Graded Class Participation Hurts Students’ Communication Skills

Meera Parikh

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Natalie Azzolini actively participates in a class discussion.

Meera Parikh

Natalie Azzolini actively participates in a class discussion.

In an ideal classroom, every student is completely engaged, raising his or her hand to answer and ask questions, paying attention, and enjoying the lesson. Unfortunately, this ideal is impossible to achieve in classes of twenty to thirty students who have differing interests, personalities, and reasons for taking the class.

There will inevitably be students who truly want to learn and others who just want to pass the next test. Some will sit in front hanging on to the teacher’s every word, while others will be completing their Spanish homework in math class. And some students will participate by ardently raising their hand, while others will be equally attentive while taking notes and listening. There is clearly not a “one-size-fits-all” strategy to teaching and forcing participation is only advantageous to a select group of students.

Many students see participation as “easy points” because it’s something they already do everyday. For example, senior Olivia Kranefuss believes that “class participation is good because I think that people learn best when they are involved in their learning experiences.” For some students, this is definitely true; they need to be constantly engaged in class in order to understand the material. But for the more introverted population of students, participating in class is not a given. They may prefer to learn by taking notes, working in smaller groups, or just listening to the teacher and their peers.

Of course, the rationale behind why most teachers do grade participation is sound: to prepare the students for college and jobs where they will have to know how to speak up and articulate their thoughts. But there are many non-academic skills that are taught in school that have no impact on a student’s report card. What if we started giving As to the people who displayed compassion or perseverance? This would not make sense because a) it is highly subjective and b) grades are meant to reflect academic performance.

In the same manner, though class participation should be encouraged because it often contributes to better performance in school and in life,  students should not be punished for a lack of verbal contribution. Senior Hardee Bhavsar voiced a similar opinion: “[Participation] should not be graded because not everyone feels comfortable with participating. If they are doing well in the class, then they shouldn’t be penalized.”

In today’s competitive, egocentric climate, maybe it’s best for children to take a step back and actually listen to what their peers have to say. In Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he labels the fifth habit as seek first to understand, then to be understood. His argument is that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.”

Now think about a classroom where the moment the teacher asks a questions, a dozen hands shoot up. When someone is called on to answer, the hands remain in the air, effectively causing students to ignore their peer who is talking because they are too busy thinking about what they want to say. By emphasizing the importance of verbal participation, we are training students to fill silence, instead of engaging in meaningful discourse.

So in the pursuit of making kids better communicators, there should be equal emphasis on both speaking and listening. Even though the former is much more easily quantified, by just grading verbal participation, we are taking a shortcut by only measuring half of the student’s socialization capacity.

In order to foster the most classroom engagement and productivity, students should not feel pressured to speak just for the sake of it. They should be encouraged, but not required to contribute to the conversation. When their peers are talking, their hands shouldn’t be raised, so that they can truly listening. And after the teacher asks a questions, students should wait a minute to collect their thoughts before answering. Being social is a personality trait, while being a good listener is an integral life skill.