If you’ve been in a class with me before, you probably recognize me as someone who speaks up. In classes, I sit in the front row and usually raise my hand several times to respond or ask a question. 

It hasn’t always been this way. I struggle with social anxiety, so it’s taken many years of practice to get to this point. 

The process of learning to express myself in the classroom has required lots of encouragement from my teachers and peers, but my desire to learn has been the greatest motivation. One of the biggest hurdles for me is the fear of being labeled a “teacher’s pet” or a “know-it-all.” 

I have to remind myself that I’m not answering or asking questions to impress anyone; rather, I’m genuinely interested or confused and I want to learn more.

I’m thankful that most of my courses at Goshen College have had a positive classroom environment where I feel comfortable expressing myself. Small class sizes are a big factor, because it’s less intimidating to talk in a group where I know most or all of the students. I also appreciate that small classes allow more interaction between students and professors. In my art classes, for example, my professors make time for quick one-on-one critiques on my unfinished projects, which have been valuable in pushing me as an artist. 

For me, the most hostile class environments are the ones in which there’s no room for error and disagreement. I know firsthand that there’s nothing more invalidating or frustrating as a student than to be told “you’re wrong,” without any room for discussion or explanation. This kind of response leaves students like me feeling inadequate and discourages the whole class from future dialogue. 

One of the best ways for faculty to cultivate a supportive classroom environment is to actively listen to their students when they add to the classroom discussion and encourage the rest of the class to do the same. Asking students to elaborate validates their participation in the classroom environment and gives them a chance to explain their thought process.

If you’re a person who finds it difficult to talk in class, I encourage you to challenge yourself to give it a try. We all benefit from hearing a diversity of opinions and thoughts, including yours. Yes, it’s much easier said than done, especially if you struggle with social anxiety or worry about judgment from your peers — I’ve been there too! 

Consider starting small by talking with a professor after class or saying hello to another person who sits near you. Speaking up when you’re confused can be more difficult, but if you’re confused, then somebody else probably feels the same way. 

Finally, if asking questions in class is not for you, I encourage you to visit your professor during their office hours or meet with a peer tutor. I’ve been surprised at how often a 15-minute visit can improve my understanding of class content and my relationship with the professor. I leave feeling more confident in myself, and more excited to engage with the class in the future.