Speaking up in class

By Ali
Category: Social | Date: Mon 06 Oct, 2008

Have you ever sat through a two hour class without saying a word? Even if you’re confident that you understand the material, it can be really hard to risk making a good point or answering a question in front of ten or fifteen other people – especially if you barely know your classmates. Unlike school and sixth-form, uni classes often only last for a few weeks, and you might well be thrown in with with different people each time.

Despite being a bit on the shy side, I usually manage to contribute in classes and seminars (I’m probably seen as a bit of a loud-mouth…). Here’s what I’ve learnt over the years that makes speaking up less painful:

Speak in the first ten minutes of class

I’ve often read that if you’re going to speak at all in a class, you should try to break the ice within the first ten minutes. As the session drags on, it becomes harder and harder to contribute.

Is this true? Anecdotally, I’d say so: my experience as an undergrad was that the first few people to volunteer their thoughts during classes were the ones who were actively participating throughout. Some poor souls hiding at the back never said anything at all unless the tutor asked them a question directly.

And speak in the first class, rather than hoping you’ll feel more confident in the future:

Whatever the case, don’t plan on speaking up in class in later weeks of the semester when you think you’ll be more comfortable with the group. As your silence accumulates, you’ll be increasingly daunted by the prospect of making your first squeak.
Successful Learning: Speaking Up In Class by Assistant Professor Kenneth Paul A.S-S. Tan

Find friends and allies

Try to get to know at least one of your classmates. Get there five minutes early and – even if you’re feeling shychat to people before the class begins; once you’ve made a connection with one or two people, it’s easier to speak up. If they make a point, you might feel more able to add to it.

Make friends with everyone as early in the semester as possible. It’s so much easier to discuss issues, particularly sensitive ones, with friends than with strangers—an over-cautious attitude arising out of fear of causing offence and misunderstanding can kill a discussion.

For me, this is particularly crucial in my Creative Writing workshop group – there’s nothing quite so daunting as sharing your own writing with other people. Thankfully, everyone seems keen to be friendly and get to know one another – there’s a supportive atmosphere building up already.

Answer an easy question

If you’re reluctant to speak in class because you have a tutor who tends to ask tricky questions or put people on the spot, a cunning way round this is to answer something early on in the session, when the discussion is on introductory or basic material. As soon as a question comes up where you feel pretty sure you know the answer, go for it!

Tutors tend to try to include (some might say “pick on”) everyone in the group, and if you don’t say anything for the first hour, odds are you’ll get thrown a difficult question when you’re feeling least like speaking out…

Make a great point

When you’re preparing for class, dig deep into the material. Can you offer an unusual angle on it? Have you read anything else that relates to it? Try coming up with a few ideas that you could share in class – not just the obvious points, but some things which show a real depth of thought.

On the flip side, don’t be afraid of being “wrong”. Your class or seminar is a place for you and other students to explore ideas and to get to grips with a topic. If you’ve completely misunderstood something, it’s better to find out now than in the exam – and others will secretly be thankful that you brought it up!

Whatever the educational purpose for which they are being used, seminars have one common feature: to be effective they require active participation by students. This means that you must have read your assigned work in advance. But it also means that you must be mentally (and emotionally?) prepared to contribute to seminar discussion. … If you do not understand a point it is highly unlikely that you will be the only person in the group in that position; you will invariably be undertaking a service for the entire group if you come to the seminar equipped with questions on matters which you feel you did not fully understand.
Tutorials and Seminars (University of Manchester)

Contributing to class discussions is a great way to get noticed by your tutor and, if you’re graded on your participation, you’ll do far better than someone who just sits there listening passively.

Over to you

Further reading:

Do you find your stomach ties itself in knots at the thought of speaking in class? Do you go bright red when you have to answer a question? Or do you lead seminar discussions without a second thought? Share your experiences, and your tips, in the comments…

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