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Participation grades: A narrow form of assessment

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Terry McCombs/ Flickr

Terry McCombs/ Flickr

A long-standing tradition within many schools across the country has been the existence of participation grades. These are essentially a way of determining how much you interact with the class at hand. For a lot of students, this provides their grade with a little extra cushion. But being graded on contributions can be a source of anxiety for some individuals. Often it can be difficult to speak up in front of a class – sometimes it’s so stress-inducing that students choose to accept a bad grade rather than possible (and very unlikely) criticism from peers.

This, therefore, raises the question of whether participation grades should continue or be banished from existence. On one hand, it seems somewhat cruel to force someone to publicly share his or her opinion or work when they don’t feel comfortable enough. But there’s another side to the argument as well; participation grades motivate students to offer valuable input and provide them with important life skills.

About two years ago, a controversial article was published in The Atlantic regarding class participation grading policies. The author, Jessica Lahey, argued that communication is a significant part of life and introverts need to accept that. She was supported by Dr. Kendall Hoyt of Dartmouth Medical School, who stated, “You don’t get a pass for your personality type.”

Yes, all students should learn how to effectively communicate, but there’s a reason Lahey’s article caused such a stir. Her lackadaisical attitude toward introversion in classrooms is a traditionalist point-of-view in which students are required to speak regardless of if they are comfortable.

Various counterarguments have appeared over the past two years in regards to Lahey’s piece – one in particular is Katherine Schultz’s “Why Introverts Shouldn’t Be Forced to Talk in Class.” Schultz vehemently disagrees with Lahey on all levels. In her opinion, it’s wrong to presume everyone who doesn’t speak up in class is an introvert. Not every person stays silent for the same reasons. In addition, Schultz says class participation shouldn’t always be verbal. Thoughtful silence, the process of taking reflective notes and even a simple nod of the head can all be viewed as participation.

Lahey and Schultz both provide some fair points. Lahey is right in thinking communication skills need to be emphasized within educational systems. Communication is vital not just for future careers, but for life in general. However, I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that this communication must be forced rather than fostered. Forcing something is the easiest way to create a negative atmosphere.

Students don’t need to be babied, especially those in college. But everyone has different learning styles and it’s not completely fair to only cater to extroverted individuals who find it easy to discuss their thoughts.

The truth is, there are ways to find a happy medium. Professors who grade based on participation should be aware of students who don’t typically speak up. Perhaps they can incorporate assessments that aren’t always discussion-based, such as short writing assignments. This type of system could be a way to promote knowledge, encourage social growth and establish a little comfort in learning environments without coddling students.

As an introvert, I get it. I hate giving presentations and discussing my thoughts; I dread classes weighted heavily on participation. But the fact is no matter how strongly I dislike participation grades, their existence does have value. They provide a way of engaging the class, as well as assessing how the students understand the topic at hand. And it’s possible to grade participation without penalizing those who can’t voice their opinions in class.

Don’t condemn participation grades just yet. Acknowledge their benefits as well as their downfalls and, most importantly, try your best to create a welcoming atmosphere for your fellow classmates who might not be as outspoken as you.

 Gabby Vacarelo is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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