers. Smaller numbers making it a little more comfortable for you. Just a thought.

Good Luck!!
posted by Taurid at 1:44 PM on April 23, 2009

I found that phrases like, "Just to play devil's advocate, maybe xxxx..." or "Just throwing this possibly off the wall idea out there, but..." or "The argument could be made that..." helped to separate what I said from the subjective me (whose terror of being criticized or called "wrong!" regularly shut down my brain).

Nthing that even if a student has made a point, you certainly can say "Yes, I agree with Jane's point that blah blah, because" and then state it again using your words and perhaps expanding, "and from this other perspective/angle, it can be argued to make sense because..." One time a classmate who frankly was one I depended on to fill air time and keep the conversation going, contributed a feminist remark that was on topic and a bit controversial. The instructor and maybe one or two other people critiqued her remark. I privately agreed with what she said, but as usual didn't speak up. I thought she rebutted the critiques with her usual finesse, but in dissecting that class later, she said, "Nobody backed me up." She said it twice. Obviously it bothered her.

I'd never thought someone like her, who argued so confidently, never afraid to jump into the fray and defend her assertions, could have had any use for backup from someone as shy and stupid-sounding as me. I mean, I thought I sounded stupid, but as others above have mentioned, we are our own worst critics. Um-ing and ah-ing, speaking in fits and starts and having to start over again, turning red, feeling your heart rate accelerate until it feels like it'll fly straight through your chest, wincing at the sound of your own voice...whatever the ways your lack of confidence expresses itself when you start speaking, if you keep doing it often enough, then you'll get used to it. At some point as you keep practicing speaking up, the self-consciousness should go down, and you'll be able to put it aside more easily to focus less on "Do I sound like an idiot? That guy looks bored! My voice just cracked, god dammit..." and more on saying what you have to say.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 4:29 PM on April 23, 2009

I was you. My advice might seem a bit out of left field, but it worked for me. I pretended to be someone confident. In other words, I performed a bit of theatre in class, if only for a few minutes each class.

I also took this theatre of the outgoing me outside of class. I practiced hitting on people in my daily life. This could seem totally irrelevant, I know, but for me it worked. When I was confident enough to speak up and make a pass at someone in a coffee shop, in a bar or at the bus stop, speaking out in class began to seem much less frightening.

Eventually I was able to stop acting, because I was much more confident. As a side benefit I left a string of flattered people behind me wherever I went. I had some good dates and even met one person I lived with for a two year period.
posted by Cuke at 7:28 PM on April 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

Talking with a counsellor gets another vote from me, and you might want to bring it up with a doctor, too. Anxiety triggers all kinds of physical responses, so medical advice could make sense.
posted by woodway at 8:38 PM on April 23, 2009

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