“Who can tell me what the chapter was about?” your 8 a.m. English professor asks. Nobody moves. Nobody breathes. Your classmates divert their eyes away from the professor to avoid meeting her gaze. They say silent prayers, desperately hoping not to become the victim upon whom she calls. Suddenly, your worst nightmare unfolds into reality. She calls your name. The room awaits your response, but the contents of your mind completely flee, leaving you speechless.
When you signed up for college English, you knew the class would involve a lot of reading. In high school, you passed by reading Sparknotes and Cliffnote summaries, but in college, those techniques don’t always fly. You actually need to open the book and read the chapter to develop your own summary. I know it takes more time than a quick Google search, but I guarantee you will feel much more confident when your professor calls on you in class, and your participation grade will skyrocket.
True MPVs read actively, not passively, so uncap your bright yellow highlighter, sharpen your pencil and take action. “There’s a difference between reading for pleasure and reading to learn,” Luther College Visiting Assistant Professor and Instructional Design Librarian Christine Moeller said. “If you’re reading to learn, you should underline important phrases or words you don’t understand, write notes in the margins, draw connections to your own life and identify literary elements in the text.” Active reading takes more time, but pays off on discussion day.
“I always recommend writing your notes the way you would want to say them. It can be a good crutch when you speak in class,” College in the Schools Literature instructor Dara Bishop said. Also helpful: Visiting outside sources to gather information about the author, allusions, symbols or other information in the text with which you remain unfamiliar. For those who find discussion overwhelming and struggle to develop ideas into cohesive sentences on the fly, outside research provides a chance to prepare ideas in advance.
Take some time to reflect on the literature after you finish. “Make sure you’ve done a little digestion before class. It’s so easy just to read and go away from something, but even if you spend 10–15 minutes reflecting on the text, it will help immensely,” Luther College English Professor Kate Narveson said. Questions drive good discussions, so think of questions ahead of time to save you and your classmates from those seemingly endless, awkward silences and leave your professor impressed with your stellar preparation.
Now, what is a trophy-winning question, you ask? Moeller refers to good discussion questions as “exploratory” questions. Exploratory questions stay open-ended, meaning they hold no specific, “right” answer, and they invite interpretation of the text. Preparing exploratory questions not only improves your discussion participation, but also sparks intriguing conversations among your peers.
After completing the preparation stage, go to class and show off your hard work. College in the Schools Composition instructor Carrie DeValk shared three simple steps to follow when speaking in class: claim, evidence and warrant. “If you’re going to make a claim about a work of literature, you have to support your claim with quotations from the text itself (evidence), and you also have to tell me why your claim matters (warrant). Why should the class care about what you’re trying to say? Why is it relevant?” DeValk said.
Use textual evidence to support your arguments. Take out those notes you took while reading and reference them when you make comments during discussion. “There is nothing more valuable than drawing directly from the actual language—it adds credibility to any argument,” Luther College Creative Writing Professor Keith Lesmeister said.
You may want to throw a curveball and change the subject of the discussion because you need to step up your participation game, but hold on champ. Discussion MVPs follow the flow of the conversation. “Sometimes, you may have to abandon your points if they’re going to disrupt the direction a discussion is going,” Bishop said. Here is where active listening comes into play.
Rather than simply waiting for your turn to speak, pay attention to the comments of your peers. “Write down the initials of your classmate and the gist of the comment so that you can mention it when you speak and put your own spin on it,” Narveson said. Referencing what your classmates say shows you listened and developed an opinion based on their comments.
Not only must you contribute thoughtful questions and responses, but also develop an awareness of your body language. If you slouch and neglect to open the text, you clearly lack engagement in the conversation. “An instructor can always see when a student is uninterested,” Bishop said. “When you aren’t speaking, you should follow along, turn to the specified page when someone mentions it, look at the person speaking and nod to show you are listening.” Okay, maybe you really don’t care about the work of literature nor the conversation, but good discussion also involves good acting, so at least pretend to be engaged.
Last, be confident. “My colleagues and I are always delighted when we think our students are responding to the literature themselves and not trying to say what they think the right answer is, according to the professor,” Narveson said. Use your unique ideas to contribute to discussion; speak your mind and win English discussion MVP.