You might think that perfect scores on tests, homework and projects might be all you need to do well in a university class in the USA, but you’d be wrong and the reason will probably surprise you: you have to participate in class. Class participation is something that always surprises new international students when they come to the USA.
“The biggest surprise is U.S. education. It’s very strict and you have to ask instructors questions if you don’t understand. You have to participate in class,” said Pirakorn Iamcharernying, from Thailand, who studied in the Intensive English Program at the University of San Francisco in California.
Your first day of class, you will be give a syllabus. Reading through the pages that outline the grading criteria and student expectations the professor has of you, you will see a word that will become very familiar to you while studying in the U.S.: participation.
What exactly is “class participation?” Each professor will have their own definition of student participation and they may even describe it in great detail in the syllabus for their class. Professors will grade on the frequency and quality of your participation in class. Generally, class participation is contributing to class lectures, either with comment or questions, volunteering answers to questions directed at the class and being attentive.
Why is class participation important? The first, most obvious answer is to make sure you’re actually there! You can’t participate in class if you’re not present. Another reason is to make sure you’re listening and absorbing the material discussed in the lecture. Having to answer questions about what is being discussed keeps you attentive. And finally, participation challenges you to understand the concepts and think through them critically.
This is a foundational concept in the U.S. classroom and it is part of the style of teaching here in the states. In the United States, the education system is designed to go beyond memorization. Obviously, you must know the material, but the application of concepts is much more important. There is a reason individuality is an integral part of American culture: it encourages ingenuity. Professors want you to not only hear what they’re saying, but they want you to understand what they’re teaching. You may even be asked to debate with your professor! The idea of arguing with your professor can be very uncomfortable and your first instinct may be that it’s disrespectful. After all, it may be extremely disrespectful in your home country. But rest assured, if you speak respectfully, you probably would not offend your professor.
“I was very surprised when students and the professor argued about some issues in the class. I think this is very good for students to improve critical thinking ability,“ explains Yujeong Moon from South Korea who studied English and business at Angelo State University.
Since an American style classroom and the education system will be all new to you, I suggest observing how American students participate in class and how their contributions are received. Some professors might have a more casual style and allow for open commentary in the class. Other professors may require that you raise your hand and wait to be called upon. Remember, you can always ask your professor for clarification too.
Speaking up in class or taking a chance and answering a question—in front of people, no less—can be really intimidating, especially for an international student and if English is not your first language. But you must try if you’re going to be successful in your studies and the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be.
Jennifer Privette is the Editor and Assistant Publish of Study in the USA magazines and StudyUSA.com. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Seattle University.
All views and opinions of guest authors are theirs alone and are not representative of the views of Petersons.com.