Mistaken participation – A faulty focus on status

When a professor asks you a question in a seminar how should you reply? According to one my hall seniors, you shouldn’t say anything, lest you embarrass yourself. Instead, you should “suck up” to professors by going to their office hours.

I found this sentiment quite surprising; I always thought that answering questions in seminars, God forbid raising your hand to try to answer, was a great learning opportunity. After all, the purpose of university for me has always been to learn, not just to memorise content for tests, but to become more confident, to try to tackle hard and interesting problems. Why then do other students express a fear of trying to answer, why are there so many who agree with what my hall senior said?

Initially, I thought that they were scared of getting something wrong and that this was tied to our previous experience at school, as Imperial students we all performed very highly at school and normally got most things right. Now the course has intentionally been made more challenging and it can be hard for many people to adapt to being comfortable being unsure of themselves. However, this seems insufficient to explain the extent to which students will avoid participating, nor the expressed need of some to “suck up” to our teachers.

Being the odd one out

Another experience in seminars leads me to a different conclusion. I remember in my second seminar this term, after we had switched groups; we were looking at problems involving integrating the volume of solids. I was confused by some of the polar notation, but instead of asking my group members for help, I just sat there trying to muddle it out. At the time I couldn’t have explained what I was afraid of. At one point, when it came to looking at solids with varying densities, I understood how to solve the problem in Cartesian form, but not how to convert this to polar form. So I remained silent.

It finally took one of the demonstrators coming over and speaking to my group mates – who were all also stuck – for me to realise that I did know the right solution. I finally decided to interject and take over the explanation. The irony is, that despite being the only person who knew the right answer, I was too afraid of being the only person who knew less than anyone else.

Since then, I’ve been one of the most effective members of the group at solving problems, not without my fair share of mistakes. Yet I no longer worry about these.

I believe that the real underlying problem here is one of status perceptions. Initially, I perceived my status in the group as being unknown. Thus I was scared of being wrong, lest it mark me out as being inferior. Yet now, because I perceive that I have status within the group, I am suddenly less afraid of making mistakes.

An alternative perspective

I think the same issue applies to students unwilling to answer questions; they view the seminar itself as a status exercise, a place where they must mark themselves out as smarter than the other students. While for me it carries no such weight, instead being just a learning opportunity. Hence, I’m perfectly happy to attempt questions even where I’m unsure, since I have a different perspective on the situation and my objective within it.

The lesson to take away here is that despite how you might feel, Imperial isn’t one big competition. You are here to learn, together. In the questions involving integrating the volume of solids, our group could have solved the question a lot faster, if we had actually worked together, if I had been willing to ask for help.

This goes both ways. Now in my seminar group, I am aware that I focus too much on talking to one other student, the student I perceive as capable. Unintentionally, I mostly ignore two other students who contribute little. Their limited contribution probably isn’t because they’re not smart or knowledgeable or motivated. It’s probably because they’re afraid they might be called out on being less smart or knowledgeable. This is linked to the concept of imposter syndrome, where we are afraid we don’t deserve to be as successful as we are, which Max Ting has discussed in his post.

Maybe, as a team mate, it’s equally my task to reach out to them. To ask for their opinion. To ask if they need help.

Maybe, I and you too, can learn something by reaching out to your team, regardless of whether you think you already know the answer or are completely lost. After all, isn’t learning the reason we are here?

One comment for “Mistaken participation – A faulty focus on status

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.