by PLA Team Leader Serena
The prof throws a question to the class. Ten seconds of silence tick by as you deliberate, “Should I raise my hand?” The prof is eagerly scanning the room now. You’re fairly confident about your response, but you don’t want to look like too much of a keener. You take extra time to rehearse exactly what you’re going to say. Now you’ve got it. As your hand begins rising, another student shoots up her arm and the prof chooses her instead.
She blatantly steals the answer you had in your head. Your hand is now by your ear and you swiftly transition your hand-raising movement to an ear-scratching one. You are slightly flushed and you hope that nobody is suspecting your feigned itch. The prof beams at the other student as you metaphorically kick yourself. Repeat ad nauseum.
Has this ever happened to you?
This blog documents my thoughts about participation anxiety and the strategies I used to get more comfortable speaking in seminars. It is my sincere hope that some of these tips will work for you, too, and that you’ll add them to your own arsenal of learning strategies!
“Participation marks will count in this course.”
Unlike my confident, well-spoken peers, I dreaded participating. After my first seminar class, I concluded that I must have developed a social anxiety disorder sometime between Labour Day and Week 1. My oral output had been reduced to a string of stammered like’s and umm’s, run-on sentences, and thoughts trailing off into space.
Luckily, a Google search on ‘classroom participation’ assuaged my sense of inadequacy. Harvard Business Professor Frances Frei popped up on a video addressing the common problem. She identifies two main types of thoughts resulting in participation anxiety.
A. “If I raise my hand, do I have a fair chance of being selected?”
If your answer is no, perhaps you are sitting in your prof’s blind spot. (They do exist!) Consider changing your seat next time. If you feel like you’re being ignored, Dr. Frei encourages sending the prof a casual, non-accusing e-mail about it. Since you’re taking initiative to be active in class, the prof’s reply is likely to be positive.
The second question deals with what happens AFTER being selected:
B. “I don’t want to sound stupid.”
It’s nothing to worry about. We tend to judge ourselves more harshly than others would. Dr. Frei suggests that it is the prof’s job – not yours – to take your ideas further and facilitate each student’s participation. In other words, a good prof will make you sound smarter and expand on your comments. Once you open your mouth, they have something to work with. Having made it this far into your education, it’s also a good bet that you’re not stupid! J
1. SPEAK FIRST AND SPEAK SINCERELY
The first question that a prof asks is usually quite general. ‘Starter questions’ are used to get the ball rolling for more intense discussion later. They might sound something like, “What did you think of x Theory?” or “How did you find the readings?”
When you hear a starter question, seize the chance to speak first. If you’ve actually done the readings, simply provide your sincere reaction. Some students attempt to sound deep by throwing in fancy words or key phrases that they think will impress. Profs can usually detect this, so it’s better to use simple language to deliver a strong point. If possible, comment on how the readings integrate with other topics mentioned on the course outline or syllabus.
As the first person to answer, the prof is more likely to remember you. Remember to smile!
2. SOUND CHECK: READING ALOUD
If the opportunity arises, volunteer to read passages aloud. Consider it a sound check – test and adjust your volume and pacing. Get comfortable hearing and projecting your voice. All this will prepare you for later discussion. Meanwhile, everybody else gets a chance to familiarize themselves with your face, which is a great thing, psychologically-speaking, because familiarity is associated with liking the person, and liking is associated with more positive social interaction.
3. PLAN AND PREPARE
This is one of those no-brainers that students already know about but do not necessarily practice. Discussion questions are often given out prior to class. Even if they aren’t, students are expected to think critically and bring questions to the table. Take an extra ten minutes the night before and make an outline of your points to keep you focused. It makes a huge difference.
4. BREATHE DEEP AND SPEAK SLOW
I’ve often noticed my heart pounding faster as I’m getting ready to speak. This is a natural physiological reaction. The distinction between fear and excitement lies in our attribution – our positive or negative cognitions will lead us to different conclusions about our arousal. Breathe deeply from your stomach to simulate the relaxed, calm breathing that is produced during sleep.
There’s also no need to rush your speech, even if others have their hands up and are looking impatient. It’s unfortunate that some students give off the impression that they simply want to get their own opinion in without caring or listening to what the current speaker is saying. Fortunately, most students do follow the unspoken hand-raising etiquette in which attention is appropriately devoted to the speaker. In any case, the prof will be listening to you, regardless of whether others are.
5. BOUNCING BACK
One time, I thought I had a brilliant argument but as I started explaining it, I contradicted myself. The prof’s face grew more and more confused as I went on. He kindly nodded along and allowed me to finish, but afterwards he glanced around and asked, “Anyone else?”
It’s easy to get self-conscious and hypersensitive to feedback or lack thereof. Some people have naturally furrowed eyebrows or intimidating faces, and that’s okay. It took me a while to realize that we are not expected to know all the answers. Seminars are for brainstorming and putting puzzle pieces together. The quality of discussion is only as good as the students who are willing to contribute. It’s also much healthier raising your hand than spending 50 minutes wrestling with yourself whether or not to speak.
6. ASK FOR ADVICE
My friend expressed to a prof how she was anxious about her upcoming presentation, and the prof actually pushed back her presentation date to let her observe other groups first and learn from them.
If you’re feeling nervous about an upcoming presentation, ask your prof for advice. They are seasoned pros at this and they all had to start somewhere. Try visiting Learning Strategies Development on the main floor at Stauffer for more presentation tips and hand-outs!
Your PLA, Serena