In some college classes today, class participation can count for anything between 10 to 20 per cent of the final grade. Two out of my four classes in the fall semester had class participation grades. Generally, class participation takes into account how often students contribute to class discussions and answer questions. However, class participation should be more than just speaking in class. When students are obligated to speak because of a grade, the initial goal of sharing ideas with fellow students is not achieved.
Class participation grades are introduced with the good intention of encouraging students to voice their ideas. Most of us have experienced that awkward moment in class when the professor asks a question and everyone sits there in silence hoping someone else will answer, and if students have the incentive of receiving a better grade if they speak up in this situation, class discussions are likely to surface. Class discussions and student participation are important because college education shouldn’t be bound by textbooks and professors’ lectures, but rather should also encompass learning from peers and listening to a spectrum of opinions and ideas.
Despite the positive benefits that can come through sharing and listening in a class, having class participation grades are not efficient in initiating meaningful discussions. Students undeniably will speak more in class if their grade is affected by how frequently they speak, but it is also likely that students who have nothing to contribute to a discussion will feel the pressure to do so in order to meet the participation requirement. If you have taken a class where class participation counts, you know that there are always people who speak for the sake of speaking. They might repeat what someone else has already said with slightly different wording or they move the discussion into an unrelated tangent.
My own experience reaffirms this. One of my classes that had a participation grade was in a subject that was completely foreign to me. I was going into this class with no relevant background and I was there to simply learn something in a new field. For me, my enjoyment of that class was greatly impeded by the constant awareness that in each class I needed to speak at least once. If I found the readings for a particular week to be difficult and dense, I would struggle to formulate some analysis to share. Meanwhile, there were students who would present details they found to be particularly interesting and then further develop ideas from the readings, which in turn gave me insight on the content. Students who actually have worthwhile things to say contribute to improving the quality of the class, whereas everyone raising their hand in an attempt to get a good participation grade does not.
If professors want students to be engaged in the class, they should redefine class participation to include ways of participating that will be beneficial to all students. For students who may not be comfortable speaking in class, they can go to office hours or attend events relevant to the class. Speaking in class is not the only way for students to participate in a meaningful manner. Having a participation grade certainly does guarantee class discussion, but class discussion is not the most important focus in creating an enriching academic environment. The more important focus should be creating a learning environment where students can choose to share and listen. If professors are passionate and the class itself is fascinating, naturally students will be more inclined to speak and engage in discussion. A participation grade only coerces students to speak for the sake of a grade.