The Culture of the Participation Grade

I am creating a new tag for the blog entitled “Random Ramblings,” where I can talk about things I am thinking about that have to do to some extent or other with being in England.  Today’s topic: the participation grade.

Of my four classes this semester, only one has a participation grade of sorts, and it’s 10% for overall seminar performance throughout the semester.  This one class, I am learning, is far from the norm here.  Generally, the English practice is to have two or three major assessments, either papers or exams or occasionally presentations, graded like we might do standardized tests back in the US–multiple graders reviewing your work, and no names attached.  That’s it.  That’s your grade.  For instance, the grade distribution for my comparative literature course is 30% for the midterm paper, 70% for the final paper.  Nothing else matters besides those two assessments.

This system is starting to really grate on me.  Before coming here, I used to see participation grades as easy free points, something to boost my grade over the A- to A hurdle if I talked enough, and more or less a measure of how much my professor liked me.  I’m starting to realize that the participation grade means much more than that.

The first place where the lack seems to make a big difference is in politeness.  Yes, Wesleyan is a school full of chronically late people and nothing ever starts on time, but without the penalty of a possible grade deduction here, there is nothing stopping you from showing up halfway through the 50-minute-long lecture, disrupting the session entirely, and then receiving the same degree of credit as the rest of your peers in the class.  Attendance is only taken at seminars, so you don’t even have to come to lecture at all, and even then there’s no late penalty at seminars.  And college students are lazy, and we take advantage of that.

To me, this practice just feels incredibly disrespectful to your professor.  He or she put in a lot of effort to prepare this class to teach you something, and you can’t even be bothered to show up to listen.  Now, granted, coming from a humanities background my lectures tend to be more on the scale of 50 students than 300, and legitimately teach things that you can’t just learn out of a textbook; I cannot say if I would feel the same way in a math lecture, for instance.  But in my classes at least, to ditch most of lecture and only half pay attention to the seminar is the equivalent of saying, “Screw you.  I’m not getting graded for this, so what you are doing for me here doesn’t matter.”

Now, participation isn’t just about showing up, though you do have to do that before the next step becomes relevant.  But it’s a seminar.  You’re supposed to talk.  Seminar courses exist because you learn more by thinking on the spot, having your ideas challenged and having to defend them, and collaborating with other students than you do just listening to your professor talk at you.  Without the incentive of the participation grade, however, it doesn’t matter if you never speak a word in class the entire semester.  You do not have to contribute.  The class will suffer for it, as I have learned the hard way a seminar class where only two or three people are willing to talk is incredibly painful to sit through, even if you are one of those two or three people.  But you don’t have to talk, or do anything for that matter.  You don’t have to do the reading.  You don’t have to think about that class at all outside of the two papers you’re writing for it.  You don’t have to care.

It can of course be said that there are benefits to class participation that will still affect your grade in the long term, mainly that you are more engaged with the material and thus will in the end perform better in your assessments.  This is definitely true.  But some people really do need the push.  Some people struggle to find the words to articulate their thoughts in class, but when they push through, can come up with something truly insightful.  And seminars are better for everyone when there is a greater diversity of opinions.

Maybe the British system just makes you take more responsibility for your own learning and how much you invest, but we are supposed to be learning more in university than just the material on the course syllabus.  We learn to engage with material and with one another, to analyze and hypothesize ideas.  We learn a work ethic.  We learn to work together, and to value others’ opinions.  We learn to respect others who do work to benefit us, especially figures of authority.

All of those skills are relevant in the workplace, and in life in general.  People who are naturally driven will pick these skills up as they study anyway, but if schools only taught for people who were naturally good at things, we wouldn’t have Writing Workshops or Study Skills lessons.  The participation grade isn’t just part of the path to an easy A–it teaches you to invest in school, to care.  I know it’s still early in the semester, and I may soon be proven wrong.  I certainly hope so.  But for now at least, it appears that the British higher education system is missing this crucial element of what a college education needs to teach.

On the other hand, they actually have affordable tuition.  So they’ve got us beat there.

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One response to “The Culture of the Participation Grade

  1. Harlan & Sally Johnson

    Natalie, I loved your letter. I know that Grandpa did also. I want to read it a dozen more times. My mind is hopeful that you get your teaching certificate. I would come to each of your classes at least twice. I don’t know that I would fit into the English educational system. I like small classes and teachers who actually care if I learn anything. Take care. G&G Johnson

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