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Work and Life Toolbox

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.

From the Faculty

Kim Kono

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!
Read More Faculty Comments...

Floyd Cheung

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).

Roisin O’Sullivan

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.

Martine Gantrel-Ford

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.

Frazer Ward

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.

Jennifer Hall-Witt

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.

Kevin Shea

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

Before class

Understand that there are many ways to prepare.

During class

Understand that there are many ways to contribute.

Note: The above tips were adapted, with permission, from Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning Web site.

After class:

Outside of class:

If You Are Worried That You’re That Girl Talking Too Much in Class

Fight the Power

Further Reading

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.