Three students enthusiastically raise their hands as one of their classmates looks sad that they're not participating
Photo: Samantha Moya

How Ryerson students handle anxiety and class participation

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By Nathan Halnin

Grahi Desi, then 16, was about to start her junior year in high school. She knew where her classes were, where her locker was and most of the people in her grade. But there was one thing she was not entirely comfortable with: participating in class. Desi walked into biology feeling prepared, she made sure to get to class on time. She scanned the room and chose a desk close to the front, pulled out her binder and placed it on her desk.

Her biology teacher was going over ecosystems. Desi diligently took notes but felt confused about a detail the teacher had mentioned. Nervously, she raised her hand to ask a question. Instead of getting a sincere answer, her teacher sarcastically went over the concept and concluded by saying that “it was clearly done like this.”

She had always been hesitant about participating, especially because the idea of having other people look at her was unsettling. “I feel like people in class will judge you really quickly, and they decipher as to what type of person you are if you know something or don’t know something,” says Desi.

She sought out help from a counsellor, who told her that she likely had anxiety. She should just try and push herself to speak more to gain confidence. She didn’t resent speaking with the counsellor, but admits the advice was very generic. Desi felt like she was holding herself back, and could have done more if she wasn’t so shy.

Participation in class has always been a struggle for some students, no matter what academic level they’re at. Some students often consider themselves as shy, but some believe that it could be from anxiety. The extent to which lack of participation affects students depends on the individual. There is a disconnect with their overall engagement in class for those who have difficulty speaking. For some teachers, this means reevaluating how to get students to participate.

The American Psychological Association reports that millennials face the highest stress levels of any generation, which raises the question of why teachers put so much emphasis on participation if they see their students struggling.

In a study from Western University in 1997, two professors closely examined a psychology class and kept track of the performance of students by monitoring how often they participated and the outcome of their grades. Students who actively participated scored 10 per cent higher in multiple choice questions on the exam than those who only listened to the lectures without participating.

 
I just hated having to have people look at me. So as soon as I put up my hand, everyone turns around to look at you

 

Janice Kuo, a psychology professor at Ryerson, believes that participation is important in class in order for professors to see how well their students are absorbing the information they are teaching.

“I think it’s important to give professors feedback on how well they’re integrating and consolidating the material,” says Kuo. “I do think that even with just participating, answering questions and offering up examples does help facilitate the learning.”

Kuo says she has larger classes where she doesn’t mark participation, but for the classes where it’s mandatory to participate, she offers different options in order for students to still engage in the material, without necessarily having to speak during class. To Kuo, what matters most is that students find a method to discuss class content just to ensure that they are understanding the information.

“If they are not participating in class, I encourage them to at least participate in discussions about the course content even outside of class, whether it’s with their peers, or if they are doing study groups, or even with the professor in office hours,” says Kuo. “I just basically suggest that they figure out other ways to discuss the material even if it is outside a formal classroom setting.” Things like this can help lessen the impact of participating, offering students who have trouble a chance to make their grade.

In her high school math classes, Bryn Hall absolutely dreaded the idea of being picked by her teacher. There were times she remembered being asked a question and feeling self-conscious after giving the wrong answer. Squirming in her seat with her face flushed in embarrassment, she would feel her classmates glaring at her. 

For Hall, getting something wrong is just part of the reason she has difficulty participating. It can be more intimidating since she feels that people could remember her mistakes and hold them against her. She said that whenever she would raise her hand, everyone would instantly turn around which would trigger her fear of public speaking.

“It wasn’t just necessarily that my answer was right or wrong, it’s just that I felt like everyone was looking at me when I was answering and that was mostly where I felt shy,” she said.

It is important to note that shyness and anxiety are not the same. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, shyness is a personality trait in which people with anxiety could possess but not necessarily have. A 2009 study by Statistics Canada found that people with a current or previous social anxiety disorder were more likely to feel held back in a social setting.

Robert Muller, a psychology professor from York University says that participation is important in class. “Being able to speak in front of others is an important skill to have whether you’re in the workplace, healthcare or some sort of multidisciplinary team,” says Muller.

 

She believes that her shyness has halted her from reaching her full potential

 

He also acknowledges that some students struggle with it and believes that accommodations are important for those who have difficulty. “I do support the idea of trying to get students to engage in class, but to do it in a way that makes it possible” says Muller. “Create small group discussions or you can have people participate electronically through the classroom itself in real time.”

Hall is on her laptop in Kerr Hall, looking over her notes before class. Now in her first-year at Ryerson studying English, she says she feels more comfortable participating in class now that she’s in university. Hall credits this change in thinking to one of her old high school teachers.

“I had a really good teacher who would ask ‘Can you think of any time other students messed up and you remember?’ I was thinking no, I don’t, I don’t remember,” says Hall. “You have such a focus that you think that people remember all your mistakes and that teacher really helped me coming to university.”

While Hall faced difficulty with participating in class, she believes that participation in school is important. However, she thinks it should only count for marks if it’s in a tutorial setting where there are fewer students.

She feels less shy when participating, but is more relieved that she never has to deal with a mathematical equation ever again in her program. Because Hall engages more in class and has a better understanding of the material she is learning and is slowly taking steps to overcome her fear of public speaking.

In the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre, Desi sits cross-legged on a wooden bench on the second floor. The sunlight brightens the hallway as students go to and from class. Desi is now a first-year engineering student at Ryerson.

She sometimes contemplates about some of the choices she made in high school, but she still has vivid memories of physically dreading participating in class. It’s something Desi is grateful she is slowly getting over because she believes that her shyness has halted her from reaching her full potential.

There is no use in holding on to fears that do not exist. She used to think that people would care about what she said during class, but she reminds herself that there are bigger obstacles to face. Regardless of what people will think, she pushes forward.

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