Insecurities and varying skill levels in academic courses

Having been to a few days of classes now this quarter I have begun to re-experience sitting through lectures with 20+ other people whom all have drastically varied skill levels on the course topics. It’s awkward, to say the least, to try and find your place amongst other people whom many you know well from previous classes and get situated with what is appropriate to assume your classmates’, your instructor’s, and my own expectations for the class are.

I’m not saying that I think I’m in any way more knowledgeable about any of the subject matters but I’ve noticed this awkward time of skill positioning as an interesting and constantly re-occurring theme in my courses.

I don’t know what the psychology behind it is, but because of this I personally have a hard time speaking out at times even when I can answer the instructors’ questions perfectly well.

Reasons for [my] insecurities in answering questions:

  • The questions seem too rudimentary to be answered in a straight forward fashion
  • I feel like my answers will be off course because of the vagueness of the question asked, leading to greater insecurity answering later questions
  • I’ll answer too far ahead of the subject matter we’re covering which will then leave some of the class in confusion (bad for those it detracts from and makes me feel like I’m trying to prove something or know-it-all)

Are these justified?

Who knows. Likely parts are just because of being shy but I notice this among lots of people in the class—especially when an extremely simple question is asked and nobody answers because it seems so stupid for anyone to want to stoop so low as to say something so obvious.

What message does this send to the instructor?

Does a wave of insecurity tell the instructor that nobody knows what’s going on? Definitely doesn’t re-enforce peoples’ comfort with the subject. Does the instructor realize that we seem stupid because we think the questions are stupid? Maybe, but then I ask, does he still assume to take the most cautious path and assume he’s speaking to the least knowledgeable person in the room? I hope not.

It’s an difficult problem that nobody seems to know how to solve very well. Things normally even out a little better throughout the quarter, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people continue to participate with the same level of insecurity so what is the instructor to think?

And now how I wish it were done

While it would take a lot of time and might alienate some people I wish we could all just explain our comfort levels right from the get go. Maybe this is in a class discussion. Maybe this is done in private one-on-one sessions for 10 minutes per student—we could afford the time if it would possibly cut down on all the lag time while people don’t answer questions all session long for the entirety of the quarter. Something needs to be done.

I hate getting to the end of the quarter feeling like the class could have been a lot more effective if we were all better aligned from the start and removed all this unnecessary insecurity that lingers throughout the quarter.

And so I leave with this question to those reading:

Is it my place to take responsibility for this or should I just take a deep breath and make the most of my classes because this is out of my responsibility or need for worry?

2 Responses

  1. riley

    those are totally justified. i felt that way in most of my classes as well. unfortunately, i don’t have any kind of answer. luckily, classes often sort themselves out into some sort of comfort-zone, and then things are slightly less awkward. but usually only in smaller classes. big ones just constantly feel like that. it sucks. i’m glad i’ve graduated, and i empathize with the uncomfortable-ness of it all. :(

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  2. My photoshop class is like this. The class is so basic, and the teacher is IMO not an expert, thus I know enough to be teaching the class, and def. know more about photography than him. so when he’s stumbling over stuff, i just sit back and wish i was in a more advanced class, but sometimes I throw him a bone and point out little things. It’s very frustrating to be forced to sit through a very basic course where the teacher has little clue what he’s doing and spends 20 minutes talking about the good old “pre-digital” days when things all had to be done by hand. It doesn’t help that there are actual “beginner” people in the class that are computer-illiterate and scared to figure things out on their own.

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