It is challenging to live in a new country, where people speak a different language and have different cultural values. Most people would try to stick to the rule, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." But for many international students, following that rule may not be easy when it comes to getting involved in classroom discussions.
Even though most international students have passed the TOEFL English proficiency test before being accepted to a U.S. university, many still find it difficult to speak up in class. This is not because their language skills aren't up to par or because they are not interested in the subject. Rather, it's because many are used to lectures in which they behave more like passive receivers of new knowledge rather than active participants.
In the U.S., however, a student's grade is often determined in part by class participation, which by definition requires the student to contribute to classroom discussions. For many quiet international students, the "silence is golden" cultural attitudes they're used to simply don't translate to a U.S. classroom.
So how can you get involved in classroom discussions?
First, learn some basic ways to open a conversation. Picking up these specific conversation starters will help you get involved in a discussion naturally.
For example, if you want to express your own thoughts, you can begin your statement with phrases like "I think that," or "It seems to me that."
To follow up on an earlier point in the discussion, you could use "I would argue that," or "Just to go along with what you said." If you want to express your disagreement, you can start your phrases with "Correct me if I'm wrong, but," or "That is one way to look at it. Another way to look at it might be."
The best way to learn English expressions is to listen to what your American classmates say and then write it down. Next time, you can use what you have learned to express your thoughts in an American way.
Second, be bold. If you have different ideas or suggestions pertaining to the subject, say them out loud in class. Don't be shy about speaking up. It's OK to hear a different voice in a classroom environment.
Even if you say something incorrect, as long as the answer is thoughtful and shows effort, it's unlikely your classmates or teacher will laugh at or criticize you.
When I first came to the U.S., I was a little bit nervous about speaking up in a big class. I worried both that my English might be misunderstood, and I wasn’t confident about my answers.
I spoke with my instructor after class about my concerns, and she encouraged me to express myself freely. I challenged myself to speak at least once in class.
Try listing your talking points in your head before you raise your hand to speak, as this will help you organize your thoughts. Third, understand what others have said before you offer your opinion. Speaking out is important, but so is listening. It isn't polite to interrupt when other people are talking, and, understanding what others have said will help develop your own thoughts.
What if you speak up, only to say same thing your classmate just did? Learn to be a good listener.
[Explore the common challenges new international students face.]
Fourth, form your own points. Critical thinking is an important component of an American education, where students are taught to question the validity of certain claims on the basis of their knowledge and life experience.
As international students, we have different life and cultural experiences than our American peers. Don't hesitate to offer your unique perspective.
You never know how others will react to your viewpoint. Mine was always appreciated by my classmates during discussions about China. Whenever I contributed to those discussions, my American classmates were interested to hear about China from a Chinese perspective.
It might take international students a semester or two to feel comfortable getting involved in the heated debates or discussions in U.S. classrooms. Often, what international students really lack is a little courage to take the first step.
Jia Guo, from China, graduated from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism after transferring from Shandong University of Political Science and Law in Jinan, China, where she studied law. Guo is currently a graduate journalism student at New York University.