by Andrew Purvis
-- I heard a Latin teacher say "Writing is half the learning." If that's true, then speaking accounts for at least a quarter. --
Higher education in the U.S. is different from higher education in almost every other country. Professors expect student involvement and participation in class discussions. Students have to make presentations in front of the entire class. It can be a bit scary, if you aren't prepared.
Most international students prefer to sit quietly in class and take notes, and note-taking is a valuable skill that many Americans could stand to improve. However, the U.S. higher education system demands student participation; just taking notes usually isn't enough. Let's look at the two main types of courses you will take while studying in the U.S.: lecture and seminar.
Lecture courses are what Hollywood tends to portray in films. There are rows of seats filled by many dozens or even hundreds of students, and they are all listening to what the professor is saying. Everyone is taking notes, and rarely, if ever, do students ask questions or make presentations to the rest of the class.
Lecture courses are fairly common at the freshman and sophomore levels, and they are similar to what students experience in much of the rest of the world. If you are concerned about your ability to use English, you will probably find lecture courses comfortable, but you won't be able to take lecture classes throughout your degree.
If you use your time in lecture courses to work on your English, both by listening and taking notes in English, you'll be better prepared for seminar courses later on.
Seminar courses are more common in the U.S. than other countries. Students in seminar courses are expected to be prepared to answer questions posed by the professor and to ask questions when they don't understand something or when they have an idea that could contribute to the discussion. Seminar courses generally have between ten and thirty students, so they provide an intimate setting that allows each student to speak up and make certain they understand the material.
Professors teaching seminar courses often calculate each student's participation in the final grade (this information is available in the course syllabus), so if you want to do well in that style of course, you have to ask some questions and answer others.
Perhaps you're nervous about speaking up in class, but your professors will usually understand that. Nonetheless, you have to get past your fear and learn to participate. You will get better grades and learn more if you do.
"But my English isn't good enough!"
Whether or not you are comfortable with your skills in English, the school is. You will have either taken the TOEFL or at least one class in America to ensure that your language skills are good enough to participate. It's OK to be nervous-even some American students are nervous about speaking up in class-but keep in mind that your professors' job is to educate you. By involving you in the discussion, your professors will help you learn more. And by asking and answering questions, you will have an easier time remembering what you learned.
"OK, I guess I can talk in class, but how do I start?"
I'm glad you asked that. The most common method of getting your professor's attention is by raising your hand above your head. This signals that you have something to say, and your professors will call on you when there is a break in the discussion (usually very quickly). If you are nervous, try writing your questions down so you don't forget then (I can think of one graduate student, a native English speaker, who sometimes forgets his questions, but enough about me).
You may take some classes in which students don't even bother to raise their hands before they start talking. This may be OK too, and you can join in discussions this way if you feel comfortable enough to do so. However, raising your hand is always acceptable, and in many cases professors who allow people just to start talking whenever they have something to say will let people with their hands raised speak before other students.
Think of it this way: attending school in the U.S. is only half of the experience; the rest of it is learning how to become involved in your education like an American.
Andrew Purvis is an M.A. student in literature at Claremont Graduate University. He has spent a
total of five years tutoring English and teaching public speaking. In 1994 he started teaching
himself web design. Now he brings this all together as the editor for iStudentCity.