UT professors must rethink participation in the classroom

Sneha Prasath

Classroom participation is not a new concept. Students have been encouraged since grade school to speak up and voice their thoughts during class discussions. This expectation has remained prevalent in the university system and continues to play a role in classrooms across campus, and ultimately in students’ final grades. 

There is a right and wrong way to encourage and assess participation in the classroom. Simply awarding participation points each time a student speaks — regardless of whether or not it enhances learning for themselves and others — is time-consuming and ineffective. However, participation can still be effective in other nontraditional written forms that appeal to a larger group of students and offer the bonus of subjective grading to professors. 

Asking students to offer opinions and thoughts is more fruitful than drilling students about newly covered course material. This can deter students from participating due to fear of public humiliation that precipitates from anxiety about misinterpreting questions — especially those that are material-based. This issue becomes more prominent especially when professors hold a track record for asking daunting follow-up questions.

Participation continues to be included and encouraged in the classroom for a multitude of reasons. Traditional participation requirements are meant to record a student’s engagement in the course and material, although it may not be beneficial.

Heena Popatia, a third-year professional accounting master’s student, said that mandating participation can harm students. 

“Requirements placed on participation unnecessarily prolong the class and push students to speak just for the sake of speaking,” Popatia said. 

With participation, the final outcome oftentimes does not align with the intention of the professor. Popatia said that there is a way in which students are positively encouraged to participate. 

“When professors ask students to think about themselves personally and connect their experiences with class material, they are more likely to participate in a valuable and thoughtful manner,” Popatia said. 

Setting up discussion boards, chat boxes, polls and reflection papers help students adapt to a new normal and these methods become an ally for those who resent in-person participation for a myriad of reasons.

“Having participation in the classroom pushes people who are already going to participate to now dominate the conversation,” said Madeleine Redlick, communication studies assistant professor. “It’s even more difficult to objectively judge and give credit for participation in person because the quality of students’ responses varies greatly.”

Redlick said participation can be useful in different forms as long as they are right for the classroom environment. Written participation eliminates the element of repetitiveness that often happens with in-person participation. This method is especially effective for students who have difficulty speaking up in front of a large audience. 

A college-level classroom environment should enhance the learning experience, not detract from it by discouraging students who might be too scared to share their original thoughts in a public setting.

Especially in the age of COVID-19, participation can no longer be just speaking up. To effectively teach their students, professors must rethink the way participation is conducted to ensure that students can engage with the material and use it for critical thinking. 

Especially with these new methods, there is less of a need for the professor to grade participation objectively. This offers professors the ability to create rubrics that explain why participation is important, how to engage successfully and why it is important in the learning process.

The way students learn and apply class concepts has greatly changed in the American university system. The elements that make up the learning process, including participation, should adapt accordingly to fit a new normal.

Prasath is a finance junior from Westford, Massachusetts.