Speaking Up in Class
You have arrived at Smith with your own associations to the idea of “speaking up,” and with your own level of comfort about talking in groups. Whatever your comfort level may be, your professors will encourage you to both speak and listen during classroom discussions, because most of them believe that robust classroom discussion allows everyone in the room to learn from each other. This page includes thoughts, advice and strategies for students who would like to speak (or listen) more in class.
When I first went to college, I really disliked speaking up in groups and used to try to avoid getting into those kinds of situations. Eventually, however, I realized that I couldn’t keep hiding in the back of the classroom and that I did want to voice my ideas and opinions. So, I began to force myself to speak up, and even though it was painful and awkward at first, now I stand up in front of my classes and although I may be a little nervous at the beginning, I actually enjoy doing it.
Here are some things quiet students might say about speaking up in class with my responses:
- I don’t have anything to say.
You were admitted to Smith, so clearly you are intelligent, and have good ideas. If you did the reading or assignment for class, you must have SOMETHING to say about it.
- I’m not very articulate or I don’t want to sound stupid.
We are our own worst critics, so you probably won’t sound stupid. But even if you do say something a little awkwardly, SO WHAT? Get those ideas out there! Share your ideas with everyone! We are here to learn from each other!
If, on occasion, you cannot attend class or really don’t feel like talking, don’t worry. We all experience illness and quiet days every now and then. But know that studies have shown that the “best learning takes place when learners articulate their own unformed and still developing understanding and continue to articulate it through the process of learning” (R. Keith Sawyer, Optimising Learning: Implications of Learning Sciences Research, 2008). Hence, our conversations will wander and sometimes result in messiness, but that is good! I am not here to transmit linear readings to you. Rather, I am here to guide you, work with you to study and appreciate the language of the text at hand, situate it and its author in relevant contexts, and respect half-formed thoughts that are likely to add up to “collaborative meaning making” (Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr, Poetry and Pedagogy, 2006).
Be assured that no one expects your discussion points always to be mind-blowingly insightful or your contributions on more technical topics always to be absolutely correct. If you could do that, there would be no point in taking the class! When a professor invites questions and contributions in class, she or he genuinely wants to hear what students have to say. Often, when one student asks a question, you can tell by the body language that others were also confused by the same thing and were grateful someone spoke up.
Some students feel less of a need to speak in class than others, even though they may “get” it just as well as the students who speak a lot. But I teach French and speaking in my classes as in all foreign language classes matters even more. So I insist that every student should speak up at least once every class. The shy students know they have to come out of their comfort zone. For some of them it is a big effort but it is their way of showing that they are truly committed to the class.
There are two things I would like students to know: first, that they are safe and that nothing bad can happen to them; second, that even if they think they don't have anything interesting enough or clever enough to say, their voice adds texture to the whole discussion, and that the teacher values it for that alone. Especially in interpretive disciplines, teachers are typically more interested in developing a discourse than in a “right answer.” The idea of developing a discourse speaks to the student's active role in learning, and by extension, I think, speaks to their responsibility for their own education.
What I often hear from the quiet students is that besides being shy in groups, they often have trouble formulating their ideas as quickly as other students. So I tell them to write out answers to the discussion questions I give ahead of time. I have also noticed that the quiet students tend to be very thoughtful, so what they have to say is especially welcomed.
High quality intellectual discourse enables all members of the group to improve their thinking and understanding, and participation in this discourse helps individuals improve their thinking. As developing scientists, it is important for students to attend departmental seminars and watch this process in action during the question and answer period after a talk. We truly want our students to develop the skills necessary to ask an intelligent question during a seminar, thus participating in the scientific discourse. Practicing this skill during classes helps improve students' ability to ask quality questions in different settings, including scientific seminars.
Use These Strategies to Get Comfortable With Speaking in Class
Understand that there are many ways to prepare.
- Talk back to your readings. Write notes and questions and criticisms in the margins of assigned articles.
- Print your readings. Make sure that your readings are formatted in a way that allows you to “talk back” to them. If you can’t afford to print all of the Moodle readings for a course, refer to the syllabus to get a sense of the course’s trajectory, and choose at least one article per class to print and mark-up as you’re reading it.
- Create a study group. Get in touch with people from class, asking if they’d like to meet to go over study questions and other course material.
- Talk to your friends about what you’re learning in class. Describe some of the course’s content to your friends over dinner, and tell them what you think.
- Write to your professor and say something like, “I tend to be quiet in class, and it’s not because I’m not engaged. I plan to speak up more this semester; I’ve made it a goal, and I want to let you know.”
- Use office hours. Talk to your professor about your own goals and tell him or her about your specific learning needs. What do you want your professor to know?
- Do you have trouble jumping-into the flow of a conversation? Make a plan with your professor that you are going to do your reading carefully and come prepared to make the first observation, or ask the first question.
- Try a “cognitive restructuring” exercise designed by Smith College psychology professor Patricia DiBartolo and adapted for this purpose in conversation with her. The exercise will lead you down a kind of “thought-path” in order to help you start thinking differently about about speaking in class.
Understand that there are many ways to contribute.
- Ask for more information: “Can you say more? I think I know where you’re going with that, but I’m not sure.”
- Explicitly link two contributions: “I see a connection between comments that two people made...”
- Explicitly link a conversation point to an important theme or goal of the course: “There’s a connection between what we’re talking about here and some of the larger themes we’ve been discussing...”
- Pose a question that links the topic of the day to an important theme or goal of the course: “I’m wondering how the example that we’re discussing relates to...”
- Talk about why another’s idea is useful: “Your idea is really interesting because...”
- Add to a point that’s been made: “I’d like to expand on what she said...”
- Paraphrase and add to a point that’s been made: “So the point that you’re trying to make is this...”
- Find a theme: “I see a theme here, based on what a few different people have said...”
- Pose a cause-and-effect question: “Can you explain why if ____ then ____?”
- Show appreciation: “I want to say that I really appreciate what you said, because it helped me understand this in a new way.”
- Respectfully disagree: “It sounds like you’re saying ____ and that’s interesting because ____ but I disagree because ____.”
Note: The above tips were adapted, with permission, from Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning Web site.
- Write to your professor after you HAVE spoken in class, to thank him or her for creating a climate that made you feel comfortable speaking up. Identify why you felt comfortable; for example, it could have been because you had a chance to practice your ideas ahead of time, or because the questions were open-ended.
Outside of class:
- Talk when you are with outside-of-the-classroom groups or workshops. Speak up in your org meeting. Take a Wurtele Center for Work & Life workshop and make it a goal to say something!
- Go to a Jacobson Center lunchtime workshop on public speaking. You will get tips to help you speak in front of any kind of group.
- Audition for a play or register for an acting class. The theater is a great place to practice your speaking skills.
- Join a singing group. Harvard Business School professor Ron Heifetz asks every graduate student in his leadership course to improvise a song in front of everyone. The idea is to practice improvising and risk-taking in front of a group.
If You Are Worried That You’re
That Girl Talking Too Much in Class
- If you’re someone who speaks a lot in class, then work on listening. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll allow for 30 seconds of quiet before jumping into the conversation, and time yourself with a stopwatch!
- Don’t feel like you have to take care of the professor by warding-off silence! Your professor will be okay. Really.
- It’s important to know that some students may need silence in order to gather their thoughts. When the professor asks a question and there’s silence... then more silence... and you still don’t jump in... pat yourself on the back. You’re allowing others time to gather their thoughts, and you’ll likely benefit from finally hearing the interesting ideas or questions that those quieter students will add to the conversation.
Fight the Power
- Don’t buy into the sound-bite mentality of labeling a fellow student as “that girl.” It’s kind of a bullying stance, and you’re above that!
- Did you know that every context has its “that girl” person who talks a little too much or talks “off-topic?” It’s part of life; use college as a chance to get used to working with it.
Speaking & Culture
You probably understand that you’ve developed your associations to “speaking up” within the context of your own culture and family. This article is about the meanings that different cultures attach to the act of speaking:
Kim, H.S. & Markus, H.R. 2005, “Speech and Silence: An Analysis of the Cultural Practice of Talking,” in L. Weis & M. Fine (eds), Beyond Silenced Voices: Class, Race and Gender in United States Schools. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 181–196.
The Benefits of Shyness
In “Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?” (The New York Times, 6/25/11), writer Susan Cain argues that “we need to rethink our approach to social anxiety: to address the pain, but to respect the temperament that underlies it.”
When you start your first job, you'll be glad you practiced this skill at Smith!
Stacie Hagenbaugh, Director of the Career Development Office, tells you why in this one-minute video.