In many American classrooms, participation is considered classroom etiquette and often count towards the overall grade — teachers expect students to contribute and students expect their peers to contribute and share ideas and thoughts. Contribution includes showing up to class (having read assignments), being an active member of group projects and engaging in classroom discussions by expressing ideas, answering questions or asking questions.
However, for many Chinese students who have grown up in the Chinese education system, at first, speaking up in class may seem difficult. Accustomed to lectures and large classrooms that do not encourage active participation, raising a hand to ask a question or responding to a question with a personal opinion can fall into unfamiliar territory for many students. Understandably, concern over English ability can be a barrier, but in many classrooms, it’s the quality of the idea or question that is more important than the actual grammar or pronunciation. You don’t need to participate in all discussions, but when you do, it shows respect for your peers and that you are interested in the subject. With practice you build confidence and it becomes easier to participate; all it takes is for you to be unafraid and be willing to overcome this difference. Here’s a story of how one former student successfully learnt to speak up in class.
With this we offer 3 suggestions to help students build confidence and be more involved in classroom discussions.
- Learn some conversation starters. Simple phrases such as “I think that” or “In my opinion” signal you want to express your thoughts. If you disagree with someone you can say “That’s an interesting way of looking at it, I think …” or “We seem to have different opinions about this – may I tell you what I think?” If you agree with someone and want to make an additional comment you can say, “I agree with what you’re saying, I would like to add that …”
- Get out of your comfort zone. We offered a few suggestions to help incoming students adjust to their new academic environment, and we’ll say the same here — get out of your comfort zone in class! Don’t be shy, even if you think you have nothing interesting to offer. One of the benefits of American classrooms is the expectation for some diversity; as an international student you can offer a different perspective so don’t be hesitant to share it. If you don’t speak, your classmates won’t know what you’re thinking and if you don’t give it a try, you won’t know if what you have to say is actually interesting or not.
- Listen. Effective communication involves listening to what others have to say. As a student from China, you’re probably quite used to this already, so rather than tell you to listen more, I suggest you listen actively. This means really trying to understand what’s being said. If you need clarification, raise your hand and ask; there could be other people in class who didn’t understand either. You can first repeat what you have heard in your own words followed with, “is my understanding correct?” You might not want to do this too often but every now and then is acceptable. Listen first then speak so you can avoid repeating what’s just been said.
It might still take a little time to get comfortable with speaking in class. Ease yourself into the process, such as challenging yourself to participate in class once a week in the class you enjoy the most, then twice a week, then maybe once a day and then in all your classes. Just be bold and take that first step.
Photos courtesy of USDAgov
This blog first appeared in Prep Beijing on September 13 written by Alicia Lui.
Alicia Lui is a co-founder at Prep Beijing!, a coaching company focusing on core soft skills such as effective communication, social and emotional skills, etiquette, critical thinking and leadership skills. Prior to founding Prep Beijing! She has worked in management consulting and in banking. She holds and MBA from INSEAD and Bachelor’s from University of Chicago.