Not for Psychology Majors Only: Why Participate in Class

In the past, students have approached me and indicated that class participation does not come easily to them. I will attempt systematically to address two questions. First, why is it useful to participate in class? And second, how might one prepare to participate, thereby avoiding that oft-cited, oft-feared, nearly universal affliction, “stage fright”.

Why is it useful to participate in class?

There are several reasons participation in class is useful. Here are just a few:

  • Participating allows you the opportunity to receive input from others who might have perspectives that are quite divergent from your own; these students can help you to broaden your views and to expand the range of your hypotheses. Also, in the case of a debate, it is a good idea to be aware of the views of “the opposition”. In addition, speaking in class can allow you to identify “kindred spirits” who might share your views and who might be stimulating people with whom to talk or to study.
  • Soon you will either be in graduate school or at work. In both settings, articulate behavior is frequently rewarded. Those who speak frequently and persuasively are likely to receive recognition. Thus, speaking can be a valuable skill. Speaking is very much like writing in that the old adage, “practice makes perfect” applies. The classroom is an ideal setting for this type of practice.
  • If you have done the reading but not fully mastered the material, then, the classroom is the ideal place to convey that to the instructor so that s/he has an opportunity to clarify difficult concepts.
  • If you have done the reading and fully mastered the material, then the classroom is the ideal place to convey that to the instructor so that s/he can “move on”; and provide you with more challenging material.

How do I prepare to participate in class?

Each of you undoubtedly have different strategies but here are some strategies which students have found useful in the past. You may want to consider them.

  • Speak-up. I share my guidelines here. But remember instructors vary considerably in their expectations, clarify instructor expectations through careful observation or by asking during office hours. In my classes, I encourage students in a seminar speak at least an average of two times per class. In a large class, of 50-100 people, I’d encourage you to speak about once a week. However, if everyone did this, you’d never hear the lecture. The key is, if you are very well-prepared and thoughtful, you want to make an impression. Besides it’s great practice for becoming a leader and having an impact in the real world, not to mention … that it’s great for learning and engaging in the intellectual community. However, assess the situation carefully, you want to be viewed as thoughtful not as monopolizing or inappropriate. If this is a concern for you, approach the instructor about it privately. You will most likely find that participation, a thoughtful and analytic study of the readings, is always welcome.  One exception to the average of twice a week rule is the student who has not done the reading; ordinarily under such circumstances, it is probably not a good idea to express views on readings which one has, in fact, not read. Good manners dictate that the instructor not comment on a lack of preparation. A pro pos of this comment, instructors are vulnerable to assuming that the student who does not speak has not read. Class participation is the best antidote with which to address this misperception.
  • Students often worry that they will not sound brilliant when they speak. This is probably true. Even brilliant people do not sound brilliant all of the time. However, most instructors and classmates will respect the student who has come well prepared recognizing that in the long-run, careful, systematic preparation leads to scholarship and the more modest goal, not of brilliance, but of learning.
  • How might one prepare for this class? Prior to the class review the instructional plan, the syllabus and the readings. Ask yourself:
    1. What will we be talking about in class?
    2. What are the issues raised on the syllabus or outline?
    3. How can I apply the readings to date to the questions at hand?
    4. List the questions that you think will be asked in class. Answer them.
    5. Then ask yourself, now, that I have done the readings and thought about the questions, how can I deepen my understanding about the material? What questions do I want to raise in class?
    6. If class participation is difficult for you, role play with a friend. Ask yourself, “what is the worst thing that could happen if I participate? How would I handle it if it did happen?” Role play—positive and negative outcomes.

Lynn Friedman, Ph.D. (c) 2015

This material is copyrighted. However, Psychology Departments, Psi Chi Chapters, Psychology Clubs and University and College Career Centers may republish any of the columns from free-of-charge as long as each column is reprinted in its entirety and without alteration. Also, along with any column, copyright and the following byline must be attached: Dr. Lynn Friedman is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst and executive coach in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She is on the associate faculty at Johns Hopkins University. Web site: She can be reached at: (301) 656-9650.

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