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  • Writer's pictureStudent Wellbeing Service

Managing classroom participation difficulties


Lots of students find it difficult to contribute and participate in a teaching environment. People may say things that you don’t understand or talk about concepts that you’ve never encountered before. You might worry that you’ll get things wrong. All of this can prompt thoughts such as:

“What am I doing here?”

“I don’t belong here”

“I don’t understand anything

“I don’t think I can do this”

All of these are indicators of imposter syndrome. Put very simply, this is where we doubt ourselves and our ability, despite evidence to the contrary.

Not knowing or understanding something can often make us feel vulnerable, particularly if we’re in a situation where we might be exposed - by being ‘put on the spot’ in a seminar, perhaps having to participate in a group discussion or entering an unknown test or exam. It's common to worry about being judged or humiliated, but it can lead to us becoming anxious (and therefore less likely to acquire the knowledge we don’t have in that moment).

When we feel anxious because we’ve anticipated some form of threat or danger (for example, getting something wrong in a class), we activate the body’s fight-flight-freeze response. It doesn’t matter whether the evidence for the risk is in the real world or just in our thoughts, the same mechanism kicks in. We experience physical sensations such as a change in our breathing, sweatiness or shakiness. This is our body preparing us to respond to the danger. At the same time, we’re not able to think clearly and rationally because of activity in the brain, so we tend to overestimate the danger and underestimate our ability to cope.

Helpful ways to manage:

Recognise & accept that what you’re experiencing is anxiety - Labelling it for what it is can help create some distance. It’s worth keeping in mind that negative emotions are trying to help us and keep us safe so try to avoid arguing with the anxiety or telling yourself that you shouldn’t feel this way or should be able to cope. Instead, just recognise that you’re feeling anxious and gently remind yourself that you’re safe.

Breathe - This can be helpful in slowing down the body and mind and getting a sense of calm. You could use a 7/11 technique - breathing in for 7 seconds and out for 11 seconds. Don’t get caught up in the seconds though, as long as the out breath is much longer than the in-breath, this is still helpful. You can do this for a couple of minutes or until you feel calmer.

Change your environment - If you’re in a position to, take a brief break. If you’re inside, go outside and vice versa.

Notice your surroundings - You can use your senses to connect to things that are external to you, i.e. your surroundings, rather than focusing on what you’re experiencing internally. Working backwards from 5, use your senses to list things you notice around you. For example, you might start by listing 5 things you hear, 4 things you see, 3 things you can touch from where you’re sitting, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. Make an effort to notice the little things you might not always pay attention to.

To learn more about managing anxiety, you can watch our ‘Understanding Anxiety’ recording here.

Other important things to consider:

  • Firstly, if you knew everything and understood everything, you wouldn’t need to be here!

  • Making mistakes, not knowing something or not being able to understand is a crucial part of the process of learning. If we can identify that we don’t know something or there is a gap in our understanding, we can take action to change that (if we are willing to tolerate and embrace doubt as part of the process).

  • Research shows that students who actively participate in classroom discussions or activities learn more and perform better so taking an active role allows you to learn more deeply and improve your understanding. It also enables you to cement your learning and correct any potential errors in your understanding.

  • It’s normal to find it hard to speak as part of a bigger group. Remember, what you contribute doesn’t have to be perfect. When we’re learning new ideas and concepts, we often don’t articulate ourselves as we might at a later stage or in writing.

  • Engaging in group discussion is an opportunity to engage with your peers socially in a way that is structured. This allows you to strengthen your relationships and build a sense of connection. You can continue to do this by having discussions outside the classroom too.

  • Participating helps you and your coursemates to learn. It’s also highly likely that there will be others who feel unsure or don’t understand so don’t be afraid to ask.

  • Staff would very much prefer you to participate and potentially make mistakes than to sit through a session struggling, or not attend at all.

  • Prepare ahead - if you’re feeling anxious but you know the nature of the topics you’ll be discussing, you can prepare some contributions.

  • Remember, people aren’t scrutinising you in the way that you might think! Just like you’re not scrutinising them. Ask yourself, what evidence have you got that they are?

If any of this content resonates with you, and you would like to discuss how you’re managing, as always, you’re welcome to book an appointment with a Student Wellbeing Adviser.

Written by Cat Atkinson

Wellbeing Adviser Faculty of Arts & Humanities & ScHARR

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