Universities in the United States tend to use a learner-centered approach in the classroom. This means your instructors will expect you to actively participate in class by asking questions, volunteering answers, and working in groups or with a partner. If you sit quietly in class but never participate, your instructor might think you are confused, bored, uninterested, or unmotivated.
Participating in US classes is important because:
- it shows the instructor you are prepared for class.
- it shows the instructor you are interested in class and paying attention.
- it shows the instructor you understand the class.
- it helps you learn more.
- instructors want to know about your opinions and experiences.
Preparing to Participate
This video on "Making the Most of Participation in University Contexts" gives useful tips, like sitting in the front of a class, asking questions, reviewing study notes, going to professor's office hours, trying to explain course topics to your friends, and finding your role to contribute to group work. Note: The video mentions tutors, which means instructors.
Asking Questions in Class
3 Useful Questions:
- Could you explain that more?
- What do you mean by ___?
- Could you give an example of that?
This Asking Great Questions video explains four types of questions you can ask in class:
- questions about research
- questions about experiences
- questions about hypothetical situations
- questions about decisions.
[University of Minnesota students: to access the video click "Sign in" > click "Sign in with your organization portal" > type "umn.edu" > enter your internet ID and password.]
Making Comments in Class
- Make a connection to a concept or reading from another class.
- Clearly relate your observations and comments to the course objectives, central themes, or main topics.
- Explain why you found another person's idea interesting or useful.
- Build on what someone else said (be explicit about the way you are expanding on the other person's idea).
- Summarize several people's contributions, taking into account a recurring theme in the discussion ("It seems we've heard variations on two main ideas here…").
What? Office hours are an opportunity for you to talk to your instructor individually (or with a small group of other students) outside of class.
Where? In the instructor's office. The location should be listed on your syllabus or course website.
When? Check the syllabus for when and how your instructor schedules office hours. Some instructors want students to schedule appointments by emailing them or using a calendar or scheduling app. Other instructors hold regular office hours every week (for example, every Wednesday from 1-3 pm) and students can show up any time during the regular office hours without an appointment. Some instructors have regular office hours every week, but you need to schedule a time slot (maybe 20 or 30 minutes) within those hours. If you schedule an appointment or time slot to see your instructor, make sure you arrive on time, or even a few minutes early.
Why? You can use office hours to
- ask questions about lectures, homework, readings, your grade, or other aspects of the class.
- brainstorm topic ideas for an upcoming project or paper.
- discuss broader academic issues like the next class you should register for, managing your workload in the class, or career goals and preparation.
- discuss personal issues that are affecting your performance in class and make a plan for modifying due dates or completing your work.
- discuss missing class or assignments.
- request something (an extension to complete an assignment, a letter of recommendation, etc.).
- get to know your instructor better (he/she will see that you are motivated and serious about your studies, and may be able to write a recommendation letter for you in the future if he/she knows you better).
How? When you arrive, knock on the door or peek your head in the doorway. Say hello to the instructor and explain why you are visiting. Come prepared with a topic you want to talk about or questions you want to ask some professors encourage students just to say hello and chat). Use active listening to keep the conversation going and remember it will probably be your job to end the conversation.
Watch this video for advice from students about using office hours and to see an example of a student going to office hours:
How to Talk to Professors
Many students are intimidated by their professors. This is especially true when students need something—a favor, special help with an assignment, a second chance on a test. You don't need to feel that way. Professors are people, just like you, and if you approach your professors with the same basic respect and decency you offer everyone else, you’ll probably find that they react with the same.
There are a few things you should keep in mind, however, when you talk to your professors, especially if you’re going to ask for a favor:
Call them by the right title. A “doctor” is someone with a PhD; not all professors have a PhD. “Professor” is usually appropriate, unless you’ve been told otherwise. If your professor hasn’t said anything about this, don't use their first name. If you’re unsure, “Mr.” or “Ms.” is usually fine.
Your professor has probably heard a lot of different stories from students. If they think they are being deceived, they’re not going to respond very well to your request, so you should always strive to be honest.
Be prepared to do the work.
If you are seeking help to get caught up or looking for a special exception to make up an assignment or test, you should be prepared to do the work—and generally under more difficult circumstances.
Be clear and concise.
Tell your professor what you are requesting and that's it. Don’t waste their time with information they don't need. Simply say, “Professor, I missed an assignment, can I make it up? Can I do something else?”
Most professors like talking to students—it’s part of the reason they took the job. Chances are, though, that students almost never stop by unexpected. Visit your professor once or twice, just to talk. Tell him or her about the work you’re interested in or about problems you’re having (but remember, a professor is not a therapist and is not able to offer professional advice). Build relationships with your professors—at the very least, they’ll remember you when you ask for a reference letter later.
Content used with permission from Lifehack.org.
Assume people are supportive
Before speaking in class, imagine that everyone in the room is supporting you. Focus on the people who seem friendly. If there are students who are not very supportive of your efforts, ignore them.
People are okay after giving wrong answers
You are surrounded by people who have probably made mistakes and have been just fine. If you make a mistake, think of it as a learning opportunity.
Separate yourself from your answer
If you give a wrong answer to a question in class, try not to blame yourself. Just because your answer was incorrect does not mean you are stupid or bad. It just means you didn't get the right answer. It may also help your instructor to understand where you're having problems so that they can help you.
Move on from negative experiences
If you've had difficulty participating in classes in the past because of bad experiences, think about the differences between your past experience and your current situation. You may realize that your classmates are more supportive now, or that your situation is different in other ways. Focus on the positive differences when you participate in class.
Remember that disagreement is okay
If others disagree with you in class, this doesn't necessarily mean that you're wrong. It doesn't necessarily mean that they're wrong either. Quite often multiple points of view are discussed in class and each point of view has merit. Even when people express themselves strongly, they don't mean to intimidate you—they simply want to present their own ideas. Although it may be difficult, think of disagreements as a healthy part of discussion. This exchange of ideas and opinions encourages critical thinking and learning.
*Content adapted with permission from Red Deer College
Practice & Confidence
To practice participating in classes, you can attend Group Conversation practice meetings with Student English Language Support.
You can also take ESL courses to improve your participation and discussion skills. Some good options are:
- ESL 3006 English for Business Interactions
- ESL 3502 Academic Listening and Speaking
- ESL 3602 Speaking for Academic Purposes
Go to our Confidence page for advice on building confidence.