Academic Discussion Strategies
In US universities, students are encouraged and expected to participate in class. Instructors consider it part of the learning process. Questioning the instructor and providing your own opinion indicate that you are paying attention and thinking critically about the material being presented to you. Instructors also appreciate clarification questions (e.g. asking the instructor to repeat the directions for an assignment) because they want to make sure everyone understands. However, many – if not most – people feel anxious about participating in the classroom. This is especially true for students whose first language is not English. While overcoming this feeling takes time and practice, here are some strategies* that can help you in the meantime.
- Try to speak in class early in the semester, even if you say something very simple. This can give you confidence. On the contrary, the longer you wait to speak, the more nervous you may feel.
- Use other students’ comments and questions as starting points for your own comments. This can be helpful if you don’t know where to begin your thoughts.
- Hedge your comments. If you want to participate but feel that you cannot because you’re not completely sure you’re correct, try to convey your uncertainty in your answer or comment.
- Q: What theory of feminism supposes that society oppresses women through patriarchy?
- A:I think the answer is radical feminism.
- A: Is it radical feminism?
- A: I’m not sure, but it could be radical feminism.
- If you had a question or comment but the conversation moved so quickly you weren’t able to say it, refocus the conversation on the previous point.
- Could we go back for a moment?
- I have a question about what she said a second ago…
- Could we revisit his comments on X?
- I’d like to go back to discussing X.
- Prepare ahead for each class. You may find that questions arise ahead of time, and you can consider how to formulate them instead of having to do it during the discussion.
- Try to envision your comments or questions as assets to the class. Classes where students participate tend to be more rewarding, interesting and fun than other courses.
- Remember that, many times, other students will have the same questions that you do. Asking a question will probably be helpful to them as well.
- If you are really worried about classroom participation, talk to your instructor about it. Often once you’ve made contact outside of the classroom, either in person or through email, communication inside the classroom becomes easier.
- Finally, if you feel you are having difficulty asking questions because you are not able to listen well and understand the conversation around you or the material being presented, please see our handout on Academic Listening Strategies.
*Feak, C., Reinhart, S. & Rohlck, T. Academic Interactions: Communicating on campus. Michigan Series in English for Academic & Professional Purposes. (2009). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
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