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Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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By Ella Mitchell, Staff Writer • April 22, 2024

Raising your hand shouldn’t be the only way to participate in class

Many students can relate to reading over a syllabus at the start of a semester to discover that class participation counts for up to 10 percent of their grade. Several professors whose classes I’ve taken have only a limited amount of participation for credit without understanding that this isn’t easily achievable for all people.

Professors at GW should expand their definition of participation to include emails, visiting office hours and asking questions after class. By doing so, it creates a safe environment for all students and recognizes that they come from different backgrounds and have varied strengths, capabilities and learning styles.

There are many reasons why students may not feel comfortable participating in class. Some are quiet learners who value listening more than figuring out what to say next. Others experience anxiety about presenting and fear judgment of their comments. Spontaneous discussions in class can be overwhelming for students, and some peers may have complicated relationships that could affect whether students are comfortable speaking. While being able to calmly speak up in class is an asset, that skill should not be favored over others such as critically processing or thinking about topics presented in class.

Social anxiety, a disorder where everyday social interactions cause irrational worrying, can lead to the avoidance of participation due to embarrassment, self-consciousness, sweating, stuttering or criticism, according to the National Social Anxiety Center. Some students suffer from social anxiety so strongly that they have to drop out of school.

About 7 percent of U.S. adults and 9 percent of adolescents suffer from social anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This disorder is often underdiagnosed as well because some with Social Anxiety Disorder do not feel comfortable seeking help.

There is already an immense amount of stress put on college students to get good grades and choose a career path. Adjusting the definition of class participation has the potential to not only relieve some of that stress but also set students up for more success as they choose to participate in the ways most comfortable for them.

Addressing social anxiety in college students would also be beneficial for other emotional reasons. Those with social anxiety are more at risk for clinical depression and alcohol-use disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This is very prevalent in college students, so helping those with social anxiety will also help prevent other forms of mental illness.

Even if students do not specifically have social anxiety, 63 percent of college students in the United States have felt overwhelming anxiety, according to the American College Health Association. Professors should want to help reduce the levels of stress students experience by providing alternatives to speaking in class for participation credit.

To be more inclusive of students that do not thrive in a public speaking setting, professors should accept conversations held outside of the classroom as part of their participation grade. Whether it is the attendance of office hours, sending an email discussing the class lecture or asking questions privately, these actions all show a dedication to understanding material.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to learning, and class participation should be no exception. Research demonstrates that students are characterized by individual and unique learning styles, so to improve skills and promote success, curricula should be more flexible.

Understandably, professors cannot tailor their teaching methods to every specific need of their students. Offering students different choices to receive credit for participation is an attainable compromise. Professors do not need to change the way they lecture for students to email them questions about it or attend office hours to discuss the content to participate.

Expanding the definition of participation also promotes equality because class discussions are usually dominated by white men. Research from the University of California Berkeley found that most minority students feel like outsiders in the classroom and experience subtle forms of discrimination when white students take over a class discussion. This puts students of color at an academic disadvantage that should be diminished. Other research from the book “Gender and Conversational Interaction” shows that men statistically interrupt, introduce new topics and speak over others more. Since participation is part of students’ grades, they deserve equal opportunities to receive credit for it.

Professors should work toward dismantling the societal expectation that white men can dominate class discussions. Expanding the definition of class participation will give students a more equal opportunity to succeed in a course. Even if participation only counts as 5 percent of one’s grade, that is an impactful difference, and 10 percent is an entire letter grade – grades are important for future career success.

Learning should not be so narrowly defined. Just because participating in class does not work for some students does not mean they do not understand the material any less. Professors should provide a wide range of participation tools that can cater to all different learning styles to be more inclusive.

Riley Goodfellow, a freshman majoring in political science, is an opinions columnist.

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