There have been multiple times in my educational career when I've felt completely unprepared. Sure, sometimes I genuinely wasn't, because I didn't do this or that reading, and such, but the times I'm really talking about here are the ones you can't genuinely prepare for.
The clearest memories I have of these situations are from some of my history classes during my earlier years in college. I remember listening along in lecture and furiously taking notes to the point of hand cramps, thoroughly enjoying the new information and the concepts mentioned. But then the professor would ask some questions for a bit of discussion.
Now, I have not been, and will not be, shy about my dislike for full-class discussions, not to mention required vocal participation in this context. But, that's another topic for another time.
What effectively blew my mind in that instance were the questions and responses of my fellow classmates. They brought up even more thought-provoking ideas, and seamlessly connected concepts with other lecture examples. It was done to an extent that I had not witnessed or engaged in before.
This might sound trivial or even expected. Like, wow, a student experienced a college classroom setting, congrats. But, it was more than that for me, and it's more than that, I think, for many students out there.
It's hard to be an underclassman, which is definitely an understatement. But, really, think about it. You are experiencing a new place in a new school, surrounded by new and more people, and you're expected to figure out your life really quick. Then suddenly you're in multiple classes with other students of various ages and of various experiences and told to be at the same level.
You're no longer in the same lane as before. Now, you have to figure out how you fit into this class and your overall situation.
Then you're me, sitting in class, wondering how you even got where you are now. Going from feeling proud of actually getting here, to feeling like you don't measure up at all.
It's an unexpected, but valid, identity crisis for students. But, like most things, it does get better.
I don't promise that you will magically connect every argumentative concept into a flawless comment or question for discussion. But, bit-by-bit you will understand what those connections are and why they work.
As a senior undergraduate now, I find myself much more prepared in class, regardless of the variables of assigned readings. I don't speak up in class any more than I did before. Even less if I'm not being forced to. But, I can follow along with lectures and questions with the ability to formulate arguments and ideas that once surprised and shocked me.
And, it's okay if it's not like that for you right now. I never said it's always like that for me.
When you're feeling caught off guard by something in class, there is more than one possible reason why.
In some cases, you just need to give it time. College and majors are designed for you to learn and (in some variation) master a skill. It helps to stop putting the bar too high for yourself.
Another, very important, thing to keep in mind, is that people process information differently. I process a lot internally and through writing. But, some people need to talk it out in order to grasp an understanding for themselves. In this case, what is being said by the assumed genius student, might not even be completely coherent.
Something important I've learned is that just because someone is willing to speak up in class, doesn't mean they're smarter than you, it just means their louder than you.
If some of these ideas and observations seem to contradict each other, I get it. It's difficult to explain how people learn and process. It's a work in progress for education systems in general. But sometimes, feelings and perspectives can overlap, which is the case in this context.
If you are a freshman and you totally understand everything right off the bat and eagerly participate in class discussions, great. That's good for you, and I wish you the best.
But, if anything I've said seems relatable to you, and you are feeling a little intimidated by your classes, don't give up just yet. Things will start to connect the more classes you take and the more time you put in. In whatever school and/or class you're in; you belong there. Just keep your head up.