Maybe it's because I'm a very shy person, but whenever I am in a big classroom setting (lecture), I am too afraid to raise my hand and ask questions or answer questions in class. It's really odd to me how some people can just do it so naturally. Recently, I've been trying to participate more in class, but after I say what I want to say, I completely zone out due to the pressure. So when my professor asks me something again, I tend to almost freeze. There's also the knowledge that there's a lot of smart students in the room, which adds to the fear of getting humiliated. Is there a way to overcome this?
There are several difficulties you're dealing with:
- It is genuinely not easy to formulate and ask a good question. You know how they say that a good question is more than a half of the answer. That's why it is so important to learn how to ask a question and how to split a question in several smaller questions.
- You usually do not have a lot of time in class as the lecturer tends to move on quickly. It is harder to come up with a good question in limited time.
- Other students are also present and you may feel that they are "smarter" and they are "judging" you. Whether this is true or not, is another question (spoiler: it's probably not true), but the perception makes it harder to act.
Now, what can we do about it? My suggestion is to decouple the problems. First, start by learning to ask a question outside of the classroom setting.
- As soon as you have a question in a class, write it down on paper. After the class, re-read it, and try to find the answer yourself. Try also to re-formulate the question in a more clear, concise and answerable way.
- If your professor offers office hours, attend them and ask your question in person. Talking to your professor one-to-one will help you both to learn the subject and to learn how to communicate more efficiently. It will also improve your confidence and build a good relationship with your professor.
- When you are ready, ask more questions in class. Write down professors' answers and (if you have time) note your own reaction. Hopefully you will find it easier to ask questions as you do it more often. If not, meet your professor and discuss your questions again.
Nobody asks questions, or speaks about anything in public, naturally. Everyone has to learn. The best way to develop public speaking skills is to practice. You can practice speaking in a room by yourself, and you can practice in front of a group of people. As @roland mentioned, Toastmasters is an organization that will help you practice. Ask your professors for other opportunities.
Now I have to stop writing this answer and go practice my conference talk.
This is what you "see":
This is what the lecturer sees:
Can you see the person who is talking? They are standing near the door, wearing a black shirt. So you see, in the lecturer's viewpoint, you are just a dot in another hundred dots. After you have finished talking, their attention is not on you anymore. And even when you are talking at them, they are not fully listening to your words. In their and other students' minds, there is always a topic much much more important than you: themselves. You are insignificant in their life, let alone your fear.
Whenever I have an anxiety like this, I always try to put myself into other's perspective, and see how unimportant I am in their eyes. At that time, I suddenly realize this:
Wait, what exactly am I fearing at? Nothing. NOTHING. I just assume that everyone is looking at me carefully, while in fact they are just busy on their problems. They don't even know that I fear at them. I make up an illusion, and then I fear of it. This is silly.
At the time you can see how silly your fear is, then not only it will disappear like it never exists, and but also a sympathy for their problems will take place instead. Sometimes in my imagination I think that I cut off my fear with the sharpest sword I have. I really like the feeling of having my fear cut off and my mind become crytall clear again. It makes me feel courage.
If you are interested in how I visualize the distortion we make in our minds, so that you can cut down your fear regardless the context, check out my article: A theory of perspective. Skip to the section "Communication and perspective-taking" if you don't have time.