Shaking hands and feeling nauseous are something that most students experience when they want to speak up in class. I am no exception to it. As a year 4 student, one would have expected me to have been used to speaking up in class, yet that is not the case. I still find my hands shaking and my throat closing up occasionally. Sometimes, I will be sitting in class desperately wishing to utter something but just end up being silent the whole time. Not a single word leaves my mouth.
It definitely feels disheartening that after 4 years in university, I still have the tendency to clam up in class. However, as I am always reminded by my closest friends and family, learning to overcome the fear of speaking up is a journey. It is neither a straightforward nor a linear process; it is full of ups and downs. If seen in this light, I would say I have definitely made significant progress. While I am still anxious about speaking up in class, I have definitely made more attempts to participate in class discussions throughout my years in university. I wish to impart some of the things I have done to reduce my anxieties in this article to you, and I hope that you will embark with me on this journey together.
The first and most important step in this journey is to change one’s mindset. What I mean by this is to pinpoint what makes you nervous about actively participating in class discussions. It is only by understanding the root cause that you can tackle the problem itself. One effective way to do so is by talking it out with someone you trust. I am aware that not everyone has someone they can confide in, so another possible way is to write in a journal and reflect on it. Whatever method you use, I can assure you it will be worthwhile in the long run.
For me, the root cause of my anxiety of speaking up is the feeling that my answers are “trivial”. This feeling intensifies when I personally know classmates who are on NTU’s President Scholarship. It makes me feel as if my thoughts and opinions on a certain topic or article are not as profound as theirs. But gradually, I have come to realise that these students are not in university because they know it all. Just like you and I, they are here to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. And just like them, you have the right to expand your horizons by actively participating in class. However, I know that it is easier said than done. This is why I emphasize that changing one’s mindset is a journey, and a turbulent one. Just being able to detect the root cause and being willing to change your outlook is a step in the right direction. Although changing one’s mindset can take time, below are some steps you can immediately implement to aid you on this journey.
1. Prepare your readings before hand
One of the easiest steps is to prepare the readings you have been given beforehand. Jot down what you agree or disagree with, and take notes of certain points you are unfamiliar with. This will allow you to come up with certain ideas that you might want to bring up in class. In fact, just clarifying questions you have during class discussion is speaking up in itself! As mentioned, you are in university because you want to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. Professors do not expect you to know everything under the sun; they would be more than happy that you have questions as it shows your engagement with the texts.
2. Sitting in the front of the class
If you feel very conscious about people looking at you when you are speaking up in class, one way to deal with this is to sit in the front of the class. This minimizes your line of sight and you will be less (or not at all) aware of your classmates’ gaze. Though I can assure you that most of your classmates are not thinking about how your ideas are invalid. In fact, most are probably digesting the ideas you have brought to the table, and critically reflecting on them. Just like how you critically engage with your lessons, they too are critically engaging with yours.
3. Talk to your professors
Your professors are here to help you! If you have any problems or worries about speaking up in class, let your professors know either through email or face-to-face after class. Almost any professor would want to help you succeed in class and to help you overcome your fears. I have confided in several of my professors about my anxiety of participating in class and they have been one of my biggest sources of support. They have helped me to find ways to speak up, given me words of encouragement and soothed my worries about expressing myself in class. Just knowing that you have a supportive professor will definitely alleviate some of your fears of negative judgment from others!
Speaking up in class can be frightening, but remember that you should never feel ashamed or even angry with yourself for having such feelings. Not everyone is comfortable with talking in front of people, and that is okay. What is most important is that you are willing to challenge yourself and that you are taking an active step, whether minute or huge, in helping yourself to overcome such anxieties.