Increasing class participation in social phobic students

Increasing class participation in social phobic students

Miranda, Michael V

The Find Your Classroom Voice Program has been offered at Kingsborough Community College for the past three years. Its purpose is to enable students who are consistently inactive in class discussions (and who might be called “classroom-specific social phobic”) to develop the ability to take a more active role in the classroom. With its success, the Program has attracted the attention of faculty members who have expressed interest in learning how to conduct the Program in their own classes. The Program’s originator, with nearly two decades of experience as a practicing psychologist, has developed a five-session training program for interested faculty members. In the following article, he presents that training program along with the psychological principles upon which the Find Your Classroom Voice Program is based.

You know this student.

It’s the third week of the semester and she has been present for every meeting of your class. She arrives early enough to select her seat each day, and she selects a seat that is located from the midpoint of the room towards the back, usually on the extreme left or right sides of the room. Each time you look in her direction, she is busy with her notes, carefully writing down your words. Occasionally, you make eye contact. When you do, there is a look of intense interest in her eyes …until she turns away. And, most of all, you are aware that she has never spoken a word-either in class or to you individually outside of class. On your first graded assignment or exam, her score, while it might not be an A, indicates considerable effort.

You would like this student to be more active in class. You know that it would help her relate to the course material more effectively and, perhaps, improve her grade. You also have the feeling that this student might be able to offer something to the class -a different perspective or point of view-that will add to everyone’s experience. But how do you accomplish this? The Find Your Classroom Voice Program at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York (Miranda, 2007) has an answer.

Program History

In the Fall of 2005, after a class in Introductory Psychology, a student very cautiously approached me. She spoke in a low, uneven voice and was looking at the top of my desk even though we were both standing. I recognized her as a student who never took her eyes away from her notebook as she wrote hunched over it. A first-semester freshman in the first few weeks of her college career, she expressed a fear that she would never be able to graduate. She had just learned of the speech requirement, and she was certain that she would be unable to satisfy it. She said it was impossible for her to speak from her classroom seat. How could she ever hope to be able to stand in front of an entire class and deliver a speech for several minutes?

Probably because I had returned to academia after an eighteen-year career as a psychologist in private practice, often helping clients overcome their fears of public speaking, I responded by asking her the question that I knew I was going to ask to begin the next day’s class. She gave the correct answer. And then I said, “How about this? How about I promise to ask this very same question within the first few minutes of tomorrow’s class? And how about, if you feel like it, you raise your hand? And if you raise your hand, I promise that I will call on you for the answer. But, if you don’t feel like raising your hand tomorrow, there’s no problem. I’ll just call on someone else and we’ll try it again some other time.” She accepted the invitation. And without my knowing it, the Find Your Classroom Voice Program had been created.

Program Development

Since that semester, more than fifty students have been invited to participate in the program and approximately thirty-five have accepted. These students have successfully changed their classroom behavior and, consequently, improved their levels of self-esteem. Some have also improved their overall quality of life as they transferred their new classroom skills to other parts of their lives.

The Find Your Classroom Voice Program (FYCV) at Kingsborough has gotten both college-wide and national recognition (Association for Psychological Science, 2007). Currently, dedicated faculty members are receiving a five-session formal training that will enable them to run FYCV Programs in their own classes. These faculty members represent the Departments of Behavioral Sciences, Communication Arts, English, Fine Arts, and Mathematics.

The training program is structured so that faculty members may develop and work with FYCV in one or more of their classes during the same semester in which they receive their training. In order to accomplish that, the timeframe for scheduling each of the five training sessions is critically important.

Training session I : introduction to the program

Training session 1 is scheduled months in advance of the semester in which the faculty will be conducting their programs. They are introduced to the varied tasks that each of the different phases of the Program require. The session identifies the following semester’s training cohort and serves to foster connections and discussions between the faculty members. They also learn that the Program’s target population (i.e., students who display the symptoms of “classroom-specific social phobia”) is not always easy to identify.

After the participants introduce themselves, a brief description of the Program’s origins and a description of the characteristics of the social phobic student (American Psychiatric Association, 2000)-the student who has the most to gain from participating in the Program -are given. It is made clear that faculty members participating in the Find Your Classroom Voice Program are not merely looking for the quiet and/or shy students in their classes. They are looking for students who suffer emotionally as a result of being in the classroom-the students who seem unable to speak in class or, even more problematic, who seem unable to speak with a professor on a one-to-one basis-due to emotional and/or physical indications of anxiety.

After a discussion of the tasks involved in running the Program, faculty members are advised to limit their invitations to between one and three students per class. Performing the tasks that will assist social phobic students while conducting a class is an example of multi-tasking at its best and requires an additional level of consciousness. Specifically, as professors cover material that they are presenting in any given class, FYCV Program professors must always keep in mind the arrangements that have been previously made with each Program student. That is, the professors must remember to ask a specific question at a particular time in the class and to recognize a specific student whose hand may be raised to respond to that question. In the excitement sometimes generated during a lesson, it is not always easy to keep these arrangements in mind. It is, therefore, best to start with a maximum of two or three students per class, although professors experienced with the Program have been able to work with as many as six.

The first training session concludes with a discussion of the schedule for the four remaining training sessions, each of which must be scheduled at specific points during the semester to accommodate the timing of the tasks that faculty members must perform as the semester proceeds.

Training session 2: selecting and inviting appropriate students

Training session 2 is scheduled for the first week of the semester to assist faculty members with early identification and eventual selection of appropriate students for the FYCV Program.

The tasks involve much more than simply developing an awareness of the students who have remained silent in class over the first two weeks of the semester. Silent students may be silent for several reasons. Some are silent because they are simply unmotivated to do anything more than the absolute minimum in class; some have a general shyness that prevents them from being active in any social situation; and some experience an anxiety in the classroom that can truly be called a classroom-specific social phobia.

The students in the last group are inactive in class neither because they consciously choose to be uninvolved nor because being shy is a consistent and deeply embedded personality trait. They are silent because they are afraid to participate in class in a way that exposes them to possible criticism. The students in each of the first two categories are quite comfortable with their silence. The students with classroomspecific social phobia are, at best, embarrassed by it and, at worst, tortured.

Identifying the likely candidates is an inexact procedure-one that is driven by intuition as well as careful observation. The following four criteria can be useful:

1. Diligent note-talcing-The classroom-specific social phobic student may be highly motivated to succeed academically. As a result, the student is engrossed with note-taking, making sure to write down every important word that is spoken in the classroom;

2. Perfect attendance-The student who is unconcerned about doing his or her best in the classroom may choose to be absent during the first two weeks of class, believing incorrectly that “nothing much happens” on the first or second day. The motivation to succeed demonstrated by many classroom-specific social phobic students can be ascertained, in part, through their perfect attendance;

3. The avoidance of eye contactBefore the classroom-specific social phobic gets to know the professor’s style of teaching and can make a judgment about whether or not it is likely that someone who has not raised his or her hand will be called upon, this student is very likely to reduce the possibility of being called upon by avoiding eye contact with the professor; and

4. Performance on first graded quiz, exam, or assignment-Faculty members may evaluate the amount of effort that has been expended by the student from the results of the first quiz, exam, or graded assignment. While motivated students do what is necessary to get the best grades possible, those who appear to be phobic and attain A’s may not always be the best candidates for the Program. Greater benefits of Program participation might be attained by the motivated, phobic, C student.

In order to obtain two or three students for the Program in any given class, it may be wise to extend invitations to five or six students since many have phobias so severe as to prevent them from accepting the invitation to participate.

Through a process called avoidance learning, phobic individuals naturally avoid all situations in which the symptoms of their phobias are likely to be experienced. They have long ago realized that avoidance is the easiest way to prevent themselves from experiencing anxiety symptoms. Therefore, the manner in which these students are invited to participate in the Program is very important. The students must not feel pressured or threatened in any way as the faculty member reveals an awareness that the student, apparently very motivated to succeed, remains consistently silent during classes. A method that has worked well is the following.


At the end of the class in which the first graded assignments or exams are returned to the students, the faculty member announces, “I am ending class a bit early today because 1 would like to see the following students.” The students’ names are read and they uncomfortably approach the front of the room, clearly confused by this development since they, in fact, have perfect attendance and have done fairly well on the assignment or exam. The faculty member acts very quickly to reduce the tension by making a statement such as the following:

I know that you are probably wondering why I have asked you to stay behind today. Let me tell you. 1 have noticed that you are all very motivated students. Your attendance has been perfect, you are always very attentive in class, and you have done well on your first assignment (or exam). But there is one problem.

The students, most of whom have been avoiding eye contact with the professor up to this point, usually look up. They appear to be very interested in hearing about the “problem.”

The professor then says, “I have absolutely no idea what any of your voices sound like!”

Some of the students smile nervously. They know that they avoid participating in class, and now they know that the professor knows it, too.

The professor continues. “You may not realize it, but the problem is a very common one. But whatever your reason for acting this way, it would be a tremendous benefit to you if you could learn to change.

“I am conducting a program called Find Your Classroom Voice in this class, and it is designed to help students like you who have trouble speaking in class. We begin the Program by my giving you a question and the answer to that question on the day before each class. In the following class, I ask the question. If your hand is raised, I call on you and you give me the answer that we both already know is the correct one. (And, by the way, if you choose not to raise your hand, that’s OK. We’ll just try again some other time.) And I promise that I will ask your question in the first five or ten minutes, so that you don’t have to be nervous about waiting for your question throughout the entire class.”

While handing them an invitation to participate, the faculty member adds, “Here is a written description of how the Program works along with a place for you to indicate whether or not you would like to participate. Please look it over and return it to me at our next class.” Following the Program description on the handout, students are asked to respond with a “Yes,” “No,” or “Not Sure” to each of the following four statements:

1. I am aware that I never (or almost never) say anything during my classes.

2. I feel OK about being silent in my classes.

3. I realize that taking a more active role in my classes will add value to my education.

4. I would be interested in working with my professor and a very small group of other students like me to help me feel more comfortable about speaking in class.

At the next class, the professor collects the handout, paying special attention to how each student has responded to statement #4 above. Students who indicate a desire to participate are asked to provide contact information (i.e., telephone number and/or e-mail address) so that between-class contact can occur, and questions and answers can be agreed upon. Students who indicate that they would not like to participate are thanked for having considered the Program. And students who indicate that they are “Not Sure” are told, “It’s OK not to be sure, but why not try it out just one time, and then you can decide whether or not to continue?” (Remember that truly phobic people have a tendency to avoid situations that create anxiety. According to the principles of avoidance learning, allowing them more time to make a decision will reinforce their avoidance behavior by immediately reducing their anxiety.) Most of these students will agree to a one-day trial and, when they do, their contact information is requested.

Once the professor has the contact information for each student, he or she asks whether telephone or e-mail contact would be preferred and also identifies the days and approximate times that contacts will be initiated. My preference has grown to be making contact on the evening of the most recently completed class rather than on the evening before the next class. That is, for a class that meets on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, contacts are made on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings (not on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays). This reduces the students’ anxieties about what their questions might be and it gives them an extra day to practice their answers.

Training session 3: developing and modifying scripted questions and answers

Training session 3 is scheduled for the third week of the semester in preparation for the delivery of the initial scripted questions and answers. The scripted questions will continue through to the end of the semester, but they will undergo a series of qualitative changes during that time. The changes will occur for each student when that student is ready for the new challenge that each modification will present.

Initially, the professor must make a judgment about each student’s ability to respond to his or her assigned question. That is, some students might be able to respond to questions with complete sentences while others might find it extremely difficult to do so. For these students, questions that require only a one-word response should be assigned.

Degrees of student comfort must be observed and verified with each student during the semester. At the appropriate time, the professor will ask whether or not the student is ready to move on to the next level of challenge. Starting with the least stressful scenario, the following might be a “Level of Challenge Hierarchy” for a specific student:

1. Responding with a one-word answer provided by the professor to a question asked during the first five minutes of class;

2. Responding with a complete sentence provided by the professor to a question asked during the first five minutes of class;

3. Responding to multiplepart questions with answers provided by the professor to a question asked during the first five minutes of class;

4. Responding in any of the above three formats, but without having the answer provided by the professor in advance; and

5. Responding to questions that may be asked at an undetermined time during the class.

The telephone or e-mail contact on the evening of each class meeting serves multiple purposes. In addition to providing the question, with or without the answer, for the following class, the contacts are used to evaluate the student’s level of comfort as he or she progresses through the hierarchy and, also, to praise the student for his or her effort and performance. At times, the professor provides suggestions that may reduce a student’s anxiety. For example, the student who reported that she was having difficulty because she was made nervous by the presence of all of the other students in the room was advised to sit closer to the front of the classroom, thereby blocking out half (or more) of the class from her field of vision. And the student who agreed to participate in the Program but who was unable to raise her hand after hearing the assigned question day after day was encouraged to schedule an appointment with the professor. Often, these appointments have a calming effect and serve to encourage the student to increase his or her level of participation.

The psychological methods being used during this phase of the Program to allow the student to progress through the hierarchy are:

Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning is a type of learning that occurs when an individual comes to associate or connect two distinct stimuli and, because of that connection, responds to a new stimulus in the same manner that he or she has learned to respond to the previously-experienced stimulus. FYCV Program students have learned to connect the classroom environment and their symptoms of anxiety. One of the goals of the FYCV Program is to challenge these old connections by creating regular positive interactions between student and professor and by students’ daily correct responses to scripted questions.

Operant conditioning

Through operant conditioning, an individual’s response to a stimulus is either strengthened or weakened as a result of the favorable or unfavorable consequences that follow the response. Classroom-specific social phobic students often experience anxiety in the classroom because of negative consequences to past classroom behavior (e.g., an inconsiderate teacher who ridiculed an incorrect answer, a demeaning parent who was critical of a poor grade, a problem with being understood due to a foreign accent, etc.). In the FYCV Program, professors’ responses to participating students’ attempts to overcome their classroom anxieties are supportive and encouraging. Praise for progress in developing effective classroom behavior is freely and consistently given, thereby increasing the rate at which it occurs.

Systematic/in vivo desensitization

Becoming desensitized to the stimuli that elicit the phobic response is a key to overcoming any phobia. Systematic desensitization is a process designed to gradually enable phobic individuals, through the use of photographs, videos, and their imaginations, to experience less intense emotional and physical anxiety symptoms when exposed to a feared object or situation. This technique has been used successfully to help individuals overcome fears such as the fear of spiders (Brown, 1973; Denney & Sullivan, 1976; Pagoto et al, 2006), of dentists (Shaw & Thoresen, 1974), of injections (Rachman, 1959), and of observing surgical procedures (Suarez, Adams, & McCutcheon, 1976).

When the desensitization procedure is conducted in the actual presence of the feared object or situation, the desensitization is said to be conducted “in vivo,” or “in life,” as opposed to being conducted via one’s imagination or through photographs, etc. Sturges &. Sturges (1998) have used it to address the fear of riding in elevators, and Johnstone &. Page (2004) have used the technique in addressing fear of spiders. In the FYCV Program, students are exposed to in vivo desensitization as they perform their feared behavior (i.e., speaking in class) in the feared environment (i.e., the classroom).


According to Feldman (2008), shaping is “the process of teaching a complex behavior by rewarding closer and closer approximations of the desired behavior” (page 192). The behavioral goal of the FYCV Program is enabling phobic students to develop the ability to participate in class discussions freely and comfortably. This complicated behavior is “shaped” in several steps through the use of the aforementioned “Level of Challenge Hierarchy.”


Through the use of modeling, individuals may learn a new behavior by observing others who model the behavior that the individual would eventually like to perform. Modeling, along with desensitization procedures, was used effectively by Sturges & Sturges (1998). The classroomspecific social phobic student often cannot learn by observing models because his or her anxiety level is usually too high to allow learning of this type to occur. The phobic student is much too concerned with avoiding being called upon by the professor to observe the behaviors of other, more active, students. But in the FYCV Program, the participating student feels safe. He or she knows that the professor will not ask any questions of him or her other than the one that has been assigned.

Training session 4: conducting small group meetings

Training session 4 is scheduled for the seventh week of the semester, when faculty members must begin to think about scheduling the four small-group sessions. These small-group meetings will come as a surprise to participating students. Having prior knowledge of the meetings might have caused some excellent candidates for the Program to refuse the invitation to participate. At this point in the Program, after significant progress has been made, students will be able to consider the idea of attending small-group meetings.

Participation in the meetings is important because it represents the next step in the in vivo desensitization and shaping processes. When students participate in less structured small group interactions in a college classroom, it presents another opportunity for the physiological symptoms of the their classroom-specific social phobia to be controlled.

Students are asked to identify hours during which they would be free to meet “three or four times” during the semester. (Some students will claim to be unavailable at any time that is convenient for the professor. These students should be encouraged to set up individual appointments.) Students from each of the professor’s classes will be invited to the same small-group meetings, thereby enabling Program students to become acquainted with other Program students who are not their classmates and to become even more aware of the widespread existence of classroom-specific social phobia.

The two distinct goals for each small-group meeting are: a) to encourage each student to speak in the group; and b) to develop each student’s ability to control his or her physiological symptoms of anxiety (e.g., the rapid heart rate, perspiration, difficulty breathing, etc.) that often accompany fear.

A further benefit of the small groups is that Program “graduates” are invited to attend and serve as mentors to the current semester’s students. Current students can see firsthand what they might become, and mentors benefit from the recognition they receive from the professor and from the current semester’s Program participants.

While each small group may determine the discussion topics for its sessions, the following have proven fruitful:

* What event(s) or people in your life might have contributed to the development of your discomfort with speaking in class?

* What has been your experience in the Program so far?

* How has your experience in the Program changed the ways that you feel about your behavior?

* Has your involvement in Find Your Classroom Voice improved other areas of your life?

Throughout the sessions, the professor’s focus should extend beyond the content of the students’ comments and include discussions about the students’ emotional responses as well.

To meet the second of the aforementioned goals of the small group meetings, the professor may make use of any form of relaxation technique that would help to reduce students’ physical signs of anxiety. Meditation, deep muscle relaxation, and hypnosis are some examples of these. Miranda (2004) provides examples of useful self-hypnosis and visual imagery exercises.

Training session 5: program review

Training session 5 is scheduled for the second to last week of the semester and is meant to allow for a review of faculty members’ experiences in the Program and to provide an opportunity to share ideas about how methods might be altered for following semesters.

Program evaluation

In the present academic environment, there is always a pressure to evaluate the effectiveness of a program designed to enhance education or student development which thus leads to the necessity for data collection. While it is true that such things as graduation rates, pre- and post-FYCV Program course completion rates, and pre- and post-Program GPAs can easily be calculated, doing so would, in fact, be a poor representation of the effectiveness of the Find Your Classroom Voice Program.

First of all, since it is possible to work with a maximum of three to six students per class, participation in the Program is not open to all students. Students who are invited to participate come from a select group of students (i.e., a biased sample) who are motivated to achieve academic success. As such, these students are likely to succeed in college. Therefore, when Program students graduate or complete all of the courses for which they are registered, it cannot be claimed that this is due to their Program participation. They are, after all, strongly motivated students. Similarly, on the occasion when a Program student does not graduate or withdraws from a course, it cannot be viewed as an indication that the Program was unsuccessful.

It is not possible, therefore, to evaluate the benefits of Program participation through quantitative analysis. Qualitatively speaking, however, the academic experiences of Program students are significantly enhanced. And, as reported by the students themselves, so are their lives.

Program “graduates” credit their participation in the Program for improvements on their jobs, in their marriages, in their levels of self-esteem, and even in their abilities to handle emergencies. Often, stories of these life improvements are told during the small-group meetings and/or in private conversations with the professor, but it is also possible to encourage students’ reporting of improvements through their completion of an end-of-semester questionnaire. See Appendix A for sample questions.


The Find Your Classroom Voice Program is innovative in many ways, but its most unique feature is that all Program participants-students and professors-benefit from their participation. Professors actively work to improve not only their students’ academic performances but their lives as a whole; Program students, realizing this, often acknowledge the efforts of their professors and express appreciation. The following excerpts are from a note received from a student on her graduation day:

“…you truly did inspire me…. I saw that you are the kind of person 1 want to be when I’m older…. You are kind, compassionate, honest, and you really care about each of your students…. Continue inspiring students as you inspired me.”


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text revision). Washington, DC: Author.

Association for Psychological Science. (2007). Program for the 19th annual convention. ashington, DC: Author. Page 110.

Brown, H.A. (1973). Role of expectancy manipulation in systematic desensitization. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 41(3), 405 -411.

Denney, D. R. & Sullivan, B. J. (1976). Desensitization and modeling treatments of spider fear using two types of scenes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 44(4), 573 -579.

Feldman, R.S. (2008). Essentials of understanding psychology (7th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Johnstone, K. A. & Page, A. C. (2004). Attention to phobic stimuli during exposure: The effect of distraction on anxiety reduction, self-efficacy, and perceived control. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 42(3), 249 -275.

Miranda, M. V. (2007). Find your voice: Eliminate classroom phobias. The Community College Enterprise, 13(1), 7 -22.

Miranda, M. V. (2004). Basic program for relaxation and motivation [CD]. Atlantic Beach, NY: Plan to Succeed, Inc.

Pagoto, S. L., Kozak, A. T., Spates, C. R., & Spring, B. (2006). Systematic desensitization for an older woman with a severe specific phobia: An application of evidence-based practice. Clinical Gerontologist, 30(1), 89 -98.

Rachman, S. (1959). The treatment of anxiety and phobic reactions by systematic desensitization psychotherapy. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 259 -263.

Shaw, D. W. & Thoresen, C. E. (1974). Effects of modeling and desensitization in reducing dentist phobia. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 21(5), 415 -420.

Sturges, J. W. & Sturges, L. V. (1998). In vivo systematic desensitization in a single-session treatment of an 11-year-old girl’s elevator phobia. Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 20(4), 55 -62.

Suarez, Y., Adams, H. E., & McCutcheon, B. A. (1976). Flooding and systematic desensitization: Efficacy in subclinical phobics as a function of arousal. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 44(5), 872.

Michael V. Miranda

Dr. Miranda is an Assistant Professor of psychology at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York.

Copyright Schoolcraft College Spring 2008

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