Getting the Confidence to Speak Up in College Discussion Courses


Does participating in a class discussion make you nervous? Here are a few ways to transform that nervousness into confidence!

College courses with a discussion component can be intimidating for many students. Instructors may include class participation as a component of a student’s overall course grade, and in that situation, the pressure to speak up in class increases.

For some students, class discussions are no problem, and these students may present information with management assignment assistance and even find discussions exciting and stimulating. But for many others, a college-level discussion, be it in history, political science, philosophy, economics, psychology, English, or foreign language course, contributing to the discussion can be difficult and stressful.

Yes, getting over speaking in class is a tricky process, and yes, even after you get over it, you may still have to deal with occasional nervousness. But it is doable. And guess what? Even some of your college professors have probably felt the same way at some point in their academic careers.

First Step: Figure Out Why You’re Uncomfortable in Class

Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the course especially challenging in terms of the material covered?
  • Is the professor intimidating?
  • Are the other students intimidating?
  • Am I able to follow the content of class discussions?
  • Do I make sure I’m well prepared for each class?

Some students suffer from what is called “impostor syndrome,” the “I-Don’t-Deserve-to-Be-Here” mentality that makes some fear that they will be “found out” as not being smart because they provided a simplistic or incorrect answer to a question. Even graduate students with years of discussion classes behind them suffer from this, so you’re not alone. Just know that the lack of confidence is mostly in your head and that you have the capability of overcoming it.

If the Material is the Problem: Take Small Measures to Help Yourself Learn It

After asking yourself the above questions, the main reasons why it’s difficult for you to speak up in discussions can become clearer. Here’s how to begin taking action to overcome those difficulties in terms of the coursework and subject matter:

  • Make sure you are prepared for each class. In advance of the class, make a list of possible questions and/or comments you can use in the discussion. Having notes in front of you can make a big difference, and helps keep thoughts fresh in your mind.
  • If someone uses a word in class that you do not understand, or references an event, person, concept, formula, theory, et cetera that you are not familiar with, write it down. Look the term up after class so that you have that information stored away and can refer it back to the notes you took during discussions and lectures.
  • Most schools offer tutoring services. If you’re struggling, take advantage of the opportunity to work with a tutor. Alternatively, find another student in the class who can be a study buddy, or form a study group with multiple other students.

If the Class Environment is the Problem: Take Steps to Get Comfortable

One word jumps to the forefront here: Intimidation. Intimidation can come from the professor or fellow students. Here are constructive ways to view it…and overcome it:

  • The other students may show interest in the material by contributing to the discussion, but many are also trying to impress the instructor. Even if these students sound knowledgeable especially if they asked someone to “write my essay” for a presentation, remember that you know the material, too! And here’s a secret: some of the overly talkative students don’t say anything of substance, and talk merely as an attempt to boost their participation grade. Some professors might even call these students out on their pretence, which is always an exhilarating moment!
  • Professors are not scary people, even if they seem to like it sometimes. The vast, vast majority of them are genuinely nice people who genuinely want you to succeed.
  • But here’s a caveat to the above point: If you happen to have the misfortune of getting an instructor who seems consistently pompous, intimidating, abrasive, rude, downright mean, or any combination of those, don’t let it get to you. Just try to brush it off and be thankful that you are not and will probably never be like that. (And if it becomes a problem, talks to an advisor or academic counsellor, switches class sections, or register for another class.)

What’s Next?: Put Your Knowledge and New Perspective into Action

Keep the above steps in mind when going into a class and getting the courage to speak up. And if you think you have a good idea, raise your hand! It can be that simple.

Start with contributing to the class with basic responses: If the professor asks a direct question, and you know the answer, go for it! Who-what-where-when questions are good for this sort of practice: “What was the Jacobins’ position in the French Revolution?”, “What are some of the major points of existentialism?”, “What were the findings of Pavlov’s experiments on dogs?” and so on.

Answering direct questions is good practice for getting up the courage to answer “how” and “why” questions, and to contribute your ideas and questions. Be it asking about a particular philosopher’s views on such-and-such an idea, stating that you are skeptical about so-and-so’s theories, or establishing a connection between two concepts, there are many ways to contribute to a class discussion.

Enjoying the Newfound Confidence

College is supposed to be fun, and this includes the time you spend in class. Writing papers and lab reports and taking exams are stressful (and, okay, not all that fun). But participating in a class discussion should not be a reason to get nervous, intimidated, and stressed out. Confidence is the key: You’re smart, you’ve got ideas to contribute, and you most definitely deserve to be there learning and contributing.



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