Class participation should be stressed less to promote quality discussions

May 9, 2018 — by Sandhya Sundaram

Reporter discusses downside to participation grades.

For many students, few in-class activities are as stressful as a Socratic Seminar, in which the entire class must participate in a student-facilitated discussion, usually to help prepare for an upcoming test or to sum up a unit. This is especially the case when there’s limited time on the clock and points on the line.

Scrambling to find anything to say to gain participation credit, students often start reciting the large paragraph they had prepared the night before, regardless of whether it is relevant to the discussion at that moment. To make their out-of-context paragraph more convincing, students may add something along the lines of “building off of what Susan said” or “relating to what Billy said” and proceed to say their clearly off-topic point.

At this point, the student has successfully “finessed” their participation points by extending the conversation and engaging “enthusiastically” with their peers, and their job is done.

In classes ranging from English to foreign language courses, participation accounts for about 10 percent of the final grade. Whether it’s in the form of Socratics in English or timed rounds of practicing the subjunctive construction in Spanish, class participation exercises too often lead to boring, falsified answers and unnatural discussions.

In lower levels of Spanish, knowing that participation can make or break a final grade, people frequently resort to SpanishDict, a Spanish/English dictionary, to create premeditated responses and read these aloud to an unengaged class. Others just repeat the same sentence every day, knowing that they cannot lose participation points as long as their go-to sentence is grammatically correct.

In some higher level language classes, participation is graded on a curve, meaning that only the top participators can receive an A, making the classroom even more frantic and competitive.

Although students can decide whether they want to participate, in some math classes, they are still urged to participate for the small grade that they will receive at the end of the semester.

Some people decide to skip doing the homework, but still raise their hands to solve the problems on the whiteboard to receive participation credit. After getting called on, they often steal solutions from someone else who diligently did their homework in desperation to get the participation grade. But because the person who did the homework didn’t get called on, the lazy answer-stealer gets the participation credit.

In an ideal world, participation should reinforce material taught in class, encouraging students to actively practice the concepts learned.

Students should understand the purpose of participation and realize that by cheating, they will not understand the material thoroughly and likely do worse on tests. Whether in English, foreign language classes or math, participation exercises almost always help to review the material and to prepare for upcoming tests.

The problem is that participation has turned into a checklist item when it should instead be something that comes naturally. A better solution for teachers is to encourage participation without a grade attached to it. In this low-stakes environment, students will more likely absorb the content of the lesson and give thoughtful, relevant answers, rather than forcing out mediocre attempts just to get the credit. Students who decide to opt-out on participating will learn when they don’t score as well on tests.

Instead of making student participation a requirement, teachers should encourage students to participate without the burden of a heavily weighted grade. To prevent forced remarks and off-topic monologues that only serve to contribute to class boredom, all teachers should give students the opportunity to evaluate themselves or their peers during discussions, providing each other with constructive criticism, and combine that input with the teacher’s perspective.

Students should understand the intention of participation and teachers should alleviate the stress of the grade to help students gain the benefits of participating, while not forcing it.

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