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Advice: class participation


pet_sounds

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Hi everyone,

 

 

I just finished my first semester of my PhD program and recently got my grades. They were fine but all my professors basically said the same things about my performance: they wanted more from me in seminar, and that I didn't engage with my classmates in discussion as much as they would have liked. I've always been on the shier side, and class participation has consistently been a problem for me (since undergrad). I got into grad school and got good grades this past semester by the strength of my writing but as my professors have told me, I can't get by with writing alone. 

 

 

Anyway, any advice for improving for next semester? I think it's mostly a confidence issue--I'm the youngest in my cohort and one of the only ones without a masters. I'm wondering how other people have overcome this problem.

 

 

Thanks!

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I'm a first year in my program and find myself sometimes questioning my commentary before I participate (imposter syndrome normally rearing its ugly head).

I don't know about your program but mine creates cohorts for each year and we take the majority of our courses with each other our 1st and 2nd year. I've become close to one of the people in my cohort and we spend about 15 minutes before class chatting about our reading. It helps me to better solidify my thoughts and justifications while also getting a chance to hear what someone else thought. One of the reasons this worked for me is because I feel that I can trust this person to not "steal my ideas" and present them as her own. So maybe see if you can find someone like that? Knowledgeable about your field and willing to chat a bit each week. Someone who is not knowledgeable could definitely work as well (my mom remains my best sounding board) but I was trying to think of ways to build as much confidence. Hope this helps!

Edited by lilgreycells
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One think that might work is to jot down some of your thoughts are questions on the assigned readings before you go to class. Another suggestion would be to listen carefully to what one of your classmates says and see if you can build off of his or her comment.Make it a point to say at least one comment each class-trust me, once you say that one comment, you will find that you will be excited to say even more. It's a matter of just jumping into discussion, no one is going to create that space for you but yourself. Good luck!

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Write down little notes of points you'd like to share, and listen closely in class for an opportunity to do so. Jumping into conversation will be difficult the first few times, but make it a habit and soon it won't be a problem- you may even find you enjoy discussion when you are active in it. Try not to think too much because hesitation may cause you to miss an ideal opportunity to share a related point. If it helps, listen to how other students talk in class and borrow "scripts" from them. How do they introduce their ideas? Use it as a model for your own.

Age and experience don't seem relevant in a seminar. No excuses, get talking! ;)

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Another piece of advice that helped me (I started undergrad as a really shy person) is to convince yourself that it's okay to say something stupid sometimes. A class discussion isn't the same as a well formulated written argument. I now see these class discussions more as a "brainstorm" session, where we all just speak our ideas and talk them out together. I find it more useful because if I go home and think about it myself, I will miss out on the perspectives of my classmates. So, take advantage of the class discussion time to get the thoughts of your prof and classmates! If it makes you feel better, there was one physics class where the instructor would often stop, and say here's a 5 second problem, tell me what X is! A lot of the times, our first guess/answer would be wrong, but the instructor would talk it through with us and we'd get to the right answer sometimes. I found that was much more helpful than if he had just told us the answer up front.

 

I also feel that sometimes it sounds like everyone is saying something really smart or deep or insightful. But remember that there are lots of others in the class, so it's unlikely that everyone is always saying something that insightful. Most likely, they are all like you, and they might each have something insightful to say once or twice, but since a different person might be speaking up each time, it sounds like everyone is saying insightful things. People tend to remember the insightful comments more anyways. So, there's a good chance that most other people in the class are feeling the same way as you (although maybe at different levels of severity) and are also nervous about voicing their ideas. 

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If you have trouble speaking up in class, prepare some commentary ahead of time.  Select 2-3 readings that you are really going to dive deeply into, and concentrate on thinking of things to say.  I'm normally a very outspoken person but I was intimidated my first year of grad school because I was the only one in my cohort straight from undergrad, and also the only one without significant theoretical training (I was a psychology major in a program full of anthropologists, sociologists, and historians).  I made it my mission to think of things to say during class.  I wrote them down on little post-it notes that I stuck to the pages of my readings.  This helped because I had already thought through how I would word it and what I would say, so it was easier to say it during class.

 

I often also started off by being the first person to say something.  It sounds counterintuitive for a person afraid of speaking up in class, but sometimes when a discussion gets really good it's difficult to insert yourself, and that may be even more intimidating for a shy person.  But often even the most outgoing person won't want to be the first person to make a comment.  If you are often the first person to comment, you can start off with something middle-of-the-road and still be remembered positively for it.  Then your classmates can feed off what you said.

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Another piece of advice that helped me (I started undergrad as a really shy person) is to convince yourself that it's okay to say something stupid sometimes.

 

This is a great piece of advice. I also just finished my first semester of a PhD in a social science where discussions are very highly regarded. I've never been one to shy away from speaking up in class, but I was intimidated this first semester and it took a LOT for me to say something. Once I did get started it got easier; I got feedback from my cohort mates in class that was positive as well as positive feedback from my professors, which made it easier. 

 

That said, here's a funny story - I can laugh at it now: in my first presentation for a class I said "... It's not knowledge with a capital "N"...." The class burst into laughter, and when I realized what I said, I started laughing too. It wasn't that people were laughing AT me, but it WAS funny. I meant that there are several knowledges and that there's no Absolute Knowledge or Truth... And I kinda made my point clear by inadvertently misspelling the word. (note: I got an A in that class in the end so my Ooops didn't make a difference.)

 

I think what freaked me out the most about speaking up in the class was that we have a cohort member who is very... knowledgeable about the readings.This person tends to name drop and refer to a lot of scholarship that is related but was not part of the assigned readings. This was helpful in one way but it also alienated a lot of people in the class who hadn't read those works. It might help to consider the overall dynamic of the class as well and see if there are other factors at play which hold you back and then, once identified, you can assess how to overcome them specifically. 

 

:)

Edited by HeadCold
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Sometimes when I have opinions about something but I'm not sure how to phrase them, or I'm afraid that they may come off as an attack on someone else's ideas, I'll ask a question instead.  So, if I'm thinking, "Standardized test may suck but we don't have a good alternative," I'll ask "What would be a good alternative to standardized testing?" 
I do this because I tend to state things matter-of-factly and make people think I don't want to hear other opinions, whereas asking a question makes it clear that I do.  But, it's also a good strategy if you have thoughts on something that you haven't evaluated/researched enough to be comfortable making a formal position about, but you still want to raise some issues for discussion.
I also second the motion to talk first.  Then you don't have to worry about connecting/modifying your thoughts based on what others have said.

Above, someone mentioned studying the "script" that others use.  If it's really just a matter of getting out there, some phrases are:

"To piggy-back off of what she just said,..." (Or, "To elaborate on...")
"Does that always apply? What about a situation where..."
"That's a good point.  It also goes along with what was said in..."
"So it seems based on all this, the over-arching issue is..."
"That makes sense.  My concern is..."

 

 

Oh, and I have a general question related to class participation: What are the responsibilities of those that aren't currently talking?
I was raised by a theatre/communications major who taught me to be an active/supportive audience member: Make eye contact; smile when the speaker/performer says something intended to be funny/ironic; nod when they say something wise/logical; shake your head when they say something sad/unbelievable.  To me, I'm an "audience member" whenever I'm listening to someone else speak in class, and I tried to give support/feedback.  When I speak and nobody gives any response, it makes speaking in class more uncomfortable.  I don't know if it's because I'm boring, or people think what I said was stupid, or if they don't understand what I'm getting at, or if they're just spaced out.  Am I the only one who feels this way? Should people be taught how to be supportive listeners?

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Oh, and I have a general question related to class participation: What are the responsibilities of those that aren't currently talking?

I was raised by a theatre/communications major who taught me to be an active/supportive audience member: Make eye contact; smile when the speaker/performer says something intended to be funny/ironic; nod when they say something wise/logical; shake your head when they say something sad/unbelievable.  To me, I'm an "audience member" whenever I'm listening to someone else speak in class, and I tried to give support/feedback.  When I speak and nobody gives any response, it makes speaking in class more uncomfortable.  I don't know if it's because I'm boring, or people think what I said was stupid, or if they don't understand what I'm getting at, or if they're just spaced out.  Am I the only one who feels this way? Should people be taught how to be supportive listeners?

 

I think this is a good point! I also think that a lot of people do this without consciously thinking about it though. But for classes where active participation is encouraged, especially at the first year graduate level, it might be helpful for instructors to spend some time at the beginning of the first class mentioning this as well as other thoughts that might help encourage more introverted people to speak out. Even though these types of classes/briefings might have already happened in senior undergrad courses, I think it would be worth mentioning again, since it's a new school and a new group of classmates. Sometimes I feel like a lot of profs who teach grad classes just expect their students to know what the expectations are, or just treat new students like senior grad students. This "immersion" or whatever you call it could have benefits, but it doesn't take much time/effort to be clear about expectations!

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I've found that developing confidence in terms of participating in class comes from practice, but you can start small. Make a promise to yourself to contribute once or twice each class then maybe increase that over time. It can also help to prepare in advance by coming up with points to bring up for each reading as well as points that link the readings with other papers, so you can add something new (yet related) to the discussion.

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