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Opinion: You cannot force meaningful learning — a critique of mandatory participation

bell hooks and the perversion of engaged pedagogies
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Online learning is corroding true engagement. TOSIN MAIYEGUN/THE VARSITY
Online learning is corroding true engagement. TOSIN MAIYEGUN/THE VARSITY

The transition to online learning was a significant shift in how formal education has been organized and experienced. The pandemic triggered an abrupt ending to education as we knew it and created a need to reorganize education in a new context. A year has passed since this reorganization, and the ways I experience learning are still disconcerting and dangerous for meaningful education. 

Undoubtedly, educators are tasked with teaching students in new and challenging ways; real faces in a classroom are replaced with black squares on a computer providing little room for them to connect with their students candidly. Not to mention, instructors now have to navigate the stress, fatigue, anxiety, and despair the pandemic has fostered. 

Fortunately, many educators have recognized that one of the most pressing pedagogical challenges is ensuring that online learning is engaging and interactive. Critical Black feminist educator bell hooks explained that engaged pedagogies start with the assumption that students learn best when teachers and students have an interactive relationship. 

Most, if not all, professors believe this to be true. However, the ways in which these philosophies materialize in online classrooms are significant for the learning experience. 

Syllabi breakdowns

A close reading of my syllabi for this winter alone finds keywords such as ‘actively engaged’ or ‘active learning’ mentioned at least once per syllabus. My instructors explicitly express a grounding in an engaged practice as their teaching philosophy or allude to it through the language of active classroom engagement and so forth. Most noteworthy is the emergence of the language of participation concerning engaged practices for online learning.

For my course load this semester, at least 80 per cent of my courses have required participation as a significant grading component of the final mark. Two of those courses have participation at 20 per cent or more. I have realized that this syllabus-required and grade-intensive participation claims a central role in ensuring online classrooms are engaging. 

My concern is not with participation itself but rather its conceptualization and measurement online, the dangerous implications for students’ learning, and education’s trajectory. What constitutes participation? How is it measured? And, more importantly, what is the effect of participation in the reorganizing of education in new contexts?

From my syllabi, I can discern participation into three main components. The online participation rubric emphasizes:

  1. Showing up to class,
  2. Verbally contributing to class discussions, and
  3. Being involved in events shared by the instructor

In most cases, satisfying each of these components is necessary to gain full participation marks.

This kind of participation rubric is counter-intuitive to authentic dialogue and is the death of interactive learning. It makes students replace purposeful contributions to class discussions with forced interactions for the sake of securing a good grade. All too frequently, I hear my classmates unmute their mics only to say, “Someone already said this, but…” 

Valuable engagement

hooks tells us that engaged pedagogies assume that students have something valuable to contribute to the learning process. More importantly, she also recognizes that not all voices need to be heard all the time or take up the same amount of space. In hooks’ vision of an engaged classroom, students learn the value of discussion and active listening while also learning to recognize when they have something meaningful to contribute. 

However, in virtual classrooms, when those awkward silences emerge, instructors and teaching assistants regularly resort to reminding students that they are being graded on participation. These prompts attempt to provoke discussion regardless of any inspiration to engage, and more often than not, these threats disguised as encouragement just produce noise — waves of arbitrary and repetitive comments as students follow the instructors’ lead to drown out the silence and earn marks. 

These participation rubrics also feed into students’ unhealthy obsession with receiving good grades at any expense. I find that even my motivations to engage are underpinned by a need to do well. The education that inspired 20-minute walks in snow storms because of an interest in learning is clinging to its last breath when my only reason for logging in for a lecture from the comfort of my home is the 30 per cent participation grade.

Who does this benefit?

Forced participation for marks and the inauthentic and uninspired chatter it produces are vain attempts to reclaim and reproduce the benefits of interactive learning and, ironically, does so at the expense of fostering genuine interest in learning students. With this trade-off, higher education moves further away from being a practice of freedom, democracy, or self-actualization. 

Alarmingly, this shift only entrenches education in neoliberal practices that mold students in ways that serve the economy rather than collective political transformation. The expectation that we retain the things we learn for learning’s sake is incomparably small to the expectation that we learn these skills to enter a career.  

In this process, the diverse ways students can and do engage are delegitimized to uphold a uniform way of learning that can be surveilled and monitored. Opposingly, hooks notes that interaction in the classroom differs and, in some instances, may look like active listening.

It is not easy to see a student actively listening, making notes, searching up articles mentioned in the discussion, or just processing information in the online environment. While educators may notice this in person, it is not always noticeable in an online classroom. Teachers cannot readily respond to such an engagement because of the dynamics the medium arranges. Nevertheless, the instructor’s inability to see a student actively listening does not mean it is not taking place. 

The one-dimensional student

The participation rubric ignores the actualities of truly engaged pedagogies by reducing active learning to a one-dimensional experience. For example, in one of my courses, students are not required to attend the lecture. Still, there are three points for attending and contributing to the discussion. The classes are rotated between Tuesdays and Thursdays to “accommodate as many students as possible.” 

A student who can log in on either day has a greater opportunity to gain marks in class than a student who can only show up to one or neither. However, simply showing up to the lecture only awards one point; there also needs to be some verbal contribution to the class. The student who speaks during the session has a more significant advantage over the student who actively listens.  

Notably, a student’s ability to attend both rotating days and be vocal during the lecture is not merely about their willingness to do so. The material conditions of the student’s learning, such as their living arrangements, access to a suitable microphone, and a good wi-fi connection, dictate their capacity to participate and consequently earn participation marks. Consider, for example, scheduling issues for students who must share their devices with siblings. 

Moreover, students may be uncomfortable speaking in virtual classrooms because of personal struggles with anxiety, speech or hearing impairments, language barriers, or noisy households.

To make up for this inaccessibility, these participation rubrics sometimes include writing assignments for students who do not immediately contribute in the defined ways. Suppose a student missed the lecture or showed up but didn’t verbally contribute. In that case, in some classes, they could gain those marks by completing an additional assignment. 

So, when I show up to class and actively engage in a way not recognized by the participation rubric, I am prompted to do more work to achieve the same outcomes as a student who verbally contributed to the discussion. Consequently, participation marks create the illusion that those who actively engage will be more successful. However, because the engagement is inequitably defined, this type of participation assigns privilege to students based on neoliberal logic and biases. 

We must do better

Mandatory participation is not new and, in some ways, fostered similar dynamics in my experience of in-person learning. However, during a pandemic that has triggered significant economic, social, and health shocks to various institutions, the opportunity to rethink the way students learn is pressing and evident. The pedagogical challenge is massive. 

Nonetheless, it is a gross perversion to create harmful learning environments while claiming to forward an engaged pedagogical practice. The drastic changes in learning media and the reorganization of classrooms signalled the moment to pivot away from education’s previous practices. However, the existence of these participation rubrics reveals that critical pedagogical philosophies are materializing into dangerous classroom practices.

Without acknowledging the various ways students do and can engage, this disconnect between theory and practice is too significant to require mandatory participation for the sake of interactive learning. Now more than ever, students need an education that inspires meaningful engagement with each other and the world around them; mandatory participation plays no role in achieving this. 

Justin Rhoden is a third-year international development studies student at UTSC.