Participation marks come in two dreadful forms for someone who is introverted and afraid of public speaking: one involves only attendance and possibly the use of an iClicker — the more dreadful one involves having to actually speak in class. I vividly remember a seminar class I took in my first year in which I managed to raise my hand only once in a pathetic attempt to get my participation marks.
Using marks as motivation for student engagement is a common practice. According to The Quad, the official blog of the University of Alberta, the goal of participation is to “cultivate critical thinking, logic and reasoning, respect, or professionalism in their students.”
A research article published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences journal in 2019 noted that students excel in an active classroom environment compared to more passive, traditional lecturing. Student engagement in class is essential for synthesizing material from lectures, readings, and from other students.
However, the expectation for students to participate in class comes with some woes. This expectation marginalizes students who are shy, introverted, and afraid of public speaking — it glorifies and rewards extraversion. Students who are natural public speakers get easy grades, and may even dominate class airtime, while others may blurt out thoughtless comments or questions just to get marks, undermining the role of class discussion in nurturing genuine learning among students.
According to Ken Shore, a school psychologist, class participation is an important part of student learning. Speaking up teaches students to express their ideas coherently, and asking questions teaches them new ways to learn information.
Actively participating in class makes students think more deeply and develop new concepts that cannot be achieved by merely reading course materials. Students also gain confidence to express and defend their ideas, while also learning about different opinions and perspectives from their peers at the same time. Participation allows students to be respectful listeners and tactful responders.
Cosette Taylor, a postsecondary educator for more than 20 years, wrote in The Quad that the reality students face after graduation is that “one does not get paid to just show up for work.”
Participation prepares students to be confident, articulate professionals. The act of speaking, listening, and responding in classes creates a collaborative culture which students can bring to the workplace after graduating. It hones communication skills and builds relationships which are essential for any profession.
There are a few on-campus opportunities that aim to help students who find speaking up in class challenging. The Sidney Smith Commons provides tips on participation marks and has compiled a list of resources for students who want to hone their public speaking skills, and the University of Toronto Public Speaking Club provides a “supportive environment for students from all disciplines and backgrounds to improve their oral communication skills” and overcome their fears.
Student Life also offers various weekly workshops to help students achieve academic success, which can be seen through the Career & Co-Curricular Learning Network website. Student Life also accepts Workshop Request Forms on its website if students cannot find a particular workshop that suits their needs.
The question that should be asked is: how can we make participation more equitable? Instructors must be thoughtful in their lectures, and create a welcoming and stimulating environment where students feel comfortable speaking their minds. But ultimately, it’s up to students to come to class prepared, willing to learn, and to give genuine contributions.
Ruth Frogoso is a fourth-year Art History, Classical Civilization, and Creative Expression and Society student at New College.