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This issue of CDTL Brief is the first of a two-part Brief that features the teaching practices of the 2004/2005 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.

August 2006, Vol. 9, No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Shy Teachers and Large Groups
Associate Professor Cecilia Lim
Department of Philosophy

The immediate reaction of my dearest relatives and friends, upon being told that I had won a teaching award, was to impugn the integrity, reliability and objectivity of any selection process that could produce such a result. My relatives and friends know me to be a very shy person and they were most surprised that students could even hear me speak!

I will defer discussion on whether I am deserving of the teaching award. However, I do know that I have come a long way since my first lecture, which was done at breakneck speed with sweaty palms and a thudding heart. It was all over in half an hour and I had nothing to say for the rest of the session. Since then, I have gained more confidence in speaking in front of a large audience and learnt how to pace myself when I speak. I have also improved on other aspects of my teaching.

I shall discuss here how a shy person can handle a large lecture group of 40-60 students. However, I understand from a previous CDTL Brief article, Tan (2001), the definition of a 'large group' can vary from 10 to 400 students. Whatever the actual student figures may be, I hope the following three pointers on what is helpful to me may also be of help to any shy teacher who thinks her group is large.

a) Go in with the right frame of mind

When I was about to embark on my first lecture, someone trotted out a suggestion that I should, to take the edge off my fears, imagine all my audience with no clothes on. The suggestion presupposes that when I see my audience (mentally, of course) in a ridiculous state, I would lose my fear of them.

Now on hindsight, I think such a suggestion may actually start a person off on the wrong footing. The suggestion works on the premise of a 'me vs. them' attitude and an underlying assumption that a person can only feel confident by convincing herself that she is 'superior' than those she is confronting. However, such thoughts automatically put students (our audience) in an adversarial position.

Over the years, I have found that what actually helped me most is to see the students as they really are. That is, recognising that the audience is generally composed of well-disposed, well-meaning and bright people who are in the course for a variety of fairly ordinary reasons (e.g. they would like to learn something about the subject, they hope to earn a good grade). Usually, students are far less threatening and critical than a shy person embarking on her first lecture is apt to think. So, do not assume that students are waiting to pounce on our slightest mistake; or that they are ghouls preparing to feast on our misery. This is scarcely what is on students' minds when they first come for classes.

b) Focus on students, not ourselves

When I teach, I try to put myself in students' shoes and figure out what is on their minds. I find it helpful to focus on students' needs and wants (the two, needless to say, do not always coincide) and concentrate on addressing these. For instance, students would, minimally, like to know what is going on in class. So if I see many blank looks while I am making a point, I will focus on trying to get the point across in such a way that more students can understand what I am trying to say. Diverting my energy to explaining a concept to students also helps to distract me from thinking what a disaster I must be as a teacher because I cannot even get a simple point across -a thought that is helpful neither to me nor my students. I find that in concentrating strictly on what needs to be done during my lectures, I soon forget about how I am doing and so, forget to feel nervous.

c) Bring along a 'security blanket' if necessary

Having the common shy person's fear that I will suddenly blank out in front of a large group and forget every fact that I had ever claimed to have expert knowledge of, I used to write out my lectures laboriously word for word. I am ashamed to admit that when I first started lecturing, I used to read verbatim from this prepared script. But having a written script as a 'security blanket' soon gave me the confidence to add a few extempore sentences of my own, then, ad-lib whole points and paragraphs and eventually, whole sections. I am now confident enough to shape the lecture, to a large extent, in the direction of students' interest and depend upon student interaction to structure its content. I still bring in my lecture notes as a sort of ritual, but there is now little correspondence between what is said in class and what is written on those sheets. For shy and nervous teachers, I think it can be helpful to bring along a 'security blanket' to start with. But the teacher should be very clear that she is not going to wrap herself in it for the rest of her life.

To the other shy teachers out there-if I can lay claim to being a good teacher, so can you!


Tan, C.H. (2001) 'Keys to Effective Large-group Teaching', CDTL Brief, Vol. 4, No. 5, pp. 1-5, & p. 7. (Last accessed: 27 April 2006).

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Shy Teachers and Large Groups
Education is not Education without Research
Learning German Beyond the Classroom
My Teaching Philosophy and Approach: Connecting Teaching with the Real World
Desire is the Root to All Learning— Light My Fire!
Content Reduction vs. Independent Learning