Help Quiet Students Speak Up

Try these tips to help shy students overcome their anxiety.

Dawn Wotapka

August 8, 2017

Joel Lanz, CPA/CITP/CFF, CGMA, strives to ensure that all of his students have the ability—and the comfort—to speak up. For him, it’s personal. Lanz, who speaks with a slight stutter, spent his college years talking and contributing as little as possible. “I was the guy in the back of the room the professors always ignored,” he recalled.

Now Lanz, an adjunct professor at SUNY Old Westbury and New York University, tells his students that “if you’re saying something that is of value, people will listen to you no matter what your accent is, no matter what your impediment is.” No one gets to hide in his classes. “If you’re in the back of the room, I’m picking on you,” he said. “I didn’t participate in college. Because of that, I’ll go to [quiet] people and say, ‘You’re making the same mistake I did.’”

Students who are actively learning—instead of sitting there passively—feel more invested and eager to contribute, Lanz said. Of course, there is no magic wand that can make every student feel comfortable enough to make his or her voice heard. Everyone knows someone who is painfully shy. Some students may fear being wrong. Others may be afraid of how their voice sounds, as Lanz once was. Yet there are methods faculty can use to encourage students to speak up. Here are a few of them:

Give a grade for participation. Many professors make participation part of a student’s final grade, usually between 5% and 30%. In accounting, between 5% and 10% is most common, Lanz said. “It provides motivation for students,” said Kerri-Ann Sanderson, CPA, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of accountancy at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. “I find if they know that participation is recognized and will benefit their grade, they are more interested in contributing, since it directly and positively impacts them in a personal way.”

Assign partners or teams. Pairing students with a neighbor or a small group can help boost comfort talking to others. “Even if the shy students don’t raise their hand and speak, they are speaking to their team,” pointed out Deborah Searcy, Ph.D., a faculty member in management at the Florida Atlantic University College of Business in Boca Raton, Fla. 

Teams can also be a way to observe and get to know students, said Lauren Cunningham, CPA, Ph.D., an assistant professor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Over the course of the semester, I walk around to these teams and make a point of talking to the students who seem quieter than others—either before class, after class, or during class when students are working in their team,” she said. “Once I’ve gained the trust of a ‘shy’ student through this one-on-one talking, I will offer for that student to talk on behalf of their group.”

Make it real. It can also help to link the value of speaking up in class to working as an accountant. Urge students to feel comfortable and safe in the classroom as they develop the skills necessary to communicate as a professional. Searcy said that she reminds students “that the classroom is practice for real life.” Though she acknowledges the anxiety students might have about public speaking, she also points out that if they don’t learn to speak up when surrounded by their peers, they’ll have trouble doing it in the future when it matters more.

Lanz, who is also principal of CPA firm Joel Lanz CPA, emphasizes the classroom as a safe place to make errors. “This is where we accept constructive criticism, and it’s important that we do it in school rather than making mistakes on the job,” he said of the message he tries to send students.

Consider the individual. Any professor will tell you that spending one-on-one time getting to know students is worth the effort. You may learn just why they’re hesitant to speak up. Some may be from cultures where sharing is not encouraged, for example. “Give them direct encouragement and counsel,” Sanderson suggested. “This can help students to feel reassured that the teacher is interested in them as individuals and values everyone’s opinions.”

Keep more outgoing students from dominating the conversation. Every class has a few students who are quite comfortable speaking up, and no one wants to dim their excitement. But shy students may feel overshadowed or be willing to let their chatty peers handle the participation. Balancing both personalities can be challenging. “Sometimes, I will tell students that everyone is expected to share their ideas with the class at least ‘x’ number of times during the session,” Sanderson said. “Students who meet that mark are asked to hold off on answering any other questions while I select other students who are yet to meet the target. I find students are motivated when they have a goal.”

Discuss trending topics. Talking about current events has long been a way to boost engagement in classes because it makes abstract topics real and may seem less technical to students afraid of making a mistake. Lanz, who starts off his class asking if anyone has read anything interesting, said he welcomes discussion of anything in the news and related to the syllabus. (Lady Gaga’s latest tour wouldn’t necessarily qualify, unless students want to approach it from a business angle.) He’ll then adjust the lecture to show how the topic relates to the lecture. “If they’re reading something and they’re analyzing what they read, I’m a very happy person,” he said. “That means they’re learning.”

Dawn Wotapka is a Georgia-based freelance writer. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.