Halloran: Discussion sections can better accommodate quiet students


Sara Halloran, Columnist

It’s an issue introverts are all too familiar with: You find a class led by a professor with positive CTECs, with subject matter that sounds intriguing, only to read over the class description and see participation is a huge chunk of your grade. From that moment on, you’re counting the participation part of your grade as a liability, calculating how well you must do in the rest of the class to make up for that dead weight. Your attitude is practical rather than defeatist, as you know your written work will surely impress more than your few oral contributions.

I fully understand that participation grades are designed to discourage students from being disengaged and inattentive, but quieter students often find themselves becoming collateral damage in this fight. They must contend with not only their own anxieties and nervousness about speaking in public, but also the louder voices that inevitably come to dominate every class discussion. We’ve all been in a discussion section where that one person, or those few people, never stops talking, making everyone else look negligent in comparison. Even worse are the professors and teaching assistants who try to catch students off guard by calling on them when they are clearly unprepared to answer the instructor’s question, leaving the students to stumble over their words in front of the whole class. This is a particularly ineffective tactic for sparking conversation because once a student has been publicly embarrassed, his or her level of comfort speaking in front of his or her peers decreases, regardless of the student’s personality type. Through a variety of tactics, TAs moderating discussion sections can better accommodate quieter students.

To their credit, almost all of my instructors have in some way attempted to adapt their courses to make more reserved students feel welcome. At one extreme, some of my professors and TAs informed their students in the beginning of the course that discussion was encouraged, but “engaged listening” would suffice for quieter students. I have tended to do better in these classes, where I can sit back and absorb rather than nervously listen solely to find somewhere to sneak into the conversation. However, classes and discussion sections that adopted this policy were usually on the larger side, meaning there were enough talkative students to keep the conversation going.

My smaller sections and classes have normally required everyone to speak at least once. However, some of my instructors have made this task easier to accomplish by splitting the class into even smaller groups and monitoring discussion within those clusters. Without the pressure of the entire class listening, I’ve found that I can think through my answers more and in turn, make more worthwhile and complex contributions to my small group’s discussion. One of my professors in a required discussion-driven class, on top of utilizing the small-group tactic, also let her students write down and submit their thoughts from discussion at the end of class for their discussion grade. This strategy has flaws, such as how hard it is to pay attention while writing, but it allows students to think through their answers and display their strengths.

To some extent, I’m grateful for discussion components of classes which have helped me overcome some of my anxieties about speaking in class. However, I know that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to contribute continuously. I’m sure many other students are in the same position, eager to take courses in the humanities but know their shyness will be misinterpreted as apathy. No student should have to feel they are mortgaging their passion in history or sociology or English — or even their desire to take a distribution requirement in one of these areas — with their social anxieties. Students with a lot to say should certainly be recognized for their exemplary participation, but instructors can and in many cases, have done more to understand that quiet does not necessarily mean disengaged.

Sara Halloran is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.