Almost every class I have taken during my college experience thus far has measured the amount of participation students contribute in some capacity. Speaking up to answer a question in class can help students confirm they are actually grasping the material, as well as demonstrating to the professor that they are concentrating on the lecture. I completely understand that there are indisputable benefits to active participation.
However, we are living during a time of increased cases of mental health conditions in college-aged students. According to the Healthy Minds Study for the 2020-2021 school year, which gathered reports from over 300 colleges, over 60% of students demonstrated at least one mental health issue. Considering just how many students face mental health challenges, I believe that participation grades need to be assessed in a manner that does not elicit more anxiety from students.
Students who demonstrate social anxiety will likely approach public speaking with feelings of apprehension and maybe even self-consciousness. If a student is already experiencing stress, knowing that they have to participate in a certain class is only going to bring about more anxiety. Another aspect of mandatory participation that can be troublesome is if a student is already stressed; they are likely not going to be able to formulate their best thoughts or explanations when answering a graded question.
For students who don’t struggle with public speaking or social anxiety, graded participation can offer a helpful way to bolster their exam or homework grades. Since there are so many contributing factors to why a student may not do well with public speaking, graded participation usually does not reflect the actual academic capabilities of the entire class. A student may be very engaged with the course material, but if they experience uneasiness with public speaking, the professor may not perceive this understanding until the exam.
Even if a student does participate, the stress they may feel could limit them from fully articulating their thoughts. This puts the students who approach public speaking with panic at a disadvantage since their actual comprehension of a topic may not be conveyed. Additionally, sometimes participation accounts for such a substantial portion of a student’s grade that unsatisfactory participation could really harm their average. If so many students weren’t experiencing mental health concerns, then grading participation may be more clear-cut, but the current circumstances of mental illness require a different approach.
Last year, I took a religion course that implemented a very low-stress model of grading participation. During Magic and Religion, we were always encouraged to participate vocally, but our actual grade came from participation comments we submitted virtually at the end of each week. I thought this was a great way of addressing participation since I was able to write out my responses without having to worry about the actual amount of time I was speaking during class. I tend to write more in my participation comments than I would have said during class since I had more time to contemplate my ideas.
This model of measuring participation can yield more thoughtful vocal involvement during in-class discussions since students aren’t worrying about the sheer amount of times they are speaking. For students who do worry about what their peers may think, being able to participate without the fear of judgment could be beneficial not only for their grades but also for how they approach going to class. Without having to worry about when you are going to earn your participation points, students may come to class more focused and enthusiastic to learn.
I totally understand that evaluating active participation can motivate students to speak up during discussions, as well as increase their interactions with peers. I also think that grading participation can assist professors with surveying which students need a little extra support with a certain concept. However, the current prevalence of mental illness in students indicates that measuring participation needs to be adjusted to match the needs of the students.