While participation points rarely make the syllabus at large universities, students at small liberal arts colleges like St. Olaf are frequently subject to this type of evaluation, particularly in humanities courses. Professors often claim participation points encourage class preparedness and daily attendance in addition to constructive in-class discussion, and as such, warrant a grade.
While all types of academic evaluation systems have downfalls, mandated verbal participation points present special issues. In reality, this type of evaluation polarizes classroom environments and disadvantages students with certain learning styles, all while providing limited analytical benefit for the class as a whole.
In college, class time represents only a small portion of a student’s learning environment, particularly when courses meet only two-to-three times per week. Yet, at times, participation points account for twenty-five percent of one’s overall grade. This closed time frame makes contributing in class a competitive and performative exercise. While in-class exams also function as a time-constrained grade, the material on a given tests is typically anticipated, and students are given an equal opportunity to succeed – one student’s actions do not detract from another students’ chance to perform just as well. On the contrary, individuals who participate with frequency diminish opportunities for more timid students to speak up. Minimizing a student’s grade for lacking verbal participation within a specified hour to hour-and-a-half long class session ultimately penalizes students who synthesize their ideas more slowly. This factor is especially stressful because students cannot control the topics of discussion or predict its progression within a given class, making it difficult to contribute their thoughts.
When reflecting on participation points as an evaluation system, we must ask ourselves about the purpose of in-class time, and recognize it may have a different function for each student. While some pupils use class time to ask questions and vocalize ideas, other students gain the most from listening to the arguments of their peers, cataloguing this knowledge and reflecting on it. These students should not be downgraded for their hardwiring, but in reality, they stand a lower chance of receiving full credit for this category of their grade than their talkative peers.
In addition to disadvantaging certain learning styles, demanding verbal participation puts pressure on students to speak with frequency, rather than quality. Students aim to articulate their thoughts as often as possible in order to satisfy their daily participation requirement, whether or not their arguments advances the discussion productively. This trend not only threatens to dilute the depth and analytical nature of statements made, but also disrupts the linearity of a discussion’s path. Jumping from topic to topic in this manner harms the class as a whole by preventing meaningful conclusions from forming. At the level of undergraduate study, grading systems should prioritize substantive and well-crafted arguments, rather than allotting points for vocalization.
Beyond the implications for the classroom, verbal participation points perpetuate the societal value of extroverts. Individuals who speak up often are perceived by their peers and managers as more intelligent and resourceful, when in reality, they may merely be more impulsive and confident. Rewarding these habits in an educational setting will only solidify these societal beliefs, and the power of introverts will continue to be overlooked.
Although participation points are a well-intentioned method of encouraging student voices, in reality, this evaluation system is neither the most effective for learning, nor does it create more reflective individuals. Instead, allotting grade points for in-class participation suggests there is only one valid way to show day-to-day engagement with course material.
Abi Tupa ’16 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from St. Louis Park, Minn. She majors in English with concentrations in media studies and management studies.