Why you should care

Participation points reward outspokenness, not understanding — while doing a disservice to quiet learners.

It was my first-day-of-class ritual. Scan the syllabus for the dreaded subheading: “Participation and Discussion.” Then, hold my breath for the percentage of the final grade. Shy and self-conscious, nothing terrified me more than class discussions. By the time I had finished painstakingly crafting a response, everyone else had moved on to another topic. The few times I did muster a comment, I felt a roomful of eyes boring through me as I choked on my words.

Teachers often grade participation to measure students’ understanding and engagement with the course material. But louder doesn’t always mean smarter. Plus, participation grades — worth more than 20 percent of the final grade in some classes — penalize and even hurt the well-being of quiet students who know the material but might be too flustered to show it. In the end, the same bold voices dominate the conversation even more, further marginalizing soft-spoken students. And we’re not talking a silent minority here; shy and introverted types each make up as much as half of the American population. (Introversion refers to a preference for low social stimulation, while shyness stems from anxiety in social situations.)

Worried about her final grade, an introverted student might play the part of an extrovert. But without time to unwind, “it can take a toll.”

Western education emphasizes teacher-student dialogue — which typically boils down to getting students to talk more and teachers to lecture less. Today, teachers can choose from a number of apps to help them monitor and boost student participation — like iMpact, a digital seating chart with a special “cold call” feature. And sure, there’s a case to be made for class participation. Some research finds that kids who speak up tend to do better in school, especially when it comes to exams. Class discussions can also teach students how to ask questions and express opinions and other skills needed to thrive in the professional world — and in general, a Western society that overwhelmingly rewards extroversion.

But participation points can place quiet students at an unfair disadvantage, resulting in grades that don’t reflect their level of engagement, says Brian Little, a psychology professor at Harvard University. They might simply need more time to prepare a verbal response, or fear judgment from their classmates. Or they might come from a culture that values introversion. But there are other ways to evaluate engagement among these students, says Little — he asks his students to submit journal entries and post to online forums.

Participation points might also lead to burnout. Worried about her final grade, an introverted student might play the part of an extrovert, gritting her teeth and contributing to discussions. But without sufficient time to unwind in between, “it can take a toll,” Little says. Although stretching ourselves fosters personal growth, instructors “need to have compassion.” Some students simply lack the capacity to “fake” extroversion.

Studies showing that quiet kids tend to fare worse in school might also stem from educators’ own biases. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that K-12 teachers viewed quiet kids as less academically competent — even less intelligent — than their chattier peers, creating a “self-fulfilling prophecy” with effects that ripple far beyond their participation grade, says Robert Coplan, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa. Teachers’ low expectations might influence how they treat quiet students and grade them on other aspects of the class, which could, in turn, affect their self-image and performance. Fear of speaking aloud might also rattle their ability to concentrate in class.

Likewise, gregarious students are “not necessarily the smartest,” says Keith Campbell, head of the University of Georgia’s psychology department. “They’re the most confident.” In fact, the correlation between personality and intelligence remains cloudy. And by pushing talkative students to contribute even more, participation grades might result in stale discussions that echo the same viewpoints — as quiet students struggle even harder to express themselves.

While it’s impossible to rebuild an entire education system, awareness of why some students don’t participate might make busy instructors pause before dismissing them as unengaged. “There is a norm of social participation to function in our society,” Coplan says. It’s “good for us to be aware that it poses challenges for some individuals.”

Comments welcome — and no, they won’t count toward your final grade.

Comment

OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.