“Raising my hand in a Harvard classroom discussion has been an ongoing challenge for me. Last year, as an incoming doctoral student in Education Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I spent much of my time in quiet frustration,” said Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral student Susan Cheng.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

‘It’s time to raise my hand’

6 min read

A student teaches herself to participate in classroom discussions

Today I think I’m ready. I take my seat and bring out my laminated name card. Suddenly, I feel queasy and make a panicked wish that someone could speak up for me in class. But nope, it’s just me here with 95 other students.  Class discussion begins — and I’m not part of it.

Raising my hand in a Harvard classroom discussion has been an ongoing challenge for me. Last year, as an incoming doctoral student in Education Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I spent much of my time in quiet frustration. I had carefully read the class materials, prepared the case, highlighted, outlined, and re-outlined the material the night before, only to sit silently listening as the classroom discussion unfolded. Sometimes, even when I knew I had something great to say, I left class disappointed, having remained mute for two hours.

Afterward, my supportive classmates would approach me and encourage me to contribute, wondering if I was just shy and having a hard time. I didn’t know how to explain it. I knew I wasn’t normally shy, but I also couldn’t explain why I wasn’t speaking up.

My struggle to get into the discussion goes something like this: There’s a fake-out in the beginning where my trigger hand jumps up to answer a question from the professor, only to pretend to caress a stray hair and tuck it securely behind my ear. Then there’s the psych-out move. Ideas flow, but they’re not perfect yet, nor do I have quite the right formulation of words. I don’t want to make a fool of myself. Time passes and I know I need to get into the discussion but can’t manage to raise my hand. Finally, there’s the strikeout, where just as my hand is about to spring up, someone else makes my point, and the discussion careens forward in a different way. Class ends. Another missed opportunity.

Commenting in class and getting into the discussion take courage. It takes guts to put yourself out there and your ideas in front of your academic community for debate. It even counts for half of your grade in some classes. Even after I’ve finally mustered the courage to raise my hand and get called on, I’ve stuttered at times, stumbling over my words in nervousness, or have rambled on and on. Then I wish I could climb under my desk and hide after blundering my point. I’ve thought: What’s my problem? It wasn’t hard to speak up before I got to Harvard. How can I feel so painfully awkward in the classroom?

Classmates, friends, and other colleagues have admitted that getting into classroom discussions is difficult and that they, too, stay silent in class, even though they have much to contribute. Their biggest reason for feeling tongue-tied involves waiting for just the right moment to make the most insightful and perfect comment that wins their professor’s attention and captures their classmate’s admiration.  Some of this perfectionism stems from an irrational fear that if they say something less than completely articulate, they will come across as naïve or unworthy of belonging at Harvard. It is ironic that the pressure created from focusing on participation can take away from active listening and detract from genuine learning. Some days I’m more focused on the need to perform in front of my classmates than on learning with them. By focusing on what I’m going to say next, I am not plugged into the learning in the moment — and that’s really the point.

So what’s a learner like me to do with classroom discussion time? For one thing, I’ve become more observant of the folks who participate effectively. What sets them apart is that they are great listeners. They easily enter and exit into the flow of discussion. Conversation is natural and seamless. Their comments deepen the conversation, and build on the momentum of the discussion or channel the energy of the conversation in a related direction. I’ve also asked around for advice on how to effectively participate and wanted to share the top five approaches I’ve learned:

  • Risk game-changing moves: A student friend recommends risking not being right in order to learn and add value to the conversation. Sometimes the most leftfield, far-fetched comments produce the “game-changing moves” that open up the discussion and fuel the most learning in the classroom.
  • Embrace your lack of expertise: Another friend encourages me to own my experience from wherever I’m at in my career and claim the space I deserve to share my unique perspective.
  • Tag-team: I’ve experimented with asking a few friends in class to support what I say during discussion or to nudge me to speak during class when I start retreating, which is super-motivating.
  • Partner with professors: Other friends have made efforts to visit their professors and talk about ways to improve their classroom engagement. One classmate described a perspective of learning from recovery that his professor shared. Even if I do mess up a comment in class, how can I recover, reframe, and improve upon my point and get back into the discussion? Messing up doesn’t sound as intimidating when it’s framed as an opportunity for learning.
  • Practice power posing: I’m in a class at the Harvard Business School where I’m learning about power and influence. My professor, Amy Cuddy, who studies classroom participation, recently lectured about confidence boosting through power posing. We talk about striking expansive stances that make you feel more confident, strong, and powerful just by doing them. Practicing my way into feeling more powerful in preparation for class has motivated me to jump into the discussion more.

Even with all these strategies, I still struggle to get into the conversation, but with practice I am getting better each time. I am more comfortable owning my experiences, offering my perspectives, and being OK with making comments that might not be the most insightful or perfectly voiced, but were submitted in the spirit of advancing that day’s learning. That’s fine by me. There is more classroom discussion to go this semester and more practice ahead of me. It’s time to raise my hand.

If you’re an undergraduate or graduate student and have an essay to share about life at Harvard, please e-mail your ideas to Jim Concannon, the Gazette’s news editor, at Jim_Concannon@harvard.edu.