Class participation for introverts
February 6, 2014 1:52 PM   Subscribe

How can I save my class participation grade?

I am a complete, textbook introvert. I’ve read my Susan Cain and am mostly okay with this (feature, not bug, etc). In the places where introversion can be problematic in my daily life, I think I’ve figured out good workarounds – planning ahead more than most for meetings at work (so I’ll be sure to participate more), doing a fair amount of email followup with colleagues, etc.
...But now, I just started a doctoral program, and am back in a classroom for the first time in 13 years. And already I know that the level of class participation that is expected of me is going to be a problem if I don’t figure out a way to deal with it. I’m always listening and interested in the discussion, but I think it just takes me a lot longer than other people to formulate ideas, and I end up coming up with a contribution far after the appropriate moment has passed (like, on the way home, for example). So in class I look totally disengaged and uninterested and that’s not the case at all. I can’t be the only person for whom class participation is an ongoing challenge. Fellow introverts, any specific advice/examples of how you’ve dealt with this?
posted by ella_minnow to Education (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
1) Ask questions. Your lecturer will remember that you spoke at all at the end of the semester.

2) At the beginning of a new class say something about the last lecture - you'll have a week to think about it and do some additional research.

Don't stress, you don't have to talk each time your class meets, just sometimes.
posted by travelwithcats at 1:57 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are you listening attentively? There is a HUGE difference between not participating and not talking. I'm also curious how much of your grade the participation element really covers, since this is grad school and the instructor should not be awarding a lot of points for bothering to show up (which is basically what a "participation grade" is).

Also, are you coming to class appropriately prepared? Have you read the material and formulated some thoughts on it before you actually show up in class? Are you able to predict what direction the discussions are going to go in?

It shouldn't be that hard to, at some point every other class meeting or so, just say, "I don't know if I would agree that gentrification necessarily always goes hand in hand with racist housing policy. If you look at the Smith study, it looks like outcomes are different in [blah] cases..."

You don't have to issue a total zinger that changes everyone's understanding of the material. Just say a thing that reflects the fact that you're engaging with the material. If you can't find anything to say ever, I would question whether you actually are engaging with the material on the appropriate level.
posted by Sara C. at 1:59 PM on February 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Introduce yourself to the professors and explain. Communicating with them goes a really long way to smoothing over any bumps.
posted by Jacen at 2:00 PM on February 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Speak to your professors before and after class as much as possible, quick little questions or clarifications. They'll remember that you participated, even if it wasn't strictly in class.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:01 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Introduce yourself to the professors and explain. Communicating with them goes a really long way to smoothing over any bumps.

THIS. VERY MUCH THIS. At the start of your courses, go to your profs' office hours and just be up front with them. You're excited to learn about x, y, and z in the class, you're looking forward to blah, etc, but you know from past experience that you have a tendency to be more of a listener in a group setting. Go back in to office ours every once in a while just to keep some face time with the profs.

The professors just want to make sure you're engaged with the class. The specific how is less important.
posted by phunniemee at 2:04 PM on February 6, 2014 [16 favorites]

Totally, totally talk to your professor about this. Even better, if you can offer a solution (e.g. "I'm willing to send you a short email with my thoughts after class"), that may be appreciated. If you do this early on in the term, it will seem like it's an actual thing that you want to fix instead of making excuses for why you're not doing something (which can happen if you bring this up later in the term).

As a professor, if I'm aware of this, I'll adjust my expectations appropriately. I won't let someone totally off the hook but, for example, I'll look for how a student is participating when I have them "talk to their neighbor" or work in small groups.
posted by Betelgeuse at 2:06 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

> I think it just takes me a lot longer than other people to formulate ideas

So formulate your ideas before class - when reading the materials that will be discussed in the class, formulate a list of questions as well as any points you thought were interesting. If the lecturer starts out with "Are there any questions?" be the first to ask one, and then you can sit back and listen to what other people have to say. If you want to contribute further, pay attention to whether the discussion touches upon any of the list of questions / discussion points you have made. You can then jump in with what you have, instead of trying to think of a contribution in real time. Or if a discussion seems to be petering out, or it's nearing the end of class and the lecturer asks if there are any other questions, you can ask or bring up something in your list that hasn't been covered.

(Having something prepared to say will also be helpful if you ever draw an instructor like me who notices if there are people not participating and will ask them to say something.)
posted by needled at 2:15 PM on February 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

Are you actually expected to talk in class about the subject at hand? Or just to be there? Without knowing what sort of doctoral program you're in, it's hard to know how important this might be. Still, I think it's silly to expect immediate discussion of something new when there are many of us out there that need to absorb the material, think about it on our own, then come up with well-reasoned responses. I never learned almost anything in the classroom in school (engineering); I did learn almost all of it from the book on my own time, usually better than my classmates who didn't read the book.

Maybe you can email the professor and say that you are indeed paying complete attention in class, but you're the type that usually processes what you've learned later on instead of instantly, and that's why you don't say much at the time. I would echo everyone else also about being prepared for class, and if your prof doesn't give you things to prepare for ahead of time, you might ask if there is any way he CAN give you that, so you can prepare and be more engaged when he's teaching.

I would also work on LOOKING attentive in class. When I'm in a meeting at work, I often have my head down trying to absorb and process everything that's being said without getting distracted (almost like praying). I can do this with people I know, but others sometimes think I'm not paying attention at all. Maybe you can explain that to your prof, too, but I'd probably just work on looking attentive without getting distracted like I do when we have customers or vendors over. I'll often focus on their forehead, so I look like I'm looking them in the eyes, but that way I can continue to focus in my mind without getting distracted by the eye contact.

Also, when all else fails, it never hurts to just flat out admit you didn't understand things and need clarification. You can be as self-deprecating as you want to try to take the edge off and show sincerity in trying to understand. No one should have issue with this.

Also, just remember that if you're an introvert, you likely have some very well-thought-out things to say (just because of how we mentally work), compared to your extrovert classmates who might open their mouth before their brain catches up. Take confidence in that. I bet you'll impress both your classmates and your prof if you let one of those thoughts out, even without feeling the most confidence at the time.
posted by KinoAndHermes at 2:20 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sadly, university professors are among the worst instructional designers in the world, often the last to have heard about effective teaching strategies. In graduate school I've noticed there are some small changes in instructional design that can really make a difference for introverts. The best class I took (in this respect) was one in which the teacher recognized the fact that certain people will be voluble in class discussion and others won't, and that the reasons others won't are entirely legitimate - English is not their native language, they like to take more time to think before formulating thoughts, etc. So the course design was as follows:

-class presentation was structured so you knew when you were going to present to everyone and could prepare, rather than having the prof just put you on the spot with "what do YOU think, Jenny?"
-the online discussion feature of the course website was used abundantly. We had to post an introductory post to the whole group and respond to two others (at least). We also had to be responsible for posting one new discussion thread about course content each month, and responding to two other discussions (at least). This gave people who work better in writing the chance to shine. It also created more valuable discussion once back in class, since we had been talking about something online and understood each other's points of view better.
-many discussions were framed in the form of a poll or short response
-there were short 'reaction' papers assigned as well as lengthier papers

All of this worked well for both extra- and introverts. I have since recommended adaptations to course design in every course I've taken, because I saw how effective it could be. So use your course evaluations to recommend the things that would have made (or did make) your experience better. Over time schools may learn that using these tools and being mindful about instructional strategies is best for everyone, rather than privileging one personality type or learning style.

Also, I totally agree you should just mention this at the beginning of the course. "I'm someone who concentrates best when listening and thinking about what others are saying before formulating a question or opinion, and I don't love speaking in public unprepared. But I'm very interested in the class, so if there are other ways to indicate my participation in the course, such as writing or finding resources or being part a small group discussion of last week's reading before class, I'm totally willing." Let them know what you need.
posted by Miko at 2:20 PM on February 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

From a user that would like to remain anonymous:
The professors just want to make sure you're engaged with the class. The specific how is less important.

I've found that this really, really varies -- yet another reason to talk to your professors about this. I had a professor, very early on in my graduate studies, actually call me into office hours and tell me that if I didn't start offering insights during class, I was not going to pass. This may be field specific, and certainly can be instructor specific as well - I've had other professors who really didn't care if everyone said something, so long as the professor didn't have to do the majority of the talking.

I got over this hump by getting slightly tipsy right before class, two sessions in a row. (At least it was an evening class, once a week.) I am not really recommending you do this, I'm just saying that once I got in the habit of speaking and getting positive feedback, it was less difficult for me to contribute.
posted by mathowie at 2:23 PM on February 6, 2014

My absolute favorite grad school professor ever assigned huge amounts of reading and taught in a modified Socratic style. Daunting for someone who takes awhile to formulate a thought. I found it enormously helpful to prepare my notes for class with a summary of the material, references to anything I didn't fully understand, an opinion about what I had read (whether major arguments, the author's bias, connections to something in the field, whatever), and at least two questions. That way, even if I couldn't come up with something clever/relevant on the spot as a reaction to the discussion, I had my question or reaction ready at the start of seminar and I had ticked the participation ticky-box. I wish I'd been that conscientious about reading notes in undergrad.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 2:37 PM on February 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Definitely find time to talk with the professor about this and there are plenty of good suggestions about how to do this.
But, re "Speak to your professors before and after class as much as possible" I'd just plan a little bit more.

Almost every term have the student who will not talk/ask questions during class, but waits until class is over. If I'm free, it's fine. It's actually one of the nicer parts of the job. If I have only a ten minute break before a committee meeting in another building, it's tough. Make sure to start the conversation during office hours and negotiate time for chat after class. Your professor will really appreciate it.
posted by Gotanda at 3:04 PM on February 6, 2014

If you're in the humanities or Social Sciences, one of the things that is going on in Ph.D. seminars is professional formation. That is, one of the skills you're demonstrating is being able to participate with reasonable fluidity in intellectual discussions of the kind that, one day, you'll be expected to lead (in the classroom) and participate in (in conferences and colloquia and the like). It might be helpful to think about this not as just some arbitrary hoop that the professor is asking you to jump through, but as a skill that you're being asked to master. I second all the advice about talking to the professor (although don't try to make this a discussion about avoiding participation--that is unlikely to be met very enthusiastically); it is always good for the professor to know if there's some aspect of the course you're struggling with. But lay the emphasis of your discussion with the professor on working on overcoming your reluctance to speak. In my own experience as a professor, some of the people who think they have nothing to say and think that they don't get any ideas until hours after the class (etc.) are actually some of the most valuable participants in the conversation if they can just force themselves to start talking. It's often the (overblown) fear of making a fool of oneself that makes the mind go blank. If you just start talking, then you discover you actually have lots to say.

One thing, by the way, that is often useful is to get the machinery of participation working (so you're not sitting there in a panic thinking "say something, dammit!; say something!") by engaging your fellow students when they talk. Ask someone to elaborate or (a little bolder) say "so, you're arguing X about Y, right? Would that also apply to Z?" Just get over your nervousness and realize you're a participant in an intellectual exchange, and you'll realize you've got lots of goods to bring to the table.
posted by yoink at 3:45 PM on February 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm a 50:50 intro/extravert, leaning heavily on the 'extra' in seminar settings. I get max participation marks because I invest myself heavily in the flow of discussion and have shed any shame around blurting out half-cooked ideas or querying points of confusion that may or may not be obvious to others.

Sometimes, often even, there's a good bit of meat hiding behind the latter -- methodological issues, for example. A lot of times, other people also want clarity on something that's stumped me. Or they'll have an out-of-left-field response to a question, which then adds to and changes the discussion. It's fine to offer assists, not just goal shots. Not every contribution has to be mindblowing.

Prepare some, if you want to contribute a more developed notion, but let yourself improvise now and then. Throw yourself into it, I say.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:52 PM on February 6, 2014

A lot of times, other people also want clarity on something that's stumped me.

God bless you for that! One of the most frustrating things as a Prof is students' fear of looking like the only idiot in the room who didn't understand something. I love it when a student is willing to say "I'm sorry, I didn't really follow that" because it is almost always the case that they're speaking for half the other students in the room.
posted by yoink at 4:10 PM on February 6, 2014

I was in the same boat as you. I can't say I entirely overcame the issue. But I think one of the problems I had is that I wouldn't speak unless I had an interesting, original, and relevant contribution. In retrospect, others' contributions were RARELY all three (or even one) of those. So, lower your standards on your content while you get comfortable with speaking.

I also agree with the advice above to prepare a few points ahead of time. Don't worry too much about waiting for the right moment - just throw it out there.
posted by snarfles at 6:30 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

While you're doing your reading before class:

-- Jot down any notes or questions you have related to the reading.

-- Write two or three questions that you'd like to talk about in class.

Even if you don't end up actually using any of those notes in the discussion, articulating your thoughts/questions beforehand will probably make it easier to articulate (related) thoughts/questions in class.

While you're in class:

-- Take notes during the discussions. They don't have to be anything you're going to "review" later (no need to fuss about making them completely comprehensive or organized), just jot down the general topics of discussion, turns of phrase, thoughts you have on what other people are saying, etc. It'll keep you engaged, and if/when you try to join in the discussion, you'll have a little cheat-sheet right in front of you to help you articulate your thoughts.

Another upshot of taking a lot of notes for the class discussions is that, in my experience, other students often appreciate someone acting as a de facto "recorder," because it helps the discussion stay organized and easy to follow/recall later when the class wants to build on it.
posted by rue72 at 6:39 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm an introvert and what I did in grad classes where this mattered is I would come up with one thing to say. Just one. I'd write it down in my notebook, so if someone said, Llama, what do you think? I'd have something. Even if it wasn't on target for the question, I could go, 'Well, I'm not sure about X but I was thinking about Y and....' So I'd pre-load.

It didn't have to be insightful. It didn't have to be articulate. It just had to be something, spoken aloud. Preferably within the first ten to fifteen minutes of class. Anticipation would just create anxiety for me. Still does, actually. I hate it when I have to present last in a meeting.

Sometimes after that I would lighten up and spontaneously add something and relax to do a little thinking. Sometimes the topic would change and I'd have to come up with something new in the notebook, and sometimes I'd have to say 'You know, I really don't know right now. I have to think about that part a little more.'

Another thing I'd offer is permission to get a D+, and I don't mean in the class, I mean, just keep your standards for class participation as 'I spoke in the class' rather than 'I said the smartest thing of anyone and people fell out of their chairs because they couldn't bear the weight of my genius'.

I am aware that I don't think on the fly in group discussions. Some people think while talking, I think while writing. I come up with stuff afterwards usually. I'm pretty open about this. In a situation where the deal is, You have to talk. I just assume my goal is to Talk and they're going to have to deal with my subpar thinking until I get the opportunity to write.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:36 AM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I used to be very uncomfortable in group discussions and now I'm very comfortable, and I was just trying to figure out why. I think I mostly just shifted my way of thinking from assuming that I would make the conversation worse to assuming that I could make the conversation better. Sometimes someone *has* to get the conversation started. Let's face it, most of what people say in group discussion and meetings is not that great. And probably a lot of your classmates are also introverted. Think of speaking up in class as taking one for the team.
posted by mskyle at 1:43 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

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