OPINION: Participation grades should extend beyond speaking in class

A drawing of many raised hands, colored in blue. A single student, colored in orange, peeks anxiously out from in between the hands. They are holding a book and not raising their hand.
(Ella Lehavi • The Student Life)

The archaic participation grade: a borderline sadistic, arbitrary grading component designed exclusively for extroverted speed-processors — and everyone else, well, you can have fun failing it!

The purpose of participation is for a student to meaningfully engage with class material to better comprehend what is being presented. For many instructors and students, the standard for that participation is speaking up in class.

But being vocal in class doesn’t prove you’re engaged with the material. Instead, it punishes students that don’t lean into it and ignores your actual strengths. 

It’s simple. Participation standards reward extroverts because classrooms across the United States find that to be a more desirable, adult trait than being introverted

Introverted students, on the other hand, inevitably decline into impostor syndrome and feelings of inadequacy. Not to mention, the participation grade is frustratingly American. It alienates international students who come from cultures that do not encourage students speaking spontaneously, questioning teachers’ thoughts or publicly debating with peers. 

These students, along with introverted students, still share the common desire to meaningfully engage with the class material. Verbal participation standards are robbing them of this experience in broad daylight.

For many students, attentively taking notes on the material, responding to material through writing an online post, or taking extra time outside of class to process material may prove to be more beneficial for learning comprehension than attempting to be vocal in the room. 

Ironically, the institutional pressure to speak in order to demonstrate participation may culminate in unnecessary stress and the formulation of rushed thoughts that do not actually result in a meaningful contribution. Being asked to add insights or comments spontaneously while attempting to process material may detract from learning comprehension.

If we’re all here to learn, then introverted students shouldn’t feel ashamed about opting out of contributing to the class discussion if it isn’t going to benefit their comprehension of the material in the way it does for extroverted students — so why do they?

Current participation standards assume that those who don’t speak up have nothing to say. Just because some students talk frequently doesn’t mean they have a stronger foundation of knowledge than those who choose not to speak. 

Not every comment or insight contributed in class discussions is substantive or demonstrates a person’s evidence of learning. From what I’ve seen, people sometimes exploit the participation grade to compensate for not performing as well on other class components, such as daily homework, essays or assessments. Since participation often takes up a larger chunk of students’ overall grade than other standalone class components, extroverted students’ grades are boosted — introverted students are penalized. 

Meanwhile, if someone chooses not to share their thoughts in class, they are deemed as uninterested or confused. That’s atrociously unfair. Let’s face it: students whose brains are better wired for non-vocal forms of participation are at a grading disadvantage from the start. 

Even if an introverted student is demonstrating their participation in non-vocal ways and is performing well on tests, essays or projects, the extroverted student will still earn a higher grade than them because of their frequent contributions. Sure, we’re “all here to learn” — but we won’t be equally rewarded for it. 

That’s the message the participation grade perpetuates. 

I still believe that participation should continue to be a significant part of a student’s grade, but the 5Cs need to set an example by broadening the definition of participation to include all learners.

It will create the more well-rounded grading process that the institutions set out to create. Being vocal in class doesn’t prove anything.

The main goal of educators should be to establish classrooms as places that support all students. As such, educators should reimagine their grading policies. After all, there are still a myriad of ways for students to demonstrate their class material engagement, whether it be speaking up in class, responding to material in written form or demonstrating commitment to course subjects outside of the classroom. 

Educators need to acknowledge that there is not one prototype for students nor a most desirable one. All students connect with information in different ways that equally enhance our learning experience. 

No method of participation is either more effective, insightful or better than another. It’s about time we recalibrate the scale. 

Tess McHugh PO ’25 is from Denver, Colorado. She loves eating Trader Joe’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups, watching The White Lotus and spending time with her cat named Chili.

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