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Opinion: Participation marks pose an equity issue

Creating safe spaces in the classroom is paramount
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

It’s no secret that each student learns differently. For some, participating in class may be as simple as raising a hand and voicing an opinion; for others — especially those with social anxiety — participating in class can be physically and mentally challenging.

According to the Social Anxiety Association, social anxiety is the chronic fear of social situations that involve interactions with other people. It often stems from the fear of being judged or humiliated and can manifest in both social and physical symptoms, such as sweating, nausea, and shaking.

This semester, two of my professors are encouraging active learning by attributing a set per cent of our total mark to in-class comments and questions. This means that the more a student speaks up in class, the better their mark is going to be.

Participation marks are intended to foster student engagement and critical discussion, but while some students thrive through in-class discussions, others, like me, struggle with the grade value placed on verbal communication.

According to a study by Arizona State University’s Biology Education Research Lab, active learning strategies can have both positive and negative effects, depending on a student’s level of anxiety. The researchers found that student anxiety tended to increase during active learning strategies, such as verbal or on-the-spot communication. Many students preferred to use clickers, a non-verbal method, as a form of participation.

Group work can also help curb social anxiety. I’ve found this to be particularly beneficial in terms of sharing ideas in a smaller public setting, as well as for building a network of possible study partners. It’s been found that women and LGBTQIA2+ students benefit more from selecting their own small groups to work in.

Graduate students from McMaster University started a Black, Indigenous, and people of colour working group for peer support in classes that discuss race. In the group description, the founders write that “[students] often feel pressure (from their peers, professors, and/or their past experience) to address problematic arguments or analysis and they do not necessarily feel supported in their efforts.”

Group work and collective action can also benefit students of colour, whose ideas are often oppressed by a white academic environment. The ‘think-pair-share’ strategy, which fosters partner discussion, can also reduce the stress around speaking up.

The ideal, I believe, for professors that want to foster student engagement, is to foster an inclusive space for comment, rather than attributing a numerical value to a certain kind of communication. In another one of my classes, my professor randomly picks on students to answer questions. This might sound scary, but in reality, we’re given around five to 10 minutes to prepare a few key ideas — a much fairer way of ensuring students are not placed on the spot.

Kimberly Tanner, a professor at San Francisco State University, wrote that students should have time to gather one to three points about a question before being called on to answer. Personally, this method gives me more time to think of a response and articulate thoughts that I have in class. And, because I don’t have to meet a quota, if I’m having a particularly anxious month, I know my grade won’t be penalized for not speaking up.

The key to effective and equitable student engagement is flexible pedagogy — whether that means providing alternatives to verbal participation through writing, assigning more group or one-on-one work, or preparing students to speak up so that everyone feels welcome and comfortable voicing their opinion.

Hadiyyah Kuma is a third-year Sociology student at Victoria College.