Participation Marks: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

While participation marks are a common feature of the modern classroom, do they always encourage genuine discussion? Here, four of our Opinion writers speak up on where participation marks go wrong and how to make them better.

via The Bull & The Bear

Speak DifferentAlex Petralia (Faculty of Arts, U3)

Extroverted StudentHere’s to the introverts. The shy. The private. The reflective.

We live in a society that celebrates the extraverted. We respect “the people person” as charismatic and assertive–the one who has the courage to say what he thinks and doesn’t think twice about it. Extraversion dominates the boardroom, the dining room and, most relevantly for us, the classroom.

For decades now, universities have made us feel like we should always be talking. Class discussions, group projects and constant hand-raising all socialize us into a culture that glorifies extraversion. For many professors, this is conveniently summed up into a participation mark.

But what about students that prefer to keep to themselves?Over a quarter of the population is introverted. Mandatory participation marks marginalize the shy and instead serve as easy grades for those to whom speaking comes most naturally. As a result, universities have forced introverts between a rock and a hard place: either participate in class or lose participation marks. To all introverts, “fake it ‘til you make it,” or else.

However, forced participation doesn’t only hurt introverts. When teachers make participation part of the grade, while not promoting a genuinely stimulating environment themselves, they encourage discussion that is not constructive.  While participation is designed to fix a lack of discussion, it instead promotes meaningless comments by students who exploit the participation grade.  After all, “there are no dumb questions,” but there are easy participation points.

I must be clear: in no way am I advocating the abolition of participation marks. Participation in class is not an unreasonable demand and is often highly constructive. Soft skills are essential to a life that is largely defined by social interaction—if we don’t develop them now, when will we? As well, participation promotes actually paying attention during class—it takes real skill to ask a relevant question while spending the entire class on Facebook.

Participation in class is a noble ideal but its implementation must be more thoughtful. Some introverts have a terrible fear of public speaking. Others fear their answers aren’t adequate and are not worth bringing up. Others yet may not see the benefit—if I can get an A without participating, then why participate at all?

Mandatory participation, then, does not solve the root problem. Students must be encouraged to participate because they find it genuinely worthwhile to discuss the topic, not because they just want to earn easy marks. This encouragement must come from professors. Are they ensuring that students come to class prepared? Are they ensuring that students feel comfortable speaking around their peers? Are they ensuring that students even know their peers? All too often, it is not sheer laziness that prevents in-class participation, but rather the social obstacles and academic discipline required to have open discussions. Thoughtful, stimulating discussion starts with the professor and ends with the student, not with a mandatory grade.

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