Participation Causes Perspiration: The Stress of Speaking Up

Requiring students to vocally engage in class can be nerve-wracking

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

My face is bright red, my hands are sweaty, and as I’m talking, my tongue trips over itself, cutting my sentence short. I’m not giving a speech in front of hundreds of people; I just tried to contribute to a class discussion.

Professors have different ways of defining “participation” in class. Some might take attendance and call it good, others require you to be there and speak up consistently. I spoke with Spanish professor Thomas McCallum about his opinion on class participation: “It allows students to bounce ideas off of others, and helps you learn to think on your feet.” Participation is especially crucial for language classes because speaking is necessary for proficiency.

Though engaging in class discussion is important, it can cause undue stress. According to Boynton Health, a third or more of all University of Minnesota students have a diagnosed mental illness, anxiety being among them.

Sowmya Narayan, a sophomore, said that expected participation makes her feel “a little anxious, like a competition to say something relevant before anyone else does.”

Farrah Mina, a freshman, also feels this pressure to participate: “It makes me feel like I have to say something, even though it might not be useful.”

For someone who is an introvert and has anxiety, what might seem like a simple assignment is a tall order. I understand that class discussion is a valid life skill, but there are better ways to go about it. Moodle posts are one way to hold discussions. For those who are more comfortable writing than speaking, an online forum gives them the chance to share their opinions more comfortably. Talking in small groups in class is another solution. This allows students to communicate and contribute without the larger pressure of the entire room’s attention.

Reducing participation stress could help students engage more, and benefit the classroom experience as a whole.