We’ve all been there. The professor asks a question and the room remains completely silent. Everyone looks around the room, avoiding eye contact. A few seconds pass and finally, the professor answers himself or herself and moves on.
To avoid that uncomfortable silence and apparent lack of enthusiasm, some professors have incorporated participation grades into their syllabi.
Unless otherwise specified, a participation grade generally takes into account how often students raise their hands to speak over the course of the semester. In classes I’ve taken, participation grades have comprised anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of the final grade. And that can be problematic.
When students’ grades depend, in part, on their ability to contribute to class, more people will participate. While a sea full of raised hands is not necessarily bad, it’s unlikely that every person has something meaningful to say. In an attempt to gain “participation points,” some students will steer class discussion onto a tangent, repeat what’s already been said, or ask a question that has an obvious answer. Since everyone becomes focused on making sure their voice has been heard for the day, some people will not think before they raise their hands, which can be a detriment to the actual quality of the discussion and might set the class further behind.
Additionally, some students are simply uncomfortable with raising their hands every day. Rather than making those students dread class by basing part of their grade on an action that makes them nervous, professors should encourage them to engage in other ways. If a professor really does feel that measuring students’ participation is necessary, he or she should define “participation” broadly — including visiting office hours, working with classmates in a small group, or attending an outside event related to the course — to accommodate those who don’t feel comfortable regularly raising their hands. Enthusiasm and engagement cannot and should not be measured through discussion comments alone. Professors should acknowledge that there are many ways in which students can actively reflect on the material, both inside and outside the classroom.
Classes are undeniably better when students are paying attention and willing to volunteer an answer or opinion here and there. While offering a participation grade is a sure-fire way to guarantee a discussion, it’s unnecessary. I’ve taken many classes at the College of William and Mary where the professor’s enthusiasm for the subject naturally sparked discussion, and where the class environment became a safe space for even the quietest students to share their thoughts. If, instead of focusing on forcing every student to speak, professors made a conscious effort to create a classroom experience in which most students felt comfortable openly engaging with the material, more enthusiasm would likely shine through — and not because of a grade.
Email Abby Boyle at firstname.lastname@example.org.