How to Participate in Class without Fearing the Haters

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Throughout your college education, you start to lose your incognito “Just another kid in a university sweatshirt” lecture hall vibe. More and more schools pride themselves on small class sizes and discussion-based seminars. How do you train yourself to confidently grab those participation points, rather than ducking down to look at your doodles whenever the teacher asks a question?

Start Small

Don’t try to rip off the bandaid with participation. Start by trying to participate in class once a week. “It is entirely normal to feel anxious and fearful because the natural tendency is to avoid these potentially threatening situations,” University of Virginia PhD candidate in clinical psychology Karl Fua said. “The serious drawback to this avoidance strategy is that it prevents you from gaining more positive experiences that can help you challenge your negative interpretations. By participating more, starting with smaller challenges (e.g., participating one-two times in each class whenever available), a student can begin gathering evidence that these feared situations might actually not be as bad as he/she originally thought.” If you start as small as changing your focus from the teacher to yourself, you’ll realize that, in the long run, you care the most about your own participation, not your imaginary haters.

Sit in the Front

With all those unassigned assigned seats everyone picks out, changing location to the front of the room doesn’t sound like starting small. But if your teacher sees your face every Tuesday and Thursday patiently waiting for them to finish their thought, when they come across your name on the roster they’ll immediately feel more positive. Even if your teacher still seems to hate you, they can’t deny that you’ve been to every lecture when your face blocks half their view of the class. If you do the work of getting up, putting on pants and leaving your cozy bed, you might as well get points for it. “It’s important to note the focus should be on the act of participation and less on the actual outcome (whether you gave the right answer or not),” Fua said. Plus, sitting in the front automatically holds you more accountable. This means you’ll focus more and take better notes.

Do the Readings

Learning how to participate in class only comes when you stop dodging questions about the readings by running off to the bathroom or searching for your pen in the bottom of your backpack. When you don’t do the readings, you basically set yourself up for the longest, palm-sweatiest class of your life. “When I was an undergrad I was very nervous about speaking up in class. I’m a very out-going person, but I also hated being wrong or looking silly. As I did the readings for each class, I always prepared a couple of observations and questions in advance,” UVA media studies professor Lana Swartz said. “Looking back, I actually think this was a great thing to do. It helped me synthesize the readings and be a lot more confident.” Do this so when your heart lurches and you duck down to look at your notebook, you’ll actually have helpful information there.

Talk to your friends

The easiest way to make sure you understood the reading and can participate in class? Get someone’s opinion. “The most intimidating part about it is sharing your own opinions with a lot of other people all at once, some of who are inevitably strangers. It means that you have to be extremely confident in what you’re saying, and the chance that you could be completely wrong is horrifying,” UVa junior Alex Andrews said. Talking to a friend in the class might feel nerdy, but when you know two different potential reading arguments, you’ll push all your classmates to get on your level. But how do you participate in class if you don’t have a friend in your class? Use the Internet tool people are always complaining millennials love so much. You aren’t the first one who has had to read Portrait of an Artist or attempt to untangle cell mutation. A little research helps you understand material and get you fired up to start participating in class.

Let teachers know you listen

If you can’t take the leap and raise your hand in class, you can show your prof you’ve been listening outside the classroom. From a quick question at the end of class to an email with a link to an article related to discussion, you’ll have them learning your name in no time. Swartz encourages her students to reflect on their participation via email or notecards. “I wanted to give students an opportunity to describe what they thought their best contributions were. It’s definitely possible that I, as the instructor, might gloss over a comment that a student felt was really important, that represented a learning moment for them. It’s also possible that I might overlook the nervousness that went into making a comment,” she said. Using your voice (even in writing) to participate in class lets your teacher know you’re more than two eyes and a T-shirt. Or, push yourself to bring those articles into office hours. If you continue the conversation outside of class, you can get away with the in-class silence.

Use Office Hours

Yeah, yeah. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. “One of the first things I say day one is that if you’re too shy to be called on, come talk to me in office hours,” UVa media studies professor Wyatt Andrews said. “There, what we do is we discuss the readings, very briefly, takes ten minutes. ‘What did you get from the readings, what did you like, not like? Alright, thanks, bye.’ It’s not bad” The bonus: after talking about the readings in office hours you know exactly what points to emphasize when you write your next paper. Sitting through your professor’s awkward jokes for a couple minutes earns you a special spot at the top of the class.

College is practice for Future Business Meetings

College prepares you for the future, right? “When you leave college, and enter a profession, you have to be able to express yourself under pressure,” Andrews said. “You are going to be promoted faster in the real world depending on how you write and how you speak and you might as well face the pressure now in college as practice when your job’s not on the line.” A class full of 15 other 20-year-olds or a meeting full of suits and heels: pick your poison. “Public speaking fears are some of the very most common sources of anxiety,” UVa Professor of Psychology Robert Emery said. “And being a decent public speaker is important to success in all kinds of fields. Learning to speak up in class can be a start toward finding your voice in all kinds of situations.” Leave the lip biting in the bedroom, and instead of eating your words, raise your hand.

Just Put ‘Em Up

Figuring out how to participate in class can make your stomach feel worse than sitting at the top of a drop tower. But, no one judges you for answering questions in class, especially when you actually know the answers. “What’s the worst that can happen? No one is going to bite your hand off. You are not going to die,” Andrews said. When you know an answer or when someone says something you simply can’t stand, stick a hand up. “Fear itself is adaptive. Without fear, we’d all get run over by trucks or hurt in some other way. So there is no sense questioning, ‘Why do I feel this way?’ A better question is, ‘How can I conquer my fear?’” Emery said. Take a deep breath and just do it.

Kristen is a Senior (or fourth year, as we call them!) at the University of Virginia, studying Art History and Media Studies. She loves modern art, walking around New York and fancy cheese.

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