Speak up in class, get a better education

By Peter Bowal

One of the most dreaded and discredited features of some upper-year courses is the "class participation" component. Almost no one, student or prof, has a consistently pleasing experience with it. Many students will avoid any section of a course that uses it. As someone who uses this form of student evaluation, I think it is also one of the most misunderstood.

In this column, I attempt to answer the question: why do profs make part of the mark in a course dependent on class participation? What learning value can there be in hearing the ski bum at the back of the class constantly interrupting the class to tell stories and troll for brownie points?

Well, this may be exactly what gives class participation a bad name. There are many reasons for incorporating class participation in evaluating student performance in a course.

It develops oral communication skills. One improves on organizing one’s thoughts and thinking "on one’s feet," which is a valuable life skill. If university is only a part of life (that’s true, right?) and if it is supposed to socialize us and prepare us for the world of work, what is wrong with developing good oral communication skills? They are highly valued in the outside world.

Do you know of any job where the employee interacts and contributes entirely by writing? If so, would you want to be that employee? Or would you ever want to hire someone who only communicates in writing?

Let’s face it, the testing system in post-secondary education has both good and bad points. One of the bad points is that mid-term exams, final exams and written assignments do not mimic life much. Outside university, we are evaluated on so much more than our writing ability and penmanship under time pressures.

Oral give and take in the classroom also provides feedback. We get an instant sense of what we know and how we can improve. We get cues by the truckload from the prof as to what kinds of questions are within the ambit of the course, and what kind of answers are sought. We get a good idea of where we are in relation to our classmates, and we learn from their questions and answers. Overall, class participation makes the learning process more active. Almost everyone learns better when he or she is actively involved. With class discussions, it is hard to sleep. One is drawn in to follow what is being said.

We frequently hear today about how we all learn differently. It is called "learning styles." Why should evaluation of student performance in a course flow only from the passive, written outlet? It seems that if some learn and demonstrate their understanding best by the spoken word, it is fair that they should be able to earn marks that way. Again, that is how we earn marks in the real world too.

Class participation models the reality that learning and intellectual contributions are an incremental matter. One can have a good or bad day for an exam that will determine the grade, but participation takes place over the whole term. No one will succeed or fail only on one day. Again, that looks to me pretty much like the regular world of work and life.

Oh, and class discussion usually makes the classroom experience more lively, relevant and interesting for all. It introduces students to each other. It opens possibilities for role playing and flexible and critical thinking.

In my next column, I’ll describe why most students hate class participation. It has lots of promise, but seldom is that promise realized.

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