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As alluded to in the first chapter, classroom communication could be very different from what you were accustomed to in your home educational systems. In many countries in the world, students are expected to be obedient and listen to teachers’ lectures quietly during class time. Knowledge in this case is transmitted through teacher-centered modes of delivery. Student-student interactions and student-teacher communications are constrained, a constraint reflected in the narrow rows and columns in which chairs and desks are arranged, all facing the front of the classroom as if the podium was a font of supreme knowledge. However, in many other countries, such as the U.S., classrooms are often full of chairs and desks that can move around easily. Sometimes teachers would ask you to arrange your chairs in a large circle or several circles with your group members. Whole-class discussions and small-group discussions are common in participative learning (Rubin, 1993). Participative learning may feel foreign, but it has some common features (Rubin, 1993, p. 189):

  • answering instructors’ questions with elaboration
  • asking questions during class
  • responding directly to what other students say in class
  • expressing a point of view by offering pertinent and original illustrations, challenges, and extensions
  • contributing to small-group problem-solving exercises
  • engaging in role-playing and simulation exercises
  • choosing one’s own topics for projects and papers

In this classroom model, students are required to contribute to the discussions by listening to their peers’ ideas, sharing their thoughts, and being agentic learners. Teachers are most of the time the facilitators in classroom discussions and other activities. Knowledge in this case is therefore acquired through free and open exchange of ideas. If you are not from the educational system, you may feel a sense of inadequacy and frustration while participating in oral classroom activities (Kim, 2006), especially if it feels as though speaking in the classroom feels like some kind of high-stakes assessment one was not able to somehow practice for.

But indeed, how would one “practice” for a class discussion anyway? Each teacher might have different requirements for classroom discussions leading to slightly different classroom norms, even comparing classrooms within the same larger culture. Make sure you communicate with your instructors and check the course syllabus carefully to be aware of the course requirements relating to working with your classmates, as sometimes classroom discussions are graded. This means your instructors will keep track of your classroom participation and assign scores at the end of each class or by the end of the semester. That said, do not panic: experienced teachers know that conversations in class are organic events, and it should not become some kind of contest to say the most words. Teachers are more likely to notice that a particular student never participates in class discussions or activities rather than trying to rank who participates the most.

Some of you might wonder why it is important to engage in classroom discussions. One basic fact is that classroom teaching and learning rely on interactions between students and teachers as well as between students and students. Through interactions, ideas are exchanged and could be expanded. More questions could be raised and lead to major discoveries. More importantly, participating in those discussions is preparing you to become a scholar in the field. Professional communication skills need to be learnt through practice. Only through your active participation, you learn ways in terms of how to ask questions and how to comment on answers in a professional and respectful manner.


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