Naureen Aqueel

Count me in

Posted on: February 3, 2008

An edited version of this article was published in Dawn Education page, February 3, 2008.

Sarah was a second year university student, well known among teachers and fellow students for her active participation in class discussions. Be it Sociology class or an Economics lecture, Sarah always had something to contribute. She also had a good academic record throughout her school and college. However, things had been a little different this semester. It was as if she had been bit by the ‘lazy bug’. Although, she had been active in class discussions, Sarah had not even touched her books and handouts throughout the semester. Now, with exams approaching Sarah had much to worry about. She had to complete the required readings for five courses and prepare for the exams.

As she quickly skimmed over books, notes and handouts, one particular subject remained neglected, so much so that just a day before the exam she had not even started reading the material. She sat for the exam nonetheless, and came out unsatisfied with her performance. She would be grateful if she even passed the exam. However, Sarah was in for a great surprise.

When the results were announced, Sarah found out that she had scored the highest percentage in that course, more than all the other students who had poured over books, handouts, notes etc and had made painstaking efforts to achieve good results.

The above scenario highlights one major aspect of our educational system—an aspect that is more pronounced at universities, where the teachers teaching students will be the same people checking their exam papers. The fact that teachers know the students whose papers they are marking leads to an almost inevitable bias in grading.

Most university teachers stress on the importance of class participation as a vital criterion for evaluating students. In some cases, class participation is one of the most significant factors leading to this bias. Generally, participation in class discussions is seen as a method whereby students learn to develop their speaking and persuasive skills, engage in active thinking and gain confidence. Therefore, many universities as well as schools set out a certain percentage of marks in each course for class participation.

When contacted, a few teachers and students voiced their opinions about class participation. For Saman Munawar who teaches secondary and ‘O’ level students, class participation holds immense significance. “It is an important tool for a teacher to appraise whether the class has conceived the lecture delivered,” she said. “It also plays an integral part in bonding the teacher and the student, which in turn helps the teacher to connect with the mental level of the student, and to adopt various methods to develop a better understanding in the child. As a teacher, if I have an active class during a lecture, I feel highly motivated.”  She is of the view that at least twenty percent of the total grading for a course should be allocated for class participation.

Sadat Jabeen is a teacher at the Department of Psychology at the University of Karachi. She feels that class participation is an indication of ‘active thinking’ among students. “A healthy class environment is one where students ‘think’ actively rather than passively listening,” she explained. “Class participation indicates this active thinking. Since it is one indication of student effort and, possibly, learning, credit may be given for it.”

Azra Ismail, a business student, also feels that class participation is a ‘healthy way of learning’ “It is important as it helps make the class more interactive, moving it away from monotony,” she said

However, a trend that has been observed in many schools and universities is that teachers tend to judge a student’s skills, abilities and understanding entirely on the basis of class participation. This is then reflected in how they grade student exam papers.

Class participation helps greatly in improving a student’s image in front of a teacher. Students who are active participants in class are often seen as ‘bright’, ‘able’ and ‘intelligent’ by teachers. This eventually leads to the ‘typing’ and ‘classification’ of students into good-student and bad-student categories. An interesting study about ‘typing’ was carried out by Hargreaves and colleagues (titled ‘Deviance in Classrooms’) on how pupils come to be ‘typed’ or ‘classified’ by teachers. Among the seven main criteria they noted upon which teachers initially ‘type’ students were: students’ appearance; how far they conformed to discipline; their ability and enthusiasm for work; how likeable they were; their relationships with other children; their personality and whether they were deviant. Although this does not explicitly include class participation, it can be assumed that ‘ability and enthusiasm for work’ are seen by teachers, to be reflected in class participation.

But, is class participation really such a reliable criterion for judging a student?

“Not always,” replied Sadat Jabeen. “Some intelligent students don’t feel the need to ask many questions or to share their views aloud, although they should. There are many components of being a good student and participation is just one of them.”

There are many students who have a great deal of knowledge and ideas about the topic under discussion in class but they are reluctant to participate orally. There may be a number of reasons for this. For one, they may be shy or lack the confidence to speak up in class. Or, they may be afraid of making mistakes, or of ridicule and criticism from classmates or teachers. On the other hand, there are some students who are naturally quiet and prefer listening as a learning strategy.

Hence, the practice of some teachers to judge students entirely on the basis of class participation may not be justified. Class participation is not the sole characteristic of a good student. In fact, in some cases, otherwise ‘invisible’ students in terms of contributions in oral discussions may be the brightest students of the class.

Nida Iqbal, a medical student, does not think that class participation is a reliable criterion for judging a student. “You can only judge a student’s confidence and ability to speak by it,” she said. She gives the example of a position holder in her college who never speaks up in class despite being such a good student, to illustrate how quiet students do not necessarily have to be lacking in knowledge or abilities.

“Some shy students do not participate in class in a frank manner, so their grasp of knowledge should not be judged entirely through class participation,” pointed out Ali Ahmed, an engineering student at a private university.

At times, students who have a great deal of knowledge and ideas are shy to speak up in class, while others who may not know as much gain in this area since they are good speakers. “Most of the students who speak out in class do not necessarily have the required knowledge,” said Madiha Sheikh, a university student enrolled in a social science degree. “Many a times they say irrelevant things. For example, I suffered in one course because I did not speak in class. I got only passing marks. Those who spoke in class got the highest marks, although they did not always have something fruitful to say when they spoke.”

Keeping in view the importance of class participation as a reflection of learning and the means to develop important skills in the student, it is acceptable that universities, colleges and schools set out a certain percentage of marks for class participation alongside other things. But the practice of teachers of judging a student entirely on the basis of class participation and subsequently placing them in good-student and bad-student categories because of it, is indeed unfair as it ignores the very purpose of education. Education is not just about gaining confidence and improving spoken communication skills, it is also about hard work and striving to gain new knowledge.

At the same time, teachers must make an effort to distinguish quality participation from participation that is repetitive and irrelevant. Quality participation is only possible after readings have been completed and lectures attended. In other words, after the student has made some effort at trying to understand the subject. It is important that contributions in class reflect prior preparation to avoid scenarios like the one mentioned in the beginning of this article.

In the end, it is important that a teacher make clear to the students what s/he expects from them at the beginning of a course. They must make known to the students what proportion of their marks depend on participation in class discussions and what proportion on written assessment, projects etc. Additionally, students must know that studying and working hard are essential to gaining good marks for any course.

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