Effective Class Participation Is Simple

Some sage wisdom from the King of Participation himself, Andy Killebrew

Perhaps you’ve found yourself paralyzed in a similar position to the one that I’m about to describe. You’ve done the reading for a class, formed independent opinions and grown confident enough to articulate yourself in front of the classroom. At the point right before you open your mouth to make your point, there’s a brief burst of confidence when your insight seems valuable; your tongue feels light and able; your argument appears to be cogent. Then, you open your mouth, fumble through the first few words, stumble into your argument (of course forgetting several points in the panic), before you finally tumble into a timid conclusion.

You look around, anxious questions flooding into your brain: “Was I right? Well, did my professor agree with me? What did my classmates think? Did they even listen? How did I look while I was talking? Did I sound smart? Did I come across as a nerd? And, most importantly, did I accidentally sound like I was personally attached to a particular opinion?

If you’ve ever experienced this sort of anxiety, don’t worry. Below, I have offered suggestions on how to healthily contribute to class without the awkwardness of having to make yourself vulnerable, to having an incorrect opinion or looking like a clown. With the tips below, you’ll be ready to earn those valuable participation points in your next divisional without any stress.

1. Don’t do any reading for class

Unless your teacher is one of those callous characters who cold calls, this is a pretty easy way to avoid looking like a fool in front of your peers. Without the background knowledge typically necessary to chime in, the chances of compromising yourself with an unflattering take on the material are very low. Besides, without forming prejudices that can arise during the reading, you’re even more prepared to absorb the wealth of knowledge being offered up during class discussions with an unfettered mind.

Pro tip: primary times to chime in here lay when the conversation begins to drift away from concrete details and towards the general. If you’re vigilant, there’s typically an opportunity here to slip in a personal anecdote or reference to a TV show you’ve recently seen. It’s noncommittal, interdisciplinary and is very effective at proving to your professor that you’re critically engaged with the material. Just be careful not to go too far off topic.

2. Skim over the text for broad points to bring up

If you can’t quite get over the mental block of walking into class without doing any preparation, then this method might be for you. The skimming method can lend a lot of mileage with only a few minutes of preparation; you can even drive discussion! Here, the key is to know at least one “big idea,” if not a couple just to be safe. During any lull in conversation, feel free to lob in a question like: “So, I thought that this particular comment was pretty interesting, what did people think about it personally?” Or, “Can we spend a little time chewing through this part of the reading? I wanted to hear what other people had to say about it.” These sorts of contributions show a remarkable amount of dispassionate initiative and are sure to satisfy even the strictest participation standards.

3. Guess how someone else might reply

This tip is for those of you feeling motivated enough to go into class fully prepared, but too socially self-conscious to risk throwing out a potentially problematic position. All that you have to do is exercise a little bit of imagination and think of how someone else might respond to the material.

Potentially useful statements include things such as: “I could see this being problematic for X group of people if they took away from it Y things” or: “If I were a critic, I think I would have this opinion on the subject.” This way, you can still find a way to wrestle with class themes without the worry of having an incorrect opinion or compromising your image with your classmates.

Hopefully, these tips will give you a toolbox for navigating the perils of classroom discussion. Good luck in your next seminar, and make sure to keep my advice in mind.