Class participation shouldn’t be mandatory for a student’s grade. Not only is it too ambiguous to grade, but it also punishes and creates a hostile environment for shy and introverted students.
Particularly in the liberal arts, discussion is greatly valued alongside instruction. Class discussion is used to stimulate the students’ minds and connect them to the curriculum. Instructors find student discussion so crucial, and sparse, that it is totaled into students’ grades as an incentive to participate.
Class participation is tricky to grade. To fairly grade it, an instructor would have to consistently record every instance of participation, per student, and gauge its worth to the discussion, during the discussion. This would distract the instructor away from the discussion, and because this meticulous recording is hardly ever done, participation grades end up being purely subjective.
Instructors consider only students who raise their hands and speak in class as actively participating, while the quiet students, who prefer to listen, lose points. Discussion, fundamentally a conversation, has two main components: a listener and a speaker. The apparent universal class participation rubric punishes the listeners. Listening and reflecting on ideas discussed in class is a form of participation, albeit one that may not be easy to notice.
It’s understandable that an instructor would want to develop the public speaking and interpersonal communication skills of his or her students, but a lone instructor, for the duration of a semester, won’t be sufficient to relieve students of any fears or insecurities they have about speaking in class. Negative experiences have made them afraid and it may take time before a student becomes comfortable enough to speak. Mandatory class participation exacerbates this fear by pressuring the student to act in ways that are uncomfortable.
Instructors may also think they are talking to deaf ears and force class participation in an attempt to have intelligent discussions with the class. This method does not always produce intelligent discussion. Instead, students are pressured to speak during class and it results in unprepared statements for the sake of participating and filling a perceived quota.
Class participation is not an indicator nor the only method of measuring a student’s knowledge. A student’s understanding of the subject may be reflected by test scores, and although great, the student’s grade may still suffer because of a lack of participation. Students who consistently perform well in exams, study, and complete all assignments, are alienated by the participation requirement. Quiet students are punished for their personalities, and otherwise ‘A’ students, become ‘B’ students.
There are more precise ways to measure a student’s understanding of the material. Instead of discussing an assigned reading for points, a quiz would provide a fair and accurate measure of retained knowledge.
To encourage discussion, an instructor can offer extra credit to students who participate in class. Because participation grades are whimsical and the most easily argued-against grades, they shouldn’t be mandatory in students’ overall score.