By Kristen Lee
If I was graded in middle school solely for how much I talked in group settings… let’s just say I’d still be in middle school. So once I got to college, the idea of speaking in sections not just with 12 other people, but with 12 ridiculously smart, eloquent Stanford people, scared me. Being an introvert has always made class participation harder for me, so I feared that this would hurt my grades once I entered college.
But in my three years at Stanford, I’ve survived many sections, some more awkward than others (*cough* Thinking Matters *cough*). Along the way, I’ve developed strategies to feel more comfortable and even enjoy participating in section. Here are some of those strategies.
1. Do as many readings as you can.
I know how hard it is to keep up with readings, but being prepared can really help you feel more confident. Even if your section doesn’t go over every reading, having that background means you can find new ways to enter the conversation. I like to write a one- or two-sentence summary of each reading in my notes, so that I can refresh my memory during section.
2. Recognize the different types of questions.
You do not have to answer a question if you are not comfortable answering it. Instead, look out for questions that require less on-the-fly thinking.
My personal favorites are the ones that ask you to recap from lecture. Reading a definition straight from your notes is a good way to ease yourself into speaking in class.
Some questions are more straightforward than they seem. If the TA shows a painting of a boy holding an apple, and then asks “What do you see in this painting?”, don’t be afraid to state the obvious! Sometimes, that’s exactly what the TAs are going for.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask your own questions.
You might feel pressured to always have a “smart” comment or opinion. But sections are a place for you to learn; your TA wants to help you! Asking questions is a perfectly normal way to participate in section.
And no, they don’t have to be super thought-provoking questions. Simply asking “Can you review this term?” or “What did the author mean by…” shows that you’re engaging with the material and want to understand it better.
4. Raise your hand, even if you’re not 100% sure what you’ll say.
Hear me out on this. I’m the type of person who thinks everything through, so there have been times when I had a thought, but I kept it to myself because I didn’t fully know how to word it. But then, someone else would say what I was going to say, or the conversation would have moved to another topic.
Sometimes, the best way to speak more in class is to just go for it! If you have an initial thought, but don’t know how to express it, try raising your hand anyway. The TA might call on someone else, but they’ll get back to you and say, “Did you want to add something?” This can give you more time to formulate your thoughts while showing that you do want to speak.
Your comment does not have to be perfect. The TA can elaborate on what you said or ask other students for their thoughts. And if, worst-case scenario, the TA calls on you and you completely blank, just reply, “Sorry, I forgot what I was going to say. Can we come back to me later?” It happens to all of us; even if it seems nerve-wracking at the time, everyone has had one of those moments.
5. If it becomes a more serious concern, talk to your TA.
You might not get to talk in every section, and that’s okay. But if you still feel worried, especially if participation counts toward your grade, tell your TA about your concerns. They might assure you that you’re doing fine, or they could give you another way to participate, such as emailing a short reflection before class. Asking for help shows that you are proactive about your class performance, and that you are willing to put in effort.
6. Reframe how you see section.
Doing well in a class isn’t about being the most talkative person in the room; it’s about engaging with the material, and there are many ways to do just that.
Think of section not as a contest to impress others, but as a chance to share your unique perspective. You have intelligent insights, and your voice deserves to be heard. Not every thought will come out exactly how you want it to, and that’s okay! Hopefully, you can find a happy medium for when to express yourself, whether in section or outside the classroom.
Contact Kristen Lee at klee23 ‘at’ stanford.edu.