International Students: Are you Dreading Class Participation?

“I hate class participation,” Naomi, an MBA student from Japan, blurted out during our conversation about her course selection. With frustration, she explained, “I do well in written exams and writing assignments, but I just don’t feel like speaking up in class. Every time I try to speak, I get extremely nervous, and my palms even sweat. By the time I comfort myself and get the courage to do it, the opportunity has passed, I missed a few minutes of the professor’s teaching and have to refocus myself back to the class. What’s the point?”

I told Naomi the SPEAK approach I developed. Now she is pushing herself out of her comfort zone to be more active in class. If you face a similar challenge, I am inviting you to try the SPEAK approach. I’d love to hear your questions and experiences in the comments area below.  

Step 1: Seek Support

Seeking support can be perceived as showing weakness in some cultures, while in American culture, seeking support demonstrates one’s self-awareness and strategic planning.

Share the challenge of speaking up in class with your professors. Believe me, many professors are hoping international students will speak up more in their class. They may be even adjusting their pedagogy and teaching style to engage international students. Once they are aware you are trying your best, they will be more likely to provide the support you need.

It is important to be specific with what kind of support you need, instead of throwing them the question “What suggestions do you have for me?” If the professor likes to ask questions in the class, you may ask him to share the types of questions he often uses so you could prepare in advance. If you prefer to be called on to speak up, but the professor waits for students to volunteer, ask the professor if he would be willing to adjust his style and call your name once in a while.

Step 2: Plan Ahead

Once you gain some understanding of what types of questions are often raised and what kind of speaking up opportunities are available, you can plan ahead. When you speak up, what would you like to say? Spontaneity may not be the easiest game for a non-native English speaker. Don’t plan for a 5-minute speech. Start small with a clear structure.

You may start with three talking points. Depending on the type of question, you may cover:

  •      Three highlights
  •      Start – Climax – Ending
  •      Challenge – Solution – Result
  •      An Initial Point – A Counterpoint – A Question
  •      Your Opinion – Supporting Evidence – Application

Step 3: Ease Your Feelings

In many cases, your reluctance to speak up has little to do with your language proficiency and knowledge but relates more to your emotions and feelings. You may feel shy because you are not used to speaking up in groups, not to mention in a foreign language. You may feel afraid because what if you do a terrible job and become a laughing stock? You may even feel resentment because you have to adapt to American classroom culture.

Be aware of the feelings that may be dragging you down when you want to try speaking up. Speak to them as you would to a friend.

To shyness, I would say, “Speaking in front of a group of people is same as speaking to one person. I speak in the same way. It is the only environment that changes.”

To fear, I would say, “Do you remember who answered what question during the last class? No, right? The truth is that no one remembers whether your answer is excellent or horrible, except yourself.”

To resentment, I would say, “I know it is unfair, but when in Rome, do what Romans do. Since I am the guest, the host sets the rule. I’d better have some fun with it.”

You may talk differently to your feelings, but find a way that will work for you and ease your inner struggle.

Step 4: Acknowledge Your Effort

Don’t take it lightly when you overcome a challenge because you have made a tremendous effort. Acknowledge your hard work. Set a weekly/monthly goal to speak up once in every class and reward yourself with your favorite ice cream, coffee, or a movie night; something special but not terribly expensive or time-consuming.  Set a semester goal to speak up once in every class throughout the term, reward yourself with something big, a dress, a field trip, or a new phone; something memorable that reminds you of your courage, effort and results.

Step 5: Keep Doing It

Speaking up once will not make a huge difference, but continuing doing so will. The key is persistence. Set your goal in moderation. If it is too hard, we tend to give up easily.

You may start with speaking up in every class of only one course or speaking up in three classes weekly. Develop a plan that suits you, and keep at it. After one semester of (maybe painstaking) effort, you will find yourself with more confidence, better communication skills, and improved critical thinking. You gradually become a more articulate, concise and convincing speaker.

With the SPEAK approach, you may start to enjoy speaking up in class. The best part is yet to come because the skills you have built from speaking up in the classroom are preparing you to present yourself with more confidence, to become a clearer and more effective communicator, and to build and grow your professional network

Let’s SPEAK this semester!

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