Participation in the classroom: Get your 10%

The oft required and graded contributions of students during tutorials should be questioned.

Socrates and intellectuals in a USyd Classroom

Hearing the words ‘class participation’ evokes an array of responses ranging across the spectrum of human emotions. While the extrovert celebrates the chance to nab some easy marks, the introvert bemoans the thought of two hours every week spent clawing for some airtime. The idea of incorporating students’ engagement throughout a subject’s delivery into assessment considerations has become a popular mode of evaluating student progress, mainly in the disciplines of law, arts and social sciences.

With its roots in the Socratic method of inquiry, class participation is an active learning pedagogy where students engage in discourse about the ideas and assumptions underlying certain issues. It indicates the evolution of teaching methodologies from the traditional, passive lecturer talking at students to one where students activate discourse, while the teacher directs the discussion. The commonly-cited purpose of adopting this dialectical method of instruction is to ‘prepare students for the real world’, where career advancements are made based on employees’ demonstration of leadership and teamwork skills, rather than being judged solely by the quality of work produced.

However, ‘class participation’ is a vague and elusive term whose measure varies from subject to subject. For example, the Sydney Law School Resolutions provide that “‘Free form’ class participation must not amount to more than 10% of total assessment, but ‘structured class participation’ may be weighted more heavily.”

Assessment criteria for free form participation typically includes a mix of meeting attendance requirements and students’ critical analysis of prescribed texts, demonstrated through the contribution of thought-provoking questions and insightful answers to class discussions. Structured participation — which takes into account the quality of preparation and research dedicated to presentations, and completion of online components such as quizzes and discussion board posts — may command 20-25% of the final mark in some subjects.

There are several strong counterarguments to this approach, most notably that a focus on the quantity, rather than quality, of discussion does not promote a genuinely stimulating learning environment. Instead, students compete in a zero-sum game to recycle similar insights and opinions and secure some easy marks. This is especially detrimental to introverted students, whose discomfort in such high-pressure situations has led to the criticism that allocating marks for participation rewards the loudest, rather than most insightful, student.

Furthermore, class participation assumes an ethnocentric dimension when considering that many Eastern cultures promote passive compliance in learning, out of respect for teachers as ‘givers of knowledge’. This element of cultural insensitivity may not seem so pertinent in the Australian schooling system, but taking into account that international students make up over 20% of students at USyd, this is a real issue for many.

The degree of subjectivity exercised in assessing class participation also warrants discussion. Even in instances where marking rubrics are provided, these often contain vague, unquantifiable thresholds that ultimately leave a high level of discretion to the assessor.

However, it isn’t all bad news. Even the most steadfast of class-participation naysayers have to concede that it doesn’t rest solely on a bedrock of idealistic fluff. Aside from the usual spiel of providing a safe environment for mistakes to be made, helping the instructor identify problem areas and promoting class cohesion, there is no denying that grading participation makes for better prepared students, if only to avoid the embarrassment of being cold-called with nothing to say.

In an age where students are finding new and creative ways to cheat the system, allocating marks for class participation sidesteps many academic dishonesty hurdles encountered by hand-in tasks or examinations. Studies on class discussions have suggested that although there is no definitive relationship between higher class participation and test scores, there is a significant correlation between levels of participation and long-term retention of material.

The reality is that university is marketed as a breeding ground for ideas. Class participation as a means to promote that aim will not be going anywhere anytime soon. But in a space where there are no such things as stupid questions, there are, indeed, a lot of stupid questions.