More often than not, professors will incorporate class participation into your grade for the course, ranging from a mere five percent or so to a significant component of class, such as 30 percent of the overall evaluation. I assume the professor’s intention is to motivate an engaging experience for the entire class. The requirement to contribute also offers an incentive to keep abreast of readings and assignments and encourages students to stay on-task, attentive and respectful during class. These objectives are completely understandable, and it would seem that obligatory participation would be an effective way to achieve these goals. However, the fact that participation is graded based on a professor’s narrow definition of what adequate class engagement looks like is an undue burden on many students, does not necessarily make way for an engaging, fruitful classroom experience, and should be reassessed.
Though some may view class participation as an easy grade booster, others view this is as a substantial stressor, especially if professors take this portion of the grade seriously. Because participation is often a graded component, it is commonplace for professors to standardize or generalize what is considered an “acceptable” form of participation that will receive good marks, which is often confined to some sense of verbal questions, comments or arguments delivered during class. Thus, essentially, those who are loud and vocal get points for participating.
There are several problems with this. Students may have come from conditions that either facilitated or prevented the establishment of an environment where their input was encouraged and respected. One of the many ramifications of living in a patriarchy is that women’s voices are often perceived as less important, less desired to be heard, and that they are a spectacle to be observed. This can make women feel more insecure about their input in a class. Meanwhile, men tend to feel more entitled to their opinions and may therefore have an easier time confidently expressing their thoughts in a classroom atmosphere.
Additionally, students could simply be introverted or extroverted—a biological difference. Introverted individuals often find it very difficult, over-stimulating or even paralyzing to speak in class. Verbal participation, even something as simple and seemingly undemanding as answering a quick question, is often perceived as more than a mere contribution. Students may see it as an evaluation of their beliefs, a measure of their intelligence, or demonstration of how well they have grasped the material at hand by both their peers and their professor. Thus, many will be more fixated on saying the “right” or “safe” thing instead of what actually piques their interest or confuses them—if anything at all.
Moreover, students who raise their hand often are not necessarily offering a fruitful supplement to the course; verbosity is not inherently equated to substance. There is also power in body language that displays attention and interest, such as eye contact, a forward lean or nodding. These signs of engagement may not be as obvious but can display active participation. I feel that these non-verbal indicators are too often overlooked as too inadequate for a good participation grade.
One could also argue that perhaps professors should not feel the need to dictate class contribution. The incentive to participate is often there to enrich the classroom experience, yet the desire to have an enriched experience should perhaps be at the discretion of the students. That said, I do still believe that engagement in course material is important and class discussions can be riveting and insightful; I simply believe the way we define “participation” and the clout it can have on a student’s grade should be reexamined.
One way we can improve our approach to measuring what constitutes as participation is by expanding its definition to include body language, email transactions, use of office hours and so on. Professors can also make participation a smaller component of the grade—5 percent or less—but let students know that they are encouraged and expected to contribute on a regular basis. This would incentivize those already inclined to contribute, allow more introverted individuals to feel comfortable not verbally participating, and mitigate the instances of people who contribute for the mere sake of participation credit. Providing a welcoming and low-key environment that invites rather than dictates participation would probably be more fruitful and less anxiety-provoking for students. These are some of the many ways we can change how we view participation.
Grades are, in theory, a representation of one’s mastery of the material at hand. Participation can surely exist without making it a component of one’s overall score. By instilling a more forgiving, flexible and broad view of class participation, we can make it a less stressful and forced act and a more inviting and attractive one instead.
—Angela Della Croce ’15 is an economics major.