Participation policies don’t account for student needs

Jamila Dawkins | Contributing Writer

It was syllabus week of my first semester at college. Every morning I woke up full of equal parts trepidation and excitement to get to know my professors, to finally take classes that I wanted to take—to be a real college student. Five minutes before my first class started I sat, toes tapping, fingers drumming, outside my class building. To fill the time, I pulled up my Canvas to check if any new files had been posted, only to see that a syllabus was up for the very class I was hopelessly early to. Scrolling through the pages, I saw a grade breakdown that gave me pause. Looming large over the list of percentages was the formidable “Participation: 30%.”

I had never been in a class that counted participation for so much. Generally, I tend to participate in class, but always at my discretion and in accordance with my own level of comfort in the environment. But now, a third of my grade relied on me engaging in class. I remember, in that first class period and the classes following, imagining a huge steel clock above my head, ticking ominously. 20 minutes left to say something. 10 minutes left. Five.

If I left a class without mustering up the courage to speak, I’d spend the next few hours imagining my GPA circling down the drain.

A few times, I wrote down things to say during class the night before, as my own personal script. Other times, I’d raise my hand only to stutter out a few half-formed thoughts before sinking back into my seat for the remainder of class. I adored the class—I was engaged with the material. But the pressure of participating always tainted my performance, even as I warmed up to the professor and my classmates.

Every educator approaches participation differently. Some teachers settle for attendance, while others impose stringent policies such as counting the number of contributions a student has made or randomly selecting students to speak in class. Class engagement is crucial for professors, a way to be sure your students understand what’s being taught and adapt where necessary. Some topics demand a classroom environment where students can build off of each other and generate new ideas or perspectives under the guidance of a professor.

Even more importantly, smooth interpersonal communication is integral not only in every career, but in every person’s personal life. Most parents’ concern with shy kids lies mainly in the fear that they won’t be able to stand up for themselves or that people will take advantage of them.

However, participation in the classroom isn’t a direct reflection of interactions in the world. The environment of a classroom has its own set of implications and stressors. Competitive environments (especially at schools like Wash. U.) can make participation seem frightening; people with social anxiety disorders can be genuinely debilitated by forced classroom interaction. In my case, as an introvert who prefers to speak only when I have something important to say, participation systems that grade on quantity rather than quality are not only stressful but also counterproductive to classroom conversation.

If the goal of class participation is to mark a student’s progress and understanding or enrich conversation, there are ways to accomplish this while being cognizant of those who struggle with social interaction. One great way can be through paired or small group discussions, which can lessen some of the pressure. Canvas offers a great opportunity to engage outside the classroom setting. Some professors open Canvas discussions where students can comment their observations if they feel uncomfortable in class; others accept participation through emails.

As for the importance of communication, I would argue that the classroom isn’t necessarily the place to force students to “break out of their shell.” People who have difficulty interacting socially don’t need professors to tell them that—they know. Time might be better spent making the classroom a space where these people feel comfortable sharing, thus allowing the participation to come from an organic, self-determined place rather than mandating a certain quantity of raised hands or punishing students who remain silent. Silence is golden, after all.

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