The dread of public speaking is surprisingly widespread. More than the death of a loved one or nuclear war, simply speaking in front of a group terrifies many adults.
For many of our students, who claim English as a second language or who struggle with a sense of “not belonging,” this raises fear to a factor of 10.
The result can be a vicious cycle of lower performance and self esteem. Playing it safe with silence can diminish the learning that comes with active engagement and intensify feelings of inadequacy.
Moreover, given the role of confidence in personal and professional achievement, the cycle of silence can undermine success in college, career, and beyond. For all these reasons, building a safe space for discussion can bring big payoffs.
My first step is to fill the classroom from the front. When I initiate this strategy on Day One, I explain that we will work as a team, and I also share the research that sitting in the front of the class is the ticket to a higher GPA.
Sitting close together enhances social security because there really is “safety in numbers.” Partnership configurations also facilitate social bonds. I encourage students to seek out those who share similar professional interests and to connect with study buddies.
This team-building strategy also supports engaged discussion. With a close-in configuration, it’s a snap to initiate a think-pair-share, thus allowing students to rehearse ideas before a large group discussion.
The final step in my recipe for creating “safe space” is to eliminate the greatest source of terror—the fear of making mistakes.
There are three simple principles that I keep in mind: 1) Define discussion as a performance requirement; 2) Prioritize the involvement of all individuals, not just a few; 3) Explicitly and objectively reward all meaningful contributions.
Principle #1: It’s essential to count discussion as part of the grade. I typically weight discussion as 10% of the total grade. After all, if discussion demonstrates engagement and enhances a learning community, then it should be credited.
Principle #2: I emphasize that the goal is for everyone to contribute at least once. To this end, our class rule is “Wait 10 to talk again.” And I explicitly solicit contributions from those who have not yet spoken.
Principle #3: Make sure to explicitly reward all contributions. My own patter goes something like this: “If your answer is correct, you earn a point. If your answer is super nova brilliant, you earn . . . a point. If you give a smokin’ dog wrong answer, you earn . . . a point. And if you ask a question on topic, you earn a point.”
In the first week, I lead students to discuss why all these contributions are truly valuable and why everyone’s involvement matters. After a pair-share, the large discussion begins—literally a discussion about the processes of discussion.
At the end, evaluation is a cinch. I place a signature sheet on each row and students sign for credit if they contribute at least once. Depending on the situation, I may allow an extra point for those who contribute more than once.
The points mount fast and by Week 3, I typically give out graded feedback. This stage increases buy-in as students see how their involvement makes a grade-point difference. At this stage, I also offer extra coaching and incentivizing for those not yet catching on.
I find that this extra accountability and encouragement brings everyone on board. By the fourth week, every student is enfranchised in a learning community based in active engagement, confidence, and an authentic sense of belonging.