As a student, what’s your greatest fear? Failing exams and assessments would probably come at the top of the list for many. But what about anxieties in day to day student life? Perhaps one fear that would be quite common is speaking up in class, whether it’s answering or asking questions. This was certainly true when I studied in university, the fantastically awkward silence during question time in our chemistry lessons being a testament to this. And although I think most lectures aren’t likely to be an overly intimidating place to be, I think it is still common that many people are nervous about speaking out. This is a shame because asking and answering questions can be a useful part of a lecture. Questions give you the opportunity to clarify anything you don’t understand. Speaking up in lectures and interacting with the lecturer can also make the lecture more enjoyable and help the lecturer get the point across to the audience.
So what can you do to feel more confident about it? On the ASP presentation skills course we discuss how to gain confidence and reduce nerves when presenting. Some of the actions that can be taken to reduce nerves when presenting can also be applied to asking and answering questions in a lecture (after all, this is just another form of public speaking). One useful action is to see the question time at the end of the lecture as an opportunity and not a threat. You’ve worked hard to get to university, why not make the most of it? There may be few other times in your life when you are able to question and learn from an expert in a subject area you’re interested in. Preparing a question in advance might be a useful action to take. Also, it’s important not to worry too much about how a question will be perceived. The maxim of ‘dare to be dull’, which I’ve borrowed from Matt Abrahams talk on communication techniques, is perhaps appropriate here. Although we often feel threatened by the risk of saying something silly and being judged as foolish, it is likely to be more useful for most of us to ignore this risk and ask a question rather than to stay silent. What’s more, even if you do say something a bit off topic, don’t worry, we are all human, and everyone gets a bit lost at some point. ‘The School of Life’ video on ‘how to be confident’ talks about human error and confidence in a bit more detail.
Another thing that may help you answer questions is to have some sort of framework for structuring an answer. If the answer requires an explanation, a good way to structure your answer could be to make it like a paragraph: introduce the topic; provide an explanation and/or evidence; conclude. Following this structure should help you produce a coherent answer.
Once you start to ask and answer more questions, you’ll probably start to see more clearly the opportunity you have as a student in a lecture hall, and you’ll probably start enjoying lectures more. It is also likely that the more you speak out the more confident you will feel, a benefit not only for your studies, but for your professional life too.
That all said, one final point to mention about attending a lecture and asking questions is to listen. The best questions come from the people who are listening and have prepared for the lecture most effectively. If you’re going to make the effort to attend, you may as well make some effort to prepare and listen too.
If you want to learn more about presenting and speaking in public, or if you want to practise giving presentations in a supportive environment, then please sign-up for the ASP Presentation Skills Class.