Number. 39 © CDTL 2003
Speaking Up In Class
Assistant Professor Kenneth Paul A.S-S. Tan
University Scholars Programme / Department of Political Science

Active participation in class discussions can help us to learn how to turn intuitive opinions into intellectually informed arguments, to communicate these arguments to our peers, and to take on board alternative points of view and constructive criticism. Open and rigorous discussion can shape and refine our ideas, arguments, thought processes, communicative abilities and interpersonal skills. Open and rigorous discussions, however, do not simply ‘happen’, but must be consciously attempted, practised and properly facilitated according to rules that are, at least implicitly, agreed to by every participant. Otherwise, discussions can be directionless, frivolous and even hostile. Often, we come up against psychological barriers that prevent us from speaking up in class. The reward (or threat) of ‘marks for participation’ may not be an adequate solution. Let me suggest four broad ways of thinking about class participation that may help to overcome these barriers.

  1. Be aware of the different ways to participate: Ask questions

    Participation is not simply about giving the right answers to questions posed by the tutor. You don’t have to wait until an idea is fully developed in your head before you speak up—if you do, chances are you’ll miss nearly every opportunity to say anything. Often, a semi-formed or eccentric idea can be a promising start to fruitful lines of enquiry.

    Participation can also take the form of questions asked in order to clarify ideas, arguments or debates. When you ‘read up’ in preparation for class*, always make a note of those things that you don’t fully understand. Compile these questions and bring them with you to class, where there will be opportunities to see what the others think about them. Other students will probably have similar questions floating about in their heads. Your questions will give the tutor an excellent opportunity to understand very specific problems that students face.

    If you cannot follow the arguments being made during class discussions, ask the speakers to clarify what they mean. This is not only for your own benefit, but also for the benefit of the speakers themselves who may not have communicated the idea effectively in the first place. In fact, asking the speakers to re-articulate their points may present an important opportunity to them to re-examine what they mistakenly thought they knew.

    Ask questions that force everyone to look at the topic in a different way. Just because you see things from a different or minority perspective does not make you wrong. Your contribution will help to bring diversity and interest to the discussion. Express your own personal experiences as a way of engaging with the topics. You’ll be surprised at how much can be learnt just by making critical connections between theories and real-life experiences, no matter how trivial these experiences may at first seem.

  2. Be aware that your participation is crucial to collective learning

    Essentially, others will benefit from your input whether it takes the form of opinions, arguments, counter-arguments or questions. You should never think that what you have to say is not worth saying. You should never regard constructive criticism as a form of personal attack. The goal is collective learning—the means are discussion and debate. What’s important in a discussion is the access to many different points of view that can be rigorously and respectfully examined and built upon.

  3. Think of your classmates as friends

    Make friends with everyone as early in the semester as possible. It’s so much easier to discuss issues, particularly sensitive ones, with friends than with strangers—an over-cautious attitude arising out of fear of causing offence and misunderstanding can kill a discussion. Among friends, humour can be not only a powerful social lubricant, but also a means of elevating the discussion to a higher level of subtlety and sophistication. Class discussion can become something to look forward to. Whatever the case, don’t plan on speaking up in class in later weeks of the semester when you think you’ll be more comfortable with the group. As your silence accumulates, you’ll be increasingly daunted by the prospect of making your first squeak.

  4. Relax

    Ultimately, you should relax and not worry about what others may think of you. Everyone, after all, feels insecure in some way of another. Don’t leave NUS regretting that you never engaged with your peers and never made life-long friendships through intellectual discussion.

* See Tan, Kenneth P.A.S-S. (2003). ‘Reading Up for Class’. Successful Learning, Issue No. 28. Singapore: Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore.


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