Peer Blog: An Introvert’s Guide to Class Participation

By: Rachel Mackintosh, English, Class of 2019

Do you listen more than you talk? Do you like thinking deeply about something before speaking up about it? Do you often feel put on the spot in class despite having read the materials?

If you answered yes to these questions, chances are you’re an introvert! And as an introvert, the classroom environment can often be a daunting setting. In larger first- and second-year classes, merely showing up often translates to a good participation grade. However, as class size decreases in upper years and large lectures turn into intimate seminars, your presence is no longer enough; you are now expected to speak up.

So what is an introverted student to do when 15 – 25% of your grade is affected by a core aspect of your personality? While people might tell you to “get out of your head” or “not to care so much,” it is often more complicated to turn this into a daily practice and permanent solution. 

After years of having a pounding heart and sweaty palms when raising my hand, I now find myself one of the main contributors to one of my 4th-year seminar classes. So, here are some of my tips to help you find confidence in your own voice. 

#1) Do some reflecting.

Take time to think deliberately about why you’re so nervous to speak in the first place. Is it the fear of sounding stupid? Is it the fear of being judged? Sometimes when you articulate these concerns aloud or in writing you can realize the severity – or lack thereof, of the issue. In the former instance, I would recommend booking a learning strategies or counselling appointment that will walk you through personalized solutions. 

#2) You have to prepare.

Last semester, one of my friends who participated in every single class, confessed to me that he hadn’t done a reading for the class in the last couple of weeks. Although frustrated by his extroverted ease, I realized that unlike him, I would never achieve this confident state without preparation.

You are more likely to feel confident if you come to the class discussion prepared and ready to engage with the material having read through everything in advance. To feel extra-confident, maybe do some additional research, or prepare questions. 

#3) Contribute in other ways than just voicing your opinion.

While we often think participation means voicing our opinion or interpretation in a long-winded way, or answering questions posed by the professor, some of the most meaningful conversation can be sparked in different ways. One of my English professors, Scott-Morgan Straker, gave me a tip that still resonates with me:

“The most valuable participation often happens when students ask questions. When students answer a question, that tends to shut discussion down: an interpretation has been found, and the conversation ends. But when students ask questions, that means that there’s some uncertainty or possibly controversy—in other words, something to talk about.

#4) Let go of perfection.

If you take time during class to think through ideas, the conversation will often change topics by the time you’ve decided on the perfect comment. In order to avoid the missed opportunity of contributing, accept that, while you might feel more comfortable thinking through your thoughts before speaking, what ends up coming out of your mouth does not have to be the most perfectly crafted answer. Speaking up in class is not like giving a formal presentation: you’re tone, language, and syntax will be informal, and it’s okay to hesitate or sound a little broken as you think out loud. No one expects perfection.

5) Set a goal for yourself.

Setting a specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and trackable goal (see SASS’s guide to goal-setting) can help put what you want to do into action. For instance, over the remainder of the semester, decide that you will speak at least once per class for a course. Making one point each day, something that you can prepare in advance if necessary, is a small, digestible step in the very right direction.

Jerry Seinfeld once said that for every day that he completed his task of writing, he put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain” (Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret). Try this technique for every time you participate in class, add a checkmark next to that day on your class syllabus, and over time this daily practice can turn into a permanent solution.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain