tl;dr: How not to come off as boasting, arrogant, attention seeking, etc. if you are one of the few students participating in class?

Some background:

I am currently attending a Master's level course where in-class participation of students is quite low. Typically, very few questions get asked by the students. When the lecturer asks a question to check if the class is following (or rather: at least not sleeping), the same 2-3 students provide the answers.

I try to participate actively: I'm not afraid of giving a wrong answer or of "looking stupid" by asking a question that can easily be answered. This however sometimes leads to me answering most of the lecturer's questions, which - I think - discourages other students to ask questions in the lecture (after all, who wants to announce that they didn't understand something when there is somebody else in the class who apparently did?) This in turn might lead the lecturer to falsely believe that everyone is following (not really my problem), but it might also lead to me being perceived as boasting, arrogant, attention seeking, disruptive (without ill intentions), etc., which I want to avoid.

I realized a while ago that I do like the attention and since then I try to evaluate whether a question/comment is really helpful before actually asking it. I also avoid answering the lecturer's questions immediately so that other students have a change to answer (or feel pressured to do so because of enduring silence ;)). On the other hand, I do not want to sell myself short and I do not want to be perceived as being arrogant because of not bothering to answer.

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    Related, possibly enlightening:… – Stephan Kolassa Oct 28 '14 at 18:15
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    Why do you care what other people think? It's none of your business, be yourself and you will find success and happiness. – user23483 Oct 28 '14 at 18:51
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    This is overly simplistic. Classroom dynamics can have a big effect on learning, and each student's actions contribute to that. The OP does very well to consider how their actions affect the other students. – Nate Eldredge Oct 28 '14 at 19:05
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    Hermione, is that you? – KharoBangdo Oct 30 '14 at 8:52
up vote 35 down vote accepted

One good heuristic that you might use is to discriminate between two types of questions:

  1. Questions with a clear "right answer"
  2. Questions encouraging discussion

Questions with a clear answer are typically more about polling for whether people are tracking, and answering deprives somebody else of a chance to answer. For a question encouraging discussion, however, your answer instead may break the ice and make it easier for other students to join in with answers of their own. Answering discussion questions also benefits you more, since they are where your answers can demonstrate deeper understanding, if you have acquired it.

If you and your instructor both know you are doing well, then why not "step back" and leave most of the "right answer" questions for other students? Especially if you let the instructor know that you have realized you are talking a lot and want to give space for others, it should not reflect badly on you in any way.

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    You can probably expand on #1. There are a lot of "clear right answers" with multiple parts. If you answer partway, i.e. "First you would cultivate potatoes, but I'm not sure what happens next" it gives a student who has a part of the answer to continue if the instructor calls on someone else. This shows that you understand the concept without demolishing the question for everyone else. – Compass Oct 28 '14 at 17:36
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    Hm, to me that would feel like taking control of the course. Probably not the best approach if one does not want to be mister smartypants. – mort Oct 28 '14 at 18:42
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    I agree with @mort. Trying to shape discussion seems like it is the instructor's job and it sounds like your instructors are not doing their job of maintaining a balanced discussion that engages the entire class. That's a problem, but I think I don't think that its your job, as a student, to try to fix it. +1 For the commendation to step back and let others speak. – Benjamin Mako Hill Oct 28 '14 at 19:53

Based on this...

I realized a while ago that I do like the attention and since then I try to evaluate whether a question/comment is really helpful before actually asking it. I also avoid answering the lecturer's questions immediately so that other students have a change to answer (or feel pressured to do so because of enduring silence ;)). On the other hand, I do not want to sell myself short and I do not want to be perceived as being arrogant because of not bothering to answer.

...I think you're already taking appropriate action to avoid the appearance of arrogance. Some additional suggestions:

  • Be alert for any "hints" from the instructor that you might be monopolising the conversation. For example, if the instructor says "let's hear from some other people", that's a pretty strong hint.
  • After you've answered one or two questions, you might want to stay silent. If no one else speaks up and the silence gets awkward, then briefly make eye contact with the instructor, as if to say "I'm willing to answer this if no one else does". The instructor can then call on you if he or she chooses.
  • Try to focus on answering the questions when you're not sure of the answer. That way you'll get feedback when you need it.
  • +1 for the second bullet point. By answering one question, you essentially give permission to others. After that, you let the rest of the room discuss or not. This won't work instantly, since you've already helped to establish the personality of the class, which is that a few of you know what's going on and are willing to keep the unanswered-question tension bearable for everyone else. – Wayne Oct 29 '14 at 14:23

What you're describing is a disadvantage of your instructor's chosen teaching technique. When a teacher chooses chalk-and-talk, this is what happens: the technique does not invite or reward participation by students. You have no control over this, and no responsibility for the negative outcome. Your non-participating peers likewise have no control or responsibility. They have been deterred from participating, and are responding the way most people respond to that deterrent. Only one person has the power to change the classroom dynamic, and that person is not you.

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    What alternative to chalk-and-talk would you suggest? – SAH Nov 19 '15 at 0:50

The answer is to test. Testing removes assumptions and you've been making many.

Go silent for a week (or whatever period you deem sufficient). See how the class responsiveness changes. Everyone keeps scratching their heads as usual? Problem solved.

One or two guys/gals start participating more? Give them occasionally some extra time before you respond to help them keep it up. You could also talk to them and say that you're not competing with them and "very glad someone else is participating, keep it up guys!"

The whole class raves, hands constantly fly in the air and even the sun gets hidden in the process? Not going to happen, so no need to worry about that :)

If you are answering most of the questions, it sounds like you are speaking too much. If I were your instructor, I would think you were dominating discussion in a way that was disruptive. Because other students may want to think more before speaking, my advice is to sit back and don't be afraid to allow awkward silence as a way of encouraging others in class to speak.

Ultimately, it is the instructor's job to moderate discussion to maintain an effective participation balance. That said, doing so effectively often requires the cooperation of other students in stepping back — even if this means awkward silence in the room — as a way of ensuring participation balance. In my own classes, I encourage students to maintain balance using a rule of three and one I have adopted from Joseph Reagle at Northeastern University: I encourage students to limit themselves to three good responses before everybody in the class had an opportunity to speak once.

Following this advice should give you ample opportunity to have your questions answered and to impress the instructor with your engagement and thoughtfulness. It will also mean that other more timid students speak up in ways that will raise questions you have not considered and will improve your learning in that process. My tendency is, like you, to dominate discussion. In my own experience in workshops and discussions, I've found that following this advice means that I learn much more from my fellow participants. The fact that I come off as less overbearing and arrogant is a nice bonus.

Strictly speaking, from personal experience, I actually like these kinds of people who are hyper-active & ask many questions.

I shied away from actively participating in class at a later stage of high school mostly out of my introvert nature.

During my Masters, I had a guy in the class who used to ask a lot of questions & was the first to answer & generally wanted the teacher to go into more deeper concepts, out of scope for the current exam syllabus. Since the teacher, while answering these questions, address the whole class rather than the one who asked the question, I also gain more or less equal information & knowledge from it.

So its basically two choices for me,

  1. Feeling negativity towards you, jealousy & call you names & think about your boastful nature & how I hate you & missing on teachers answer & then going home & having to spend extra time on the same concepts you asked about in class
  2. Feeling positive & actually thank you for improving my knowledge as well, when all the effort to analyse the teachers concepts & deducing a question from it was made by you while I was just happy for you to do the work for me.

Also, to add another point, monotonous lectures from teachers are boring & I get distracted fast. Its only because of this hyper activity from you that helps me regain focus on the lecture.

So, I do not consider you as boastful & arrogant. You are a good person for me & another step on the ladder of my success.

Given a set of questions, answer those for which you have answers but that you perceive as the hardest ones only.

This way, you can cut down on your participation rate for the questions. Meanwhile, by giving answers to difficult questions, lecturers will know that by transitivity, you most likely also know the answers to the easier questions.

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    The questions come in sequence, how will you know which are the "hardest only" when you haven't hear all? – Anders Oct 29 '14 at 6:14

I had the same problem in college. In many of the classes that I took I was apparently the only one who had the slightest interest in them. I did ask a lot of questions, and generally participated more than most students. It was not a problem. Just make sure that the teacher is comfortable with it by discussing it after class if he has the time and interest. Just don't come off like Eddie Haskell (i.e., a sycophant).

I don't think the question is whether you come across as boasting or arrogant, even though I agree it's good to be cognizant of that possibility. I think the real question is how do you balance your desire to participate with the needs of the rest of the class? In some sense, the lecturer is also responsible for this. In my own classes, it frequently happens that there is one student who is a lot readier to answer than others. If it seems like it is interfering with classroom dynamics, I will purposely solicit answers from other students too.

Since this is a shared responsibility, I would talk with your instructor and mention your concerns. If they feel you are answering too many questions to the detriment of the other students, then perhaps you can scale back. On the other hand, if they think the classroom dynamic is fine, then maybe you don't have to worry.

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