Class participation, or, the thing I thought I had left in grade school

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In primary and secondary school, there was one specific night that many students tried to avoid attending.  It was the evening where parents, teachers and students sat down to discuss a child’s performance in class. The annual parent-teacher conference.

For some parents, this would finally be an opportunity to receive a proper answer to “How was your day at school?” For students, this meant an awkward meeting of hearing what would normally have been said behind your back. For shy introverts, there was always the one comment that made its annual appearance: “Your child needs to participate in class more.”

At first, high school graduation seemed to be the only way out of being scrutinized for a lack of class participation. This belief was proven wrong—many post-secondary students continue to be haunted by the fear of raising their voice in class.

Speaking in front of a large crowd often creates butterflies in the stomach. For shy and introverted students, social anxiety creates a barrier for participating in class discussions. With larger class sizes, it can be difficult to overcome fears of saying the wrong answer or losing a train of thought . Second-year global business and digital arts student from the University of Waterloo Ashley Wong says, “Not every student may be willing to open up to the class. Introverted students in particular may be self conscious with their answers, scared to be judged wrongly by their peers.” Speaking up may come naturally for extroverted students. On the other end of the spectrum, introverted students may find themselves happier to just listen quietly.

Caught off-guard, the blood rises to your face, your mind stumbles to put words together and you are conscious of all the eyes watching this embarrassing moment. In these dreaded instances, you become the chosen victim of a professor who randomly calls on students to speak. This technique encourages class discussion by keeping students alert in case they’re called on. For students who prefer to listen quietly, these moments often bring feelings of dread. Anna Peng, a second-year industrial design student at OCAD University, says, “It is difficult for introverted students to participate, because the moment the instructor picks on you, there is an instant hotspot and an underlying pressure to say what is right. I think introverted people tend to internalize their thoughts, and only comfortably share them amongst people that they trust.”

Verbal students benefit from participating in class, but the same cannot be said for silent learners. Particularly in labs and tutorials, students get marks for participating in class discussions. Professor John M. Rogers from the University of Kentucky College of Law writes, “ A grade is supposed to reflect what was learned in class, […] the quality of class participation will say something about how much the student learned.” However, the fairness of this assessment can be questioned.  Wong also says that “many times the professor develops a group of students that they will always pick on and this marginalizes the introverts to defer from speaking as they are a new voice.” With different personality types in the room, class participation may not be an accurate assessment of how much a student has learned.

In today’s digital age, professors sometimes turn to online forums or Twitter feeds. This platform creates an informal environment where documents, links and ideas can be shared. Professors may provide a written option for students who are uncomfortable speaking.  Second-year new media student Amy Little says, “Forums are useful for students who don’t feel comfortable raising their hands in class or for those who don’t realize they have a question until later.” Providing a written option may be a solution for students who suffer from the stress that comes with speaking up in class.

Online communication may be a safe haven for shy students. But realistically it is not always an available option outside the classroom, specifically in the workplace. Forbes contributor Greg Satell says, “it has become fashionable to say that our present epoch is an information age, but that’s not quite right.  In truth, we live in a communication age and it’s time we start taking it seriously.”

Nonetheless, the fight against shyness and social anxiety is still a battle that can be conquered. Weill-Cornell Medical School psychology professor Robert Leahy says that socially anxious people often over-criticize their performance in social situations. In doing so, this generates a greater anxiety of being put in similar positions. Instead, he says that critical thoughts should be replaced with self-praise, since “each time you face your fear you win and your fear loses.”