In a lot of ways, college is no different than high school, save the caliber of work and the fact that students are more covert when they show up to class under the influence. One aspect of college life students prefer is the supposed freedom that accompanies higher-level learning. However, when compared to their high school counterparts, colleges undermine this freedom through mandatory attendance policies and participation grades that often end up disciplining students to attend them. Rather, professors should develop an engaging class so that students are inclined, not compelled, to offer their thoughts.
Students, and in many cases their parents, are the ones paying for their education. Because current tuition prices make higher learning a business transaction, students must make it their prerogative to attend class and gain the most out of their academic careers. When professors make participation mandatory, they take this responsibility away from students. Is there anything more irksome than professors dangling the “speak up, it’s part of your grade” card in the class’ face?
Grading a student based on how frequently or how well they speak during class is a superficial gauge of learning. Students are being graded on whether they’ve aided the professor in stimulating discussion, not whether they’ve left class more informed than when they arrived.
Participation grades seldom reflect what a student has achieved. Instead, they are an arbitrary guess on how many times a student has raised their hand compared to their peers, yet another meaningless competition among students.
It seems that the same five students, who now have an additional compulsion to speak to improve their grades, will continue to dominate the conversation, while another five students will refuse to utter anything, save “Fire!” if it were warranted. The other 20 or so students will sway somewhere in the participatory limbo, between a C and a B, offering either rare insightful critique, or an obligatory regurgitation of a professor’s comment because there are two weeks left in the semester.
Participation implies consent, and for many students, this is not the case. Students who prefer to absorb information by listening and taking notes use their time just as effectively as students that shoot up their hands at every question. In addition, through the overt discrimination against introverted students, participation grades enforce a particular cultural and gendered bias.
Although a painful stereotype, research has shown that Asian students participate less than non-Asian students. Some have posited a cultural emphasis on Asian students to be more reserved out of respect to their educators as a reason for this difference. It would be lazy to ascribe blame to the students themselves and encourage them to acclimate to a U.S. climate of extroversion. But this mode of thinking fails to address the primary concern of why we need participation in the first place.
A vast body of research has shown that men are more likely to speak longer, more frequently and with more confidence. Men are also more likely to be called on for answers, a bias I’ve seen some professors try to remedy by calling on women. Women, on the other hand, talk less, and yet are still more likely to be interrupted when speaking, sometimes by other women. Women generally have less confidence when they speak, adding caveats such as “I may be wrong” or “I guess” to preface their comments. Yet, students of all ethnicities and genders who prefer to remain quiet have lower grades than their extroverted counterparts, despite having equal intelligence and capacity.
There are better ways to learn a student’s voice than through compulsory participation. In addition to essays and projects, professors can assign online discussion boards so students don’t feel the pressure of speaking out loud. It’s not the worst thing in the world if a student doesn’t participate. Making participation a choice — not a consequence — may encourage students who wouldn’t normally speak to give it a try. Students who make meaningless comments because their grades depend on it will be dis-incentivized to raise their hands and make way for their less-talkative counterparts to speak. If college students are expected to take themselves seriously, perhaps professors should as well, by giving them the freedom to use their voice of their own accord.
Kristen DiPietra is a junior double-majoring in English and human development.