How To Participate in a Classroom Discussion

By Titus Levy

Let’s face it. We’re all intelligent, sensible young go-getters with an eye for knowledge and an ear for truth, but despite a gross number of academic assets, even the most stalwart scholar can stumble or slumber through daily classroom discussion. Now your average classroom contributor comes in all shapes and sizes. The most conspicuous of the bunch is pretty obvious-that well-intentioned, inquisitive young mind that just won’t shut up no matter how many deep sighs or cutthroat gestures they encounter over the course of a lengthy soliloquy. At the other end of the spectrum are those ghostly presences that haunt classroom discussions, listening to their peers ramble on while looking some combination of detached, attentive and catatonic. In the middle of the food chain there are a number of different species that keep conversation afloat with a mix of comments that range from thoughtful observation to unintelligible gibberish.

After years of listening to frustrated fellow students complain of discussions either stagnated by the many or hijacked by a few, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on proper classroom etiquette, and offer some humble tidbits on how to become a better participant in one of our most crucial educational instruments.

Keep it Short and Sweet. The intelligence of a comment is not measured by how many sentences you can string together. Bloated remarks tend to alienate fellow classmates, forcing them to contemplate Café Mac dinner possibilities as opposed to the subject at hand. Classroom discussions are not opportunities for you to intimidate classmates with a dazzling intellectual display. Ideally, each comment should build off its predecessors, opening up new paths for ideas and discussion. Stand-alone comments rarely serve a purpose. They are unnatural disasters, mushroom clouds that we stare at but cannot respond to. The conversation loses its rhythm and we’re back to square one.

Think Before You Speak. You want to jump into a spirited discussion, but keep your cool. Once you’ve got the floor you should already know more or less what you want to say. Nobody wants to hear their classmate sputter along trying to verbalize their tangled web of complex thought on the spot. This doesn’t mean that you need a carefully rehearsed contribution; just get down the jist of what you want to communicate. Your classmates and your professor will appreciate the forethought.

Engage Your Classmates. It’s easy to get lost in a professor’s eyes. Speaking directly to the classroom authority is a hard habit to break, especially when that person has a hand in determining your GPA. But the most effective discussions are those that take place between students. Avoid abrupt non-sequiturs and try to respond directly to your fellow classmates whenever possible.

Keep Personal Anecdotes to a Minimum. Hmmm.this discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reminds me my family struggles to keep the dog and cat from fighting each other. Amusing? Maybe in your own mind. Relevant? Hardly. A sure-fire way to upend intelligent conversation? Bingo. Of course your comments can be personal. After all, personal opinions and heartfelt convictions are an important staple of classroom discussions, a welcome change from an hour spent regurgitating last night’s readings. Just make sure that the narrative serves to illuminate your point, instead of obscuring it over the course of some pointless potboiler.

Abandon the Disclaimer. I know this may be a stupid suggestion, and I guess most of you already know this, and I’m not sure if it’s even worth mentioning, but be confident in your assertions! Prefacing a comment with a vote of no confidence immediately damages the credibility of whatever you are trying to communicate. It’s ok to ask broad or simple questions if you don’t know something that seems obvious. At least one or two of your fellow classmates will welcome the refresher. You won’t score any points with your professors or classmates by demeaning whatever you are about to say before you say it. There are no stupid questions-only people stupid enough not to ask them.