Participating in classroom discussions is not always easy if you are not used to this kind of classroom participation. Also, discussions depend on your understanding of the content in question, your listening skills, and your speaking skills. Below are some strategies that are perceived useful for novice graduate students.
Strategy 1: Always prepare well before the class. This means read materials assigned by your professors and always write down notes you have. These notes could be questions you have about the materials, questions about how the materials apply to the larger subject of the course, or any valuable observations you may have about the material or subject that occurred to you in reading it. Do not assume that your ideas are not worth sharing: your perspective is likely unique, and all research depends on people looking at human knowledge from different angles until they realize how they might learn something new. When people stop asking questions or rethinking the way those questions are answered, all science will die.
Strategy 2: Ask questions if you are not ready to make comments on your peers’ responses or do not feel confident in answering questions. Your instructor may appreciate a thoughtful question just as much or more as an insightful observation, and there is a strong chance other people in the class have similar questions.
Strategy 3: Increase and diversify the types of oral participation in class. After you learn how to ask questions in class, you should start to comment on your peers’ responses or answers. There are three ways: (1) You can add to your peers’ responses by saying “I want to add to X’s answer that…” or “I agree with what X just said, and I want to add to their point that…”; (2) You can disagree with your peers’ point of view by saying “Thank you for sharing your ideas. I have a slightly different understanding that… ” or “My understanding is very different. I think…”; and (3) You can ask for clarifications from your peers by saying “Your point is very interesting, but I do not think I understand it well. Do you mind giving us some examples?” or “If I understand correctly, you mean that…”
Tip: At the beginning of the semester, if you are not sure how to participate in class, you can observe how your peers engage themselves in classroom discussions. Learning from those more experienced graduate students will be very helpful. Talking to them directly when possible can help you be more integrated into the department community, and help lead to productive academic collaborations in the future.