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Professors Shouldn’t Grade Participation — There, I Said It

The infamous syllabus week is upon us, which means each class period is dedicated to learning the requirements of the class (as if we can’t read the syllabus on our own). As the teachers explain what they expect of us, I generally understand and agree with them, but there is a requirement that comes up during "sylly week" that I truly can’t get behind: Participation grades. 

Sure, class work and attendance should be a crucial part of your final grade, but you’re telling me that the number of times I raise my hand will determine if I pass the class? In my humble, college-kid opinion, professors need to lighten up on participation grades and start focusing on what really is a testament to academic success and engagement. 

Participation Grades Do Not Account For "Quiet Learners"

Though engaging with the course content vocally might help a student in the long run, participation and how they absorb knowledge is a subjective experience. Teachers who put a heavy emphasis on participation grades and make it a large percentage of the final grade leave out introverted students, or quiet learners if you will. 

Quiet learners are often regarded as students with reflective thinking and low sociability. They pay attention to details, take thorough notes, and listen carefully. Participation grades that base success on vocal engagements don’t appreciate the attentiveness and concentration of these types of learners. The pressure to fulfill their participation grade might distract introverted learners from their learning process, because now they are more focused on what they should contribute to the discourse. Introverted students are more likely to speak up when they actually have time to gather their thoughts, not when they’re put on the spot. 

Forcing Participation May INcrease (Already Existing) Anxiety

Beyond being introverted is social anxiety, or the intense fear of social situations. This fear is especially present in situations where they may be judged or criticized, such as in a classroom. Vocal participation might be a challenge for those who struggle with social anxiety: They might have an answer to every discussion question, but the act of raising their hand and articulating their thoughts in front of their peers could be anxiety-inducing. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 12.1% of U.S. adults experience social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. In fact, in a 2020 study by the National Library of Medicine, it was found that social anxiety is significantly higher in individuals aged 18-24

Classrooms are supposed to be learning environments that foster individuality and unique learning experiences. Harsh participation grades don’t accommodate for social anxiety, thus making the classroom a triggering place rather than a safe space to learn. When you let a student participate when they feel ready, they are able to form their own thoughts and show what they know without having to create something on a whim because they are forced to.  

International Students May Find It Hard To PARTICIPATE

Cultural backgrounds might affect a student’s willingness to participate as well. In a classroom environment where teachers want an open discussion as participation, international students might find this confusing or hard for them depending on their past schooling. For example, it might be the cultural norm in international schools to allow for silence after a student contributes or to wait to be called on before speaking. 

The pressure to participate also affects students who speak English as their second language. Those students might find it difficult to contribute to the conversation based on language barriers, or the fear that what they are saying isn’t correct. In turn, this can make them feel isolated from their peers, and that they aren't doing enough to get a good grade. If teachers are going to make participation mandatory, then they need to take all of the students' individual needs into consideration and make it clear what their expectations are, or else students are excluded. 

IS PARTICIPATION MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE ACTUAL Work Being Done?

At the Harvard Business School, participation accounts for 50% of the total course grade. If participation grades account for 50% of the final grade and a student doesn’t participate to the standards of the teacher, then their final grade might suffer despite academically achieving on the coursework. The teachers are essentially putting students with low participation grades on the same level as students with high participation grades, but get zeroes on all the assignments. And how is that fair to, well, anyone?

Grading participation grades might even reveal the teacher’s implicit bias. Just as how students learn is subjective, how a teacher grades your participation is subjective. This is where there are pitfalls in the grading system of participation — it’s not as clean-cut as grading coursework. When teachers are making participation a core part of their class, they are creating a category that is entirely graded upon the teacher’s perception of a student’s behavior, which invites biases to affect their judgments. Though they may not mean to, their implicit bias when it comes to racism, sexism, or ableism can come through

To put it bluntly, participation grades are problematic and need to be changed. 

Participation grades don’t reflect what a student knows. If a teacher is grading their students based on how many times they raise their hand, then it’s easy for a student to branch off someone else’s idea or make something up on the spot. Talking aloud and raising hands might show engagement, but it doesn’t show mastery of course knowledge, which in my opinion, is more important than a couple of fluffy statements to fill my quota. 

The definition of participation in a syllabus is the type of learning the teacher values rather than the student — teachers are supposed to be there to help students learn, not tell them how to. Academic achievement shouldn’t be based on who raised their hand more because, at the end of the day exams, quizzes, projects, and how we apply the course concepts in the real world are a testament to academic achievement. 

I feel that the beauty of college is the exposure to so many different personalities, backgrounds, and learning styles. A classroom should be an environment where we can be ourselves and learn, rather than tell us how we should learn. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t have expectations for students’ participation. Instead, I’m saying participation grades shouldn’t be the foundation for academic success, and teachers need to be cognizant of each student’s background. 

If you’re dealing with harsh participation grades this semester, just know that isn’t the reflection of your capabilities as a student and learner. Harsh participation grades don’t consider what struggles a student might be dealing with.  Grades within themselves fail to acknowledge the overall success of students. College students juggle so much from extracurriculars, heavy course loads, and real-life struggles — where’s our A+ for that? 

Hannah is a Writer for Her Campus and a Staff Writer for HCFSU. When she’s not writing, you can find her reading, or rewatching her comfort shows (Friends, The Vampire Diaries, or Gossip Girl) for 20th time!
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