Class Participation

Here is an article worth reading from Times Higher Education (25 September), “No place for introverts in the academy?” The author, Bruce Macfarlane, criticizes those who demand that students be actively engaged in class and who award points for class participation:

“…university students are no longer allowed to be shy. ‘Active learning’ has become a modern mantra. Students must ask questions, express opinions, lead oral presentations and participate enthusiastically in community projects. To collaborate is sacrosanct. Passivity, on the other hand, is considered the enemy of learning. They must be vocal, expressive and assertive. The extrovert ideal… is all the rage.”

As a student, I too was shy and non-participative. I liked to learn by listening and observing others (and through hands on work of making or breaking things in labs). Now, as a professor, I try to elicit student participation with varying degrees of success. One thing I did long ago was to eliminate grading associated with class participation.

My rationale for this, explained in The Lean Professor, is as follows:

“I do not award points for class participation because I do not want to penalize introverted students who prefer to learn by listening, observing, and doing the assignments. Of course, I appreciate extroverted students who like to learn, in part, by engaging in classroom discussion. Introverts appreciate that as well.”

As professors, we have to respect student’s individuality and learning preferences.

I often receive feedback from students in end-of-semester anonymous surveys asking for greater class participation. But I have come to understand this feedback to mean:

 I think more people should contribute to the class discussion. Other people should speak up. I can learn from that. Maybe I’ll add something to the conversation if I feel like it.

Translation: Class participation is not my job; it’s other student’s job. To address this feedback, I now require students in all of my courses to submit discussion questions each week. They fill out a google docs form with one, two, or three discussion questions and press the “Submit” button. The discussion questions are collected in a spreadsheet which I print out and bring to class. The benefit is that questions get asked that would not normally get asked. The drawback is that discussion questions often fail to generate discussion due to a lack of class participation!

MacFarlane makes an important point worth reflecting on:

“The virtues of being shy are, in fact, well suited to many of the central values of higher education. These include not being overconfident about making knowledge claims and thinking ideas through before speaking.”

My view is that one should not lose sight of the goal, which is for students to learn the material and understand how to apply in the real world post-course and post-graduation. Class participation is great when it happens, but it is not the goal in teaching.

Students, however, do need to recognize that most workplaces value extroversion, which can put introverts at a career-long disadvantage. So, introverts have a decision to make: Should I learn how to be extroverted when conditions demand that I be, or should I be who I am under all conditions. You then have to live with your decisions. Likewise, extroverts ought to reflect on how being overconfident and speaking before thinking can damage their careers.

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