Written by Garima Prabhakar
Teaching is a skill. Being able to make a student understand a concept, make it stick, and be able to apply it to a situation is nothing less than an art. Many teaching methods rely on student participation to make it all happen. From invigorating the class and trying to prevent the all-too-common soporific first-period lectures to evaluating student competence and instilling the life skill better known as collaboration into growing students, class participation is important, if not a necessity, in the daily school life. To make sure students participate, one of the most common teaching strategies is to use participation grades. Indeed, a whole chunk of the grade grows out of it; class participation often counts for 20-30% of the overall grade in high schools— and it only increases up to 40% in college. However, tacking a grade to student participation in the classroom is not only a detrimental and biased way to determine student grades – but it’s also an inefficient and invalid addition to the grade that doesn’t really accomplish the goal it was intended for.
Every student learns in a unique way, and although one student may prefer to think his or her thoughts out loud in a classroom discussion, another student might prefer to process the information in their brain before making a statement. The purpose of teaching is to help students learn the material— but if the teaching method is designed so only some students have an advantage, then the whole purpose is defeated. Introverts and shy students make up anywhere from 25 to 50% of the total population, yet enforcing participation mostly focuses on helping their extroverted counterparts excel, ignoring the students who don’t work as well with class-wide discussions. Instead, teachers should find ways to optimize their teaching so that all students are able to learn in the learning styles that suit them.
Introverted students are penalized most for the participation grade because they are being forced to learn in a way that doesn’t suit them. Personality has a large influence on student participation, according to studies in the book Developing and Using Tests Effectively: A Guide for Faculty. Introverts are then penalized for not learning as well in a method they aren’t hard-wired to learn in— they’re penalized with bad grades for participating less in discussions when they learn better by analyzing the concept in their heads. Moreover, this not only degrades the grade but also their self-esteem.
However, when it comes to participation grades, introverts aren’t the only ones to suffer. Class participation can also penalize more outgoing and extroverted students, by making it harder for them to learn the way they best learn— by talking. If a grade is put on classroom participation, then students are more likely to not engage in the discussion for fear of getting a bad grade by saying something “unconstructive” or “unhelpful” to the discussion. Then, we enter a paradox because on the other side, not grading participation for quality diminishes its value— many students can excel in their classes by raising their hand, whether they actually brought something to the table or not. Moreover, in this cycle participation points don’t even achieve the goal they were made for— to evaluate a student’s competence in the subject area. More often, participation grades are affected by how much you speak rather than how much you understand the material.
The main advocating point for keeping a participation grade is that it is a necessary asset in the workforce. And that is true— we, as social creatures, rely mostly on our social connections and networks to make our way around the world. However, classroom participation doesn’t move students to participate because they should or because they have something to bring to the table, but instead out of fear for their grade. This is especially problematic in the workforce because, in a job, you won’t get an A for putting your ideas out there. In the long term, this does not condition a student to collaborate in the workforce where there isn’t much external penalty. We, as students, must learn not to participate because we have to, but because we want to. Moreover, the whole basis of participation points— the amount of speaking you do, is overrated. A study found that in the sales and marketing field, usually assumed to be a very extroverted field, top dealers typically spend only 40% of their time speaking and the rest listening, while the worst performers actually spend 65% of their time talking and 35% listening. So, participation is actually outweighed by careful listening in work.
In the end, participation and engagement in the classroom shouldn’t be the students’ problem: lack of participation suggests more of a class management issue. The teaching style should be incorporated in classrooms such that students understand the material, regardless of their inborn learning style. Moreover, many other things can be done instead of using participation grades to evaluate a student’s competence— things like partner or small group work and a balance of a variety on learning-style based assignments can help all students have a better chance of excelling. The teacher can encourage both extroverted and introverted styles of learning, and ingrain participation in students not as a stressor and a grade, but as a necessary life skill. Students shouldn’t be engaged in the classroom to get a good grade but instead because they want to contribute to the process. Even more important than participation is listening, and listening and participation should be given equal importance. If it’s apparent that the use of participation points in the classroom is pointless, then why are we still using it?
Above: Many students learn through different strategies and techniques, like through processing their thoughts and understanding the concepts in a group, writing down the concept to visually understand it, or by working out the concept in their head before participating in the group discussion.