How do I get myself to speak up in class?
August 20, 2009 10:39 AM   Subscribe

How do I get myself to speak up in class?

I'm studying in an Asian business school that's modeled its practices after the American's college system. What this means is that we've done away with lectures and tutorials, and, in their place, we have 3-hour long seminars with smaller class sizes and more room for class discussion.

This is huge problem for me as I'm not the sort who enjoys drawing attention to myself, much less a roomful of undergraduates waiting for their own turns to speak up. Class participation is graded and is a fairly significant component of my grade, and yet I keep struggling with myself to pick up the courage to speak up in class.
posted by magazineaddict to Education (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Class participation is graded

What more inspiration/courage do you need?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:40 AM on August 20, 2009

posted by Adam_S at 10:41 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

roomful of undergraduates waiting for their own turns to speak up

This means that even if you say something incredibly stupid, your peers will be busy trying to think of something to say themselves and won't notice, care, or remember your dumb comment.

Do you have any opportunity to meet with the instructors for these seminars? If so, make an appointment with each to discuss... anything. Find some thing that confuses or interests you about each class, and bring it up with the instructor. Get comfortable talking to them so that, in class, speaking up doesn't feel like "drawing attention" to yourself but instead feels more like continuing the conversation you'd previously had one-on-one in their office.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:52 AM on August 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Practice doing it outside of class. When you're out with your friends, offer an opinion. When you're in a restaurant, order your food first. Go to the bar and order the drinks.

Another way of dealing with it is to create a persona, a "you" that does speak up, that does offer opinions, etc. Just pretend that you're someone else, who is brash and who knows it all. Let that aspect of you speak up in class.

Or you could do what I did, which was get a job working retail. Joe Public will demand that you speak up, think on your feet and generally think twice as fast as you normally would. It's hellish at first, but you soon get used to it. I wouldn't exchange the experience for anything.
posted by Solomon at 10:52 AM on August 20, 2009

Well, the reason I tried not to participate in class was because my peers were just regurgitating what their professors said to earn their participation grade and hated it when I raised any substantive points. So you could go with that and rest assured you're following the US model, at least.

Prof: So the earth is round.
Student: By which you mean it isn't flat, correct?
Prof: (marks checkbox next to student's name) Yep. Now then...
posted by jwells at 11:13 AM on August 20, 2009

Something I have suggested to my own students is make some notes during preparatory readings -- that way you are not forced to ask a question "off the cuff" but one you have had some time to think over. Plus, it gets you into the mindset of going to class with an intent to participate, which I expect helps (it did for me, all those years ago).
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:15 AM on August 20, 2009

We had graded discussions in my AP classes in high school. One thing that always helped was being very prepared for them--I made sure I did the reading, took notes, highlighted key points etc. After that you need to just do it. Everyone knows that it's being graded and will only really be paying attention to how they can contribute.
posted by Kimberly at 11:23 AM on August 20, 2009

Well, for one thing the other students will probably be relieved you're speaking so they have time to think, so don't feel like you're denying them something by talking.

A good plan is to decide you're going to speak, say, three times per class. Have a tally on your notes page. Then, when you've accomplished that, you can sit back and enjoy listening to the rest of the discussion, and only pitch in if you feel like it. It'll get easier with practice, too, you just need to get started.
posted by you're a kitty! at 11:38 AM on August 20, 2009

Is the problem that you can't think of things to say on the spot? Or is the problem that you just don't like talking in front of people?

Maybe you could write up a list of topics or things to talk about before the class, then if you need something to say you could just look at that. I have a friend who writes up whole comments before class and then she basically just reads them. If you're not sure what you'll be talking about in class maybe you could talk with the teacher and ask her about the topic beforehand.

I've also had some teachers who would let me turn in a few paragraphs of unspoken comments to improve my participation score. (Though this was because there wasn't enough time to say everything, and it happened in highschool). You should definitely go talk with your teacher about this.
posted by kylej at 11:40 AM on August 20, 2009

Gee sounds like some are giving you a hard time, but I sympathize. Here's my advice:

1) Look up public speaking practice groups like Toastmasters, etc. I don't know if speaking up in class is the #1 reason people join these things but it sounds like you probably have trouble speaking before groups in general and this will be a problem for you throughout your life INCLUDING your business career if you don't start working on it. It takes practice. My understanding is that these groups are all over and they exist to give you a place to practice speaking before groups.

2) Try asking questions. That should be an easier place to start than trying to come up with insightful comments. Good questions are great participation. Read your materials well and you'll eventually find something worth asking.

3) And stop thinking about it so much. I am hearing a few things here. You think people are vibrating in their chairs waiting to speak. You think you'll be hogging attention if you speak. Ergo, you think that people who speak are arrogantly promoting themselves. You also seem fixated on speaking just so you can improve your grade. Try letting that stuff go and get back to basics: won't you learn more if you ask questions about the material? Don't you have any thoughts about the course material?

And most importantly: isn't school a good place to practice your public speaking? If you are nervous now, the workplace will be even worse. School is just school. Open your mouth. How far wrong could you go? It doesn't matter AT ALL what other students think of you. And chances are you're smarter than a lot of them anyway. So stop worrying about it.

Someone wise once said: "Speak out, even if your voice shakes."
posted by scarabic at 11:43 AM on August 20, 2009

> I'm not the sort who enjoys drawing attention to myself.

How incredibly smug....People won't think you're courageous or intelligent or introspective because you don't speak; they'll think you're a jerk who feels too cool to participate.

Wow, harsh. The OP says at the end he "struggles to pick up the courage to speak in class." [I'm assuming the OP is male because of the name in the profile.] So maybe encouragement rather than censure would be more helpful here. Also, there's an element of culture shock; the OP's university has moved from an Asian-style classroom to a more North American style format. Adjustment takes time.

OP, I think your best bet is to prepare thoroughly ahead of time by doing your readings and taking notes, drafting a question or comment before class, rehearsing it a few times in your head or out loud, then forcing yourself to ask your question/make your comment in class. The more you do it, the less unnatural it will feel to you. There's no magic bullet, but practicing will make it easier.

Try to see the positives in the new format--a well-facilitated seminar (hopefully your instructor is a good facilitator) can be a great learning experience for students as they bounce ideas off each other and come up with things the instructor hadn't even thought of.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:21 PM on August 20, 2009

Some others have already suggested this... Throughout my high school and college and grad school careers, the best way to ensure positive class participation on the subject matter is to be prepared

* Keep up with all readings and homework
* Read ahead whenever possible
* Take notes of major points
* Keep track of specific questions you might have for clarification (this is excellent "participation fodder," really)

Trotter has it wrong; the vast majority of nonparticipants (not including group assignments) at the class level I've met as an under/graduate are either 1) shy about "public speaking" or 2) completely unprepared for the material.

Definitely don't fall into the latter group, and you should start to feel more comfortable. A lot also depends on what your professor considers participation; I don't know if that depends on culture as well.
posted by Ky at 12:23 PM on August 20, 2009

We used to have journal club (paper discussions) in my old uni, and it was usually dominated by two or three profs, while the rest of the students sat in abject silence. I never used to participate for pretty much the same reasons as the OP. Then one day I decided, no matter what, I would make atleast one comment. So I started saying something every time, more as an experiment and I found that with time, I became more confident in speaking up. So my recommendations: steel yourself and say something, just for the sake of saying something. It will get easier with time.
posted by dhruva at 12:26 PM on August 20, 2009

How incredibly smug.

How incredibly unsympathetic. Why bother answering at all? You don't give a shit. Why not just sit on your hands?

OP, I had a hard time talking in class. I never really got over it totally, but I did manage to make a pact with myself to make one comment, no matter how inane, in every class. It really helped. I would write a little note in my notebook about whatever point I'd decided to make, and in a silence or in answer to a question, I'd trot it out. I fulfilled the letter of the law and I did feel better. Taking some control of the situation, and setting yourself up for success (so you're not tongue tied and groping for something to say) will help.

And I wouldn't think you were a jerk, I'd think you were shy, like me.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:54 PM on August 20, 2009

[comment removed - please review constructive criticism and "don't be an asshole" guidelines, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:00 PM on August 20, 2009

I wouldn't call my response unsympathetic; also, I'm me, so...

When the OP says This is huge problem for me as I'm not the sort who enjoys drawing attention to myself.

Isn't he kind of (as in, completely and totally) suggesting that anyone who elects to speaks in class is inherently doing to to be ingratiating?

jwells hinted at this, and I think that's the biggest hurdle the OP seems to be facing: that talking in class is not—is not, is not, is not—for your benefit, for your own sense of satisfaction, your own pleasure in hearing your own voice.

It is for the rest of the class, and to withhold your own side of dialogue on the premise that talking—just talking, out loud, in class—is this necessary evil is, yes, smug and superior.

In summary: I'm calling out the OP on his suggestion that speaking during a seminar is for the sole purpose of the drawing attention to the speaker. It's not.
posted by trotter at 1:02 PM on August 20, 2009

I didn't see the OP's self-description as "smug," perhaps because a lot of my students are clearly anxious about being judged by either yours truly or their fellow students. (And unless the students are in a really small seminar, it can be difficult to realize that the class won't function unless everybody talks.) As a prof, I get around this problem by doing q&as that all of the students have to answer, which takes the spotlight off individuals and makes them more comfortable about speaking up later.

Some ways to start talking in class:

1) Prep multiple questions ahead of time. These should be discussion questions, not yes-or-no questions. (I.e., "How would this business model work if we applied it to this particular situation?" But not "Will this business model work...?")
2) If you're really engaged in a US-style seminar, then the discussion needs to be directed at your fellow students, not at the instructor. (That's the ideal, at least. Doesn't necessarily work in practice!) Think about how you can bounce off the ideas of your classmates. It's a formalized version of what you would do in everyday conversation.
3) Resolve to comment or ask a question once per class meeting. Then, once you feel comfortable, you can work on contributing more often.
4) Remember that just about everyone will feel as lost as you are.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:24 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two words, my friend: Gradual immersion. You know how when the water in the pool is cold, you go in one limb at a time? Same principle can be applied to getting used to almost anything that is difficult and/or uncomfortable.

What I did was to set a goal for every half-hour to ask/answer just one question or make one comment.

So, at first, I would come into a one-hour class, sit down, and quickly answer one of the professor's prompts, or ask some vague question, or make some vapid comment like "I thought X & Y were pretty interesting," and that would be that for the first half hour, mission accomplished. I set very, very low expectations for my performance. Then I would repeat for the second half hour.

The interesting thing about this is that after a few days of repeating this, I got quite comfortable speaking up in class (or at least it felt normal and was not such a big deal), and then I was participating better and more than just once every half hour.

Seriously, participating in class is only hard if you haven't practiced it. Your level of comfort with it is not a reflection of your character, it just means you haven't practiced it or are out of practice. Say it with me ten times, "Practice!"

The thing to remember is, "You gotta start somewhere."
posted by Theloupgarou at 1:30 PM on August 20, 2009

This might be overkill (and ridiculously expensive), but this book specifically addresses this problem (and everything in the book is research-based):
posted by zeek321 at 1:39 PM on August 20, 2009

I like figuring things out on my own and I don't like interrupting people. I've always sucked at speaking up.

Write down your questions. There will be a time for questions/answers at some point in the class. When they call for questions, look at your list and see if you have any that aren't answered. I haven't actually tried this in class, but it helps a ton in job interviews.

Get to know your profs/TAs better. Talk to them at office hours or between classes. You'll feel more comfortable asking questions this way and they'll feel more comfortable calling on you to speak.

Prepare. If you read the chapter ahead of class, you can ask questions on the confusing parts during the lecture. Use the classes to get explanations on parts of the book that you don't get. Naturally this only works if you have a book.
posted by valadil at 1:40 PM on August 20, 2009

I was one of those peeps who didn't speak at all during undergrad. (There was at least one teacher who wasn't even sure if I could talk, for a while.)

If you can, just start with one comment. That's it. When doing the reading or assignments, try to pick out 5 things that you can comment or question. This way, you'll have some options in the ongoing discussion. Just pick one thing and start from there.

It's still nervewracking to me. I've made my way up to 2 comments in at least 4 classes of a semester. It's still hard and I usually have to take several deep breaths and a drink of whatever beverage I have with me in order to calm myself afterwards. Everyone says it gets easier, but it never has for me. Good luck.
posted by sperose at 2:33 PM on August 20, 2009

Since I work in academia I should point out the spirit of the participation requirement seems to be to encourage the Socratic Method. Unfortunately that only tends to work when people are invested in the topic beyond the bare minimum, else they are looking for a low bar so everyone can reach it.

The various methods for gaining confidence speaking to large groups are admirable and much better than my own, which was fearing it greatly until I got sick of being scared and just was comfortable with it. I hadn't thought the comments I considered regurgitation were a method towards that end though, so I'm happy you asked here OP. Considering that I think you'd need to get a feel for which end the class is on, and try to match it.

There is comfort to be found in joining the group, and asking a question is just as much a part of the Socratic Method as stating an opinion. Once everyone is up to snuff on the material you can duck out of the heavy discussions but helping others get to that is sure to count, and will probably pull you in to those discussions when they happen. If everyone went by that game plan it'd probably be a great time.
posted by jwells at 6:25 PM on August 20, 2009

I would try to not think about it as drawing attention to yourself.
posted by apetpsychic at 6:30 PM on August 20, 2009

Thanks guys, for the immense amount of helpful advice and pointers! As some of you guys have mentioned, I will need to ease into the practice of speaking up in class gradually. I've taken notes and will be sure to start with the one-comment/class idea! Thanks again :)

As for those who took issue with my original message, I'd like to clarify that my point was not to hold myself in a position superior to that of my fellow classmates. Quite the contrary, I'd like to add. I fully understand the the true spirit of class discussion - for everyone to learn and it not being a selfish act of ingratiation. What I was getting at, or at least trying to, was that I have problems with speaking up in front of people out of shyness or a fear of being judged.

Hope that clarifies things.
posted by magazineaddict at 3:19 AM on August 21, 2009

I've had this problem in classes too. Easing into discussions does make it a bit easier, I agree with all who said this already. But if you still find it difficult, what about going to office hours and having one on one discussions? I asked a professor about this and he said that by his standard, attending office hours regularly with relevant questions and comments counted as class participation. YMMV. Can't hurt to ask.
posted by handabear at 7:47 AM on August 21, 2009

Further to handabear's advice above, this is an excerpt from today's Rate Your Students post:

'Class Participation' doesn't necessarily mean 'In-Class'. If the mere idea of it gives you the heebie-jeebies, come to my office instead. Speak to me after class. Show some interest. When the time comes to assign participation grades, I'll take this into consideration... within reason. You need to learn to develop this skill -- but speaking to me one-on-one is good practice in a hopefully less threatening environment.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:21 PM on August 21, 2009

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