Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Want to Find Your Voice in Class? Speak UP!

Student was from Taiwan, but adopted an American name during his two years in Seattle: "Melvin."

In my Intro to Communication course, Melvin always displayed the nonverbals associated with an attentive, engaged student:

He made direct eye contact with myself and others in the class. 

He nodded his head as indication that he was involved in the class discussion.

He furiously took notes, flipped pages in his textbook, made marginal comments in the white space.

What Melvin didn't do was speak in class.


Instead, Melvin sent me eloquent e-mails about his perception of the material we were learning. He clearly understood the concepts, respectfully, but assertively agreed and disagreed with certain points of American communication culture.

By e-mail string #4, I begged Melvin to share these wonderful discussions in class. Then I received e-mail #5 with this subject line:

"Please. Let me be President's adviser behind the screen."

Melvin explained that in his culture, speaking out in class, asserting one's own ideas is not accepted. He would not be remaining in America, but rather returning to Taiwan to work in his father's corporation. Melvin had no intention of changing his deeply rooted cultural norms. He continued his stance--and brilliant e-mails--through two more classes with me.

Reading Confidence in the Classroom: Why it Matters in College, posted by Student Advisor (yes, found it on Twitter... where else am I hanging out?), made me think of Melvin.

The author of this post asserts that too many students sound unconfident in the classroom, starting their opinions/thoughts/ideas with qualifiers, such as:

"Well I was gonna say..."


"I feel like..."


"...But that's just my opinion... I don't know..."

The author states that these phrases are "safe" and "a cop-out."

You might be thinking, "Now wait a minute, Ellen. Where's the correlation with this Melvin guy? You said he wasn't un-confident, just not culturally comfortable with his communication." (Love my alliteration there?).

Yes, Melvin had a deliberate reason for not contributing in class. However, truth of the matter is that in American college classrooms, students are expected to add to classroom discussions, to assert their ideas/opinions/thoughts in a respectful way... to contribute to a shared, rich learning community. 

When I read the post from Student Advisor, I thought about how a student may perceive the advice:

"I'm supposed to talk in class, sound confident, articulate, and solid in my position... What if I can't do that? What if I'm not sure what to say, but I want to say something? Should I not say anything at all?"

When students are concerned about whether they should or shouldn't speak in class, they end up saying nothing. They contribute in their minds--you can almost see them nodding with their eyes. They mentally argue with the professor and classmates about points of disagreement. But they don't open their mouths.

They also don't e-mail with profound thoughts like Melvin did.

In essence, these students silence themselves.

My stance? It is not possible to find your voice without speaking up in class--even if what you say isn't perfect! 

And finding your voice in class takes practice and time.

I completely agree with some the author's assertions: Ideally, students would stand firm on their beliefs, regardless of agreement or disagreement from their classmates. They would assert themselves with confidence, avoiding disclaimers, hedgers, or qualifiers in their communication.

But the idea is not so simple, particularly for those who are novice critical thinkers.

Some people need to "talk out" their ideas to process them.

Some people need to fumble before their message is known.

Some people need to test the waters to gauge reaction before continuing.

This is all part of learning about ourselves as communicators.

So what's the communication lesson here? 

Remember that college is the place to craft and hone your communication skills. 

When you are in class and your prof calls for open discussion, join in. If your prof doesn't include open discussion, feel free to raise your hand and ask a question anyway. You will likely give other students the courage to raise their hands, too (then, check you out as the discussion starter!). 

Don't wait until your thoughts are perfectly constructed. Your prof is usually just glad that students are contributing (of course, your ideas should relate to the content).

Don't feel like you have to make a proclamation with your ideas. Inquiring tone is completely appropriate if you are, indeed, still questioning your position, your understanding of the material, etc.

Am I saying don't think before you speak? Of course not. But what I am saying is that your thoughts do not have to be perfect.

I'm well-schooled, typically well-spoken, and I boldly admit that I've had my share of communication bungles, in meetings and in the classroom. This means that, at times, my ideas fall out in a jumbled mess. Then, I've said, "Wait... let me rephrase that..." or "Ooh, obviously a little too excited about that idea. Let me start over." Like I said before, this is all part of communicating--even when one knows how to communicate extremely well.

Finally, in agreement with the Student Advisor post, don't feel like you need to agree with all discussion swirling around the room. If, indeed, you disagree, say so. Validate the original idea by paraphrasing i.e., "So what you're saying is that..." in a respectful tone. Then, add your thoughts. You can say that you appreciate the other person's point of view, but that you respectfully have a viewpoint of your own.

Bottom line? Say something.

If you don't, participation points may be at stake (I'm going to blog about this in the not-far-future). Others in your class won't come to know you, which means you could miss out on rewarding interactions both in and out of your class with fellow students. Your prof won't know what you are thinking/feeling/absorbing either, which means that he/she can't adjust to help you learn more or learn differently.  

Start speaking up when you are in your first college class and continue throughout your other classes. Hearing yourself speak will give you more confidence every time you do. Your ideas will become more fluid, more solidified. But please, give yourself time and practice for this to take place. 

As I was writing this post, I found myself curious about Melvin's statement:  "Please let me be President's adviser behind the screen."

I have to believe that in order to advise the President, a person would have to be pretty darned self-assured with his/her own communication. And is this person really hidden from the public eye?

So, I did a quick search: President Obama's top political adviser David Plouffe was recently quoted at a Bloomberg breakfast as saying that the unemployment rate won't hinder Obama's re-election possibilities.

Click on the link. The President's adviser is the headline. His words are the crux of the story.

As I suspected, it's a pretty transparent screen.

Dear college students, I hope yours is equally so.

For incoming freshman, do you worry about speaking out in class? For those who have been in college for a while, how long did it take before you were comfortable contributing to classroom discussion? Colleagues, what advice do you have, based on the Student Advisor piece? Please! Weigh in!


  1. Ellen this is such an awesome article. Coming from a similar culture where the teacher is viewed as a highly respected figure of authority, I can relate to Melvin. In such cultures, you rarely talk back to the teacher, you listen, take notes and maybe ask questions which may be answered or even brushed off. Engaging a teacher in a challenging discussion, somehow is viewed as disrespectful, so to ease your transition through that class/school, students just decide to go silent. Students have sort of been conditioned into a passive state. But once in the American culture and observing how students interact with professors, initially its quite surprising, then gradually sort of a wake up call. Eventually the inner voice wants to express itself and the learning environment offers an excellent forum. I would encourage students from a similar culture to speak up, no matter how trivial they feel the issue is. Make your voice heard in your classes.

  2. I really appreciated your thoughts on this, Damaris. I am so glad you validated that students should speak up and find their voice! It's so important and how we connect with each other. Thank you so, so much. Ellen

  3. I had a very hard time doing this when I started at the university level for many reasons. One, I was a more non-traditional student. Two, the majority of my classes were online where tone and intention are harder to convey so debating can come across as argumentative. Three, because of reason number one, I lacked the confidence that I would be regarded as a fellow student. Luckily, I had amazing instructors at CWU-Des Moines that challenged, encouraged and inspired me to reach out of my comfort zone.

  4. Thank you so much for writing, Mandy. You are not alone in being a non-traditional student and feeling apprehensive about speaking out. Many people would think that non-traditional students feel very comfortable, based on life experience, but we both know that's not often the case. I am so glad that you had instructors that encouraged you to share your views and ideas. I'm glad you shared this...and bravo! Ellen

  5. I have always had an easy time speaking out in class, but I know that I am outside the norm. I love to speak in public which is sometimes people's top fear. But I don't always speak with as much confidence as I can. Sometimes, when I am unsure and I'm testing the waters of the class with a controversial opinion, I'll head it up with I feel or This is my opinion and it's less about confidence and more about testing the waters, to see if people agree or disagree with me.
    Miss Lissy

  6. Thank you so much for writing, Miss Lissy! I agree with you about testing the waters and I do the same thing. I don't see it as a sign of weakness, but really, now that I think about it more, a sign of respect of others' reactions. It doesn't mean I will change my position (and I bet you feel the same way), but I will gauge how to continue the conversation. I appreciated your words! Ellen