Why Do Asian Students Participate Less In Classrooms? (A Video Presentation)

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Asian students often struggle to participate in classroom discussions during their study-years aboard. This case applies to most, if not all, Indonesian students as well. Those who are enrolled in the Liberal Arts studies know the “syndrome” really well. When they are expected to speak up and contribute to the class discussions and debates, all sorts of anxiety feelings start to kick in: the fear of being wrong (and of saying something “stupid”), the “fuzzy” and sometimes the unrealistic conception of feeling too-shy-to-talk and low self-esteem. It is often the case that it will be the students from non-Asian (a.k.a. Western) countries who will dominate the classroom settings, even though the loudest talkers are not necessarily the smartest in the room! This is indeed a frustrating situation for many Asians — Indonesian students included — particularly for those who were actually used to be active discussant back home, in their own academic settings, where they could express their ideas and opinion in their own languages.

It is not unusual to observe that Asian students tend to feel overwhelmed by the lively and active classroom discussion with their peers and professors, as a “lively, heated and opinionated” discussion is not very common back home nor that it is the norm in our rather conformist Asian culture. An article published by the Jakarta Post “What they don’t teach you at RI universities” provided a good description on why certain “Asian norms” provide a cultivating ground for that kind of passiveness found among many Indonesian students. Unfortunately, this kind of situation has often led some Indonesian students to turn down opportunities to study abroad.

The ability to acknowledge this “disadvantage” that we have within ourselves, dear fellow Indonesians, is actually good. But, the failure to understand and work with to overcome this “weakness” (instead of simply just give up) will actually get you to nowhere. By avoiding the need to “speak up”, you’d probably miss the opportunity to make the most of your life experience of studying abroad: to crack your shell open and widen your world. By choosing to stay inactive, distant and quiet in discussions wouldn’t give you the sense and practice you need to develop and sharpen your critical-thinking and presentation skills. Your thoughts and ideas will stay unchallenged and you will not be able to learn to express your ideas in a well-constructed way.

The video in this article is my pilot research project. It offers an interesting look at why students from Asian countries tend to participate less in classroom discussions. The study might eventually help you understand how it actually feels for a student to be in a multi-cultural, academic environment. But the point is this: your “quietness and shyness” should not be transferred into doubts and frustration because you don’t know how to overcome the anxiety to speak up and participate in your classroom discussions. It is important to understand where this feeling comes from, then to reflect on it and to take action to be the best that you actually already are.

So, let’s do this!

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Amri Priyadi
Amri Priyadi is a 1st year student of interdisciplinary Master of Development Programme at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He holds a Sarjana Ilmu Sosial focuses on transnational society, cum laude, from Universitas Indonesia. Amri’s particular interest is in innovation and the use of technology for social and human development. He recently won the “Apps for Social Change” prize at the Geneva’s Innovation Summit 2013 for developing an urban disaster management mobile application prototype. Before his move to Geneva, Amri worked as Associate Director at the President’s Delivery Unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight (UKP4) in Indonesia and was one of the men responsible behind LAPOR! (Layanan Aspirasi dan Pengaduan Online Rakyat) – a platform of social media that enables a public-monitoring towards various development initiatives in Indonesia. Previously he worked as a Social Media Strategist for the United Nations Information Center (UNIC). He can be reached at amri.priyadi@graduateinstitute.ch.