Participation: not the point

Story Oona Foley

Illustration Isabella Frescura

Some call participation points SPHS’s version of extra credit. At times, “active listening” in class can entirely save a student’s grade. Many teachers, however, require more than active listening; they grade students on an active-participation basis, creating drastic grade inequalities by inflating the grades of more outspoken students. Participation points can and should be used to incentivize active listening, but punishing students who choose not to speak up in class creates an environment that punishes introverts.

Grades for participation are designed to encourage input from a range of different perspectives, but the strategy is hardly effective. While points based on listening and attentiveness ensure a positive discussion space, points awarded for active contribution to discussions do little more than commend extroverted personalities while disadvantaging quieter or more socially anxious students. This enforces a flawed assumption that loudness equates to intellect. Speaking in public, while natural for some, is uniquely difficult for many students, and therefore a flawed method of measuring comprehension. Teachers must also remember that silence does not always equate to disinterest, apathy, or confusion. Every student learns differently, and to punish a listener who is totally engaged and fully comprehends the material is simply illogical.

Incentivizing extroversion widens a gap that social norms have already created; white men are rewarded for being loud and outspoken, while it is often considered brash for women or people of color to do the same. Non native English speakers can be similarly disadvantaged, as they exist in a flawed world where “good” English is seen to be indicative of intelligence. Participation points allow people of privilege to dominate academic spaces even further.

Similarly, participation-based points cater to those with high grades. Students who already understand the material are often more comfortable answering questions in class than those who do not. Awarding students who are already performing well widens the grade gap between students who are thriving and failing.

Classroom participation should be encouraged so that students feel they are welcome to speak without grade points as an incentive. Teachers should work to foster a classroom environment where students feel comfortable participating without the threat of a grade reduction. Small-group and partner discussions foster this far better than large classroom seminars. Educators must be aware of the different factors that play into a student’s level of participation and actively work to combat grade inequity on the basis of privilege and personality.

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