Participation grades shouldn’t exist at higher education institutions

| Staff Writer

This isn’t a hyper-conservative rant about how younger generations are coddled by society and turned into snowflakes after earning too many participation ribbons. I just think participation grades are really stupid.

Most classes offered at Washington University have some sort of grading component related to participation—for larger lecture courses, it’s usually in the form of tracking attendance (I’m talking to you, Sudeshna Bandyopadhyay) or incorporating clicker questions (every introductory level STEM class). This is not the type of participation grading that bothers me; actually, I’m glad professors hold students accountable to show up to class.

This semester, I’m taking a class in which participation counts as 10 percent of our grade. The class features one professor-led lecture per week, with two subsequent discussion sections led by graduate students. Each graduate student independently chooses how to grade their section. My instructor unfortunately decided it would be fun and cool to introduce the following criteria to account for the 10 percent participation grade: attendance, no use of electronics, meaningful in-class contribution and respect toward the instructor and fellow students.

Requiring attendance and banning electronics both seem completely reasonable. The clauses that don’t sit well with me are the meaningful in-class contribution and respect toward the instructor and fellow students.

For discussion-based classes, I agree that student contribution is important and should be mandated. My problem with this particular criteria comes with the word “meaningful.” I don’t understand how a third-year graduate student assistant to the instructor is qualified to determine whether my comments in class are “meaningful.” I respect their role as someone who facilitates discussions and grades my work, but I don’t think it’s anyone’s job in academia to regulate what qualifies as meaningful discourse—not even a widely respected, tenured professor.

At high-caliber universities, students should be challenged to decide (read: not told) what participating in meaningful discussion means to them. Trying to constantly impress an instructor creates a stifling echo chamber of an academic environment, quite literally circumventing the purpose of a discussion-based course.

The other participation requirement I disagree with is respect toward the instructor and other students. At this point, I don’t think I should have to clarify that it’s unacceptable to be really rude to everyone in class, but I will, anyway: I think you should be respectful in class, something that I think everyone on a college campus agrees with (minus a few contrarians. Being respectful is a universally understood University dynamic that, when listed in a syllabus, can be skewed in favor of the instructor, making room for a highly personal grading tactic. How are we supposed to know how our particular instructor defines respect? And who’s to say that will we have the same definitions? This is a riskily flexible stipulation that instructors can use toward the end of the semester to punish more vocally oppositional students.

If I disagree with my instructor, will that be interpreted as disrespect? Many of my fellow classmates think so, and they have encouraged me to stop challenging our instructor for the sake of my grade. But when we begin censoring ourselves in the classroom to secure a higher grade, we contribute to a dynamic that suppresses creativity. Here emerges a power dynamic that discourages the very crux of a strong academic experience: discussion.

Students: Keep questioning your professors. Challenge any institution that demands complacency and undue respect or reverence for underqualified authority.

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