Opinions, Column

Participation is Unfair Method for Grades

When I first started college, I figured that participation grades would diminish in light of more intellectually challenging material that requires more individual reflection and demanding assignments. Instead, in MCAS classes, participation seems to take up larger percentages of final grades with each passing year. I am all for sharing ideas and having discussions with other classmates when applicable—we can and often do learn from each other, often a byproduct of class discussions. That said, there is an issue with the extreme grading emphasis on participation.

While professors may see class participation as a way to incentivize student discussion, and thus enriching class conversation, the overemphasis of it consequently hurts the learning process for students who learn best by listening, absorbing information, and piecing together their understanding of the material—which a constant pressure of “what do I need to say next?” hinders. 

Graded participation often has detrimental effects on hard-working and thoughtful students’ grades by distracting from their interaction with the material by turning the classroom into an exhibition of who can take up the most air time. In my experience, more professors tend to be shifting toward the ‘quality vs. quantity’ model. Even with this model, some professors ultimately still have unattainable requirements for the frequency of speech needed to get a good grade. I personally learn best by sitting back, listening, and processing the content in my mind as the class progresses—which requires a lot of concentration, and time, to parse through. The added pressure of graded participation stifles my focus on the present material. I often become too preoccupied with what I should contribute to the class. 

Since I need time to develop my ideas, which are no less relevant than other comments being made by students who are more prone to raising their hands almost impulsively, I not only lose out by missing much of the actual discussion taking place, but many times I have rushed comments that do not demonstrate my fullest understanding of the content. 

I know many other students who feel the same way—that our disposition and learning methods undeservingly threatens our grades too often. By allotting constant participation as the measure of effort and success in the classroom, introverted students are put at an unfair disadvantage. Yes, there are often other ways of collecting grades used in conjunction with participation, but participation can be worth as much as 35 percent of a grade in some classes.

Even for students who are more comfortable sharing their thoughts in class, graded participation tends to act as a prevent rather than enhancing class discussion. Bonnie M. Miller, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, recalls in the American Historical Association the comments of some of her graduate students: “When I know that [participation] counts I try to get my two cents in. … But when it doesn’t count I’m more likely to be confident in my participation.” Miller herself questions the actual objectivity, and effectiveness of grading participation. She writes,  “A student of mine several years ago told me that he did not often speak in class because he was fascinated by what his peers had to say.” 

Besides putting a damper on so many students’ education and grades, graded participation causes students to repeat so many generis comments that dilute the discussion in pursuit of ticking off participation points—ruining the whole point of graded participation in the first place, which is to stimulate productive conversation. Such empty comments, which we are all familiar with in the classroom, highlight the lack of importance placed on listening (and ultimately a true comprehension and appreciation of the material) in the system of hyper-participation. 

It says a lot when the student who repeats exactly what a peer said two minutes ago gets a better participation grade for the day than the student who refrained from regurgitating the same comment because they actually listened to, and processed, what was said. What the grading system values is air time. The amount of effort students put into their classes is very subjective, but I think it is best measured by the actual work being produced, and maybe the attentiveness in class—which comes in many forms, not just through talking.

November 10, 2019

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