One day, my professor brought his 8-year-old son to class. When the period ended and students filed out of the room, the boy asked his dad, “Why don’t college kids like to talk?”
My professor laughed, but his curious son wanted an answer — and for a good reason. After all, children are notorious for participating and questioning without inhibition, so to this elementary school student, being in a classroom where the same three people answered every question was likely a form of culture shock.
Why do so many of us really shy away from speaking up in class, even if it’s answering an opinion-based question or sharing reactions to a reading or film? Do we actually lose sleep about what the person next to us will think about our answer?
Losing sleep might be an exaggeration, but reflected appraisals — our perceptions of how other people see and evaluate us — do impact our behaviors and cause us to either speak up or stay silent.
Sociologists explain this in a concept known as the “looking glass self,” which states when we imagine how we’re perceived by others, we start to believe those judgements even if they’re false.
This causes us to change how we act based on how we think other people see us — so if we get the sense our classmates are annoyed by our frequent hand-raising efforts, we feel negatively reinforced, which makes us less encouraged to participate.
Psychologists also cite fear of failure and judgement as having negative mental, emotional and physical effects on college-aged individuals, especially in academic settings.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Student Leadership, researcher Jacob Christian of the Utah Valley University analyzed how today’s college students have developed cognitive coping mechanisms to help them deal with fear of failure.
According to the article, most college students use a method called self-handicapping, which involves creating a mental barrier that essentially protects against the negative emotional impacts of making a mistake.
Self-handicapping cushions an individual’s self-esteem in anticipation of messing up or doing something he or she considers embarrassing, like answering a question incorrectly or not performing as strongly as he or she originally hoped.
Even though fears of failure and judgement certainly pave the path for self-doubt, in an era marked by phrases like YOLO and the sentiment we should be present and embrace the moment, I find it contradicting and frustrating there is still a sense of complacency when it comes to speaking up in the classroom.
It’s especially telling when an 8-year-old makes an observation that rightfully suggests this generation of college students has a problem with classroom conversation.
Of course, it’s likely the fear of speaking up in class is made worse by online classes and virtual discussion boards where we can complete an entire course without any face-to-face conversations.
Even in a fast-paced, digital world, we can’t hide behind the screen forever.
Instead of staying silent in the name of perfectionism, I think it’s time we trade in our self-handicapping tendencies for feelings of self-acceptance. Once we embrace the fact we’re not always right nor always wrong, we’ll not only become better speakers, but also stronger and more empathetic listeners.
It’s okay to be the person who asks the question everyone else was secretly thinking or to say something that wasn’t exactly what the professor had in mind. As an avid hand-raiser myself, I can assure you class becomes more relevant, rewarding and, dare I say, fun when you share your stories and listen to those of others.
The truth is, in order to ensure the classroom is a place for all ideas and genuine conversation, we each have a responsibility to participate.
Darcy Schild is a UF journalism junior. Her column focuses on human behavior and sociology.