Intelligent comments welcomed

By Peter Bowal

As we grow through the various stages of our physical and intellectual development, we are exposed to new levels of cognitive ability. Many will have heard about Bloom’s taxonomy. In 1956, this guy categorized abstraction levels of questions that commonly occur in educational settings. He proposed we could advance from knowledge, to comprehension, to application and eventually to the higher cognitive skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Usually educators in primary school are happy if young minds can absorb knowledge, eventually comprehend it and then apply it. By the time we get to university, and especially by the time we are ready to graduate (even with a Bachelor’s degree), we hope that students will have gained some of the precious lifelong ability to analyze, synthesize and evaluate the information and world around them.

As an instructor, I’ve noticed a big difference between second and fourth-year students in their thinking ability. Perhaps some of this is due to maturity, confidence, familiarity with “the system” or smaller classes, but these higher cognitive skills are most readily developed in the upper division. One valuable technique to learn how to think is class participation.

Class participation is the only component of student evaluation that is out there for every other student in the class to see. This is why students occasionally visit the professor after the course is over to argue that a participation mark was unfair because they did better than Jake or Jessica. They likely misunderstood the component. Although not entirely objective, the professor is in a better position to assess class members’ oral contributions to a subject.

In fact, I think the term “participation” is too vague. It suggests verbalization or vocalization of any kind is what is sought. It suffers from an “anything goes” definitional fuzziness. Laughing, mere attendance, asking redundant questions and making inappropriate comments to earn participation marks have all been presented to me as meritorious. At the end of the semester, those who have infrequently attended and are less prepared realize that they need to earn these, so they confuse vocalization for participation.

That is why I prefer the term “contribution,” in lieu of “participation.” The model of a professional, business meeting applies here. How is each student contributing to development of the topic under discussion? This includes respect for others’ ideas and comments, talking seriously (not being distracting or silly), showing patience and timeliness, and learning from others.

Aside from the process, there is the content of the contributions themselves that is at least as important. There is truly a different and recognizable quality about various students’ answers and points that reflect preparation for the class, interest and intelligence. As an instructor who used class contribution as part of the evaluation of the students’ course grade, I assure you that the professor has a number of obligations in making contribution an effective component of learning. One must get to know the students in the course by name and take various steps to encourage the shy students gently. One should wait for a minute or so after asking a question, so that all who want to contribute have had time to collect their thoughts. This is not Reach for the Top where the quickest answer is rewarded over all others. Often the instructor inserts a modest component for class participation (like 10 per cent) in the course outline to give students an incentive to attend class. Often at the end this component is a wash.

If students don’t have a good experience with class participation, it is often the instructor’s fault. That is a shame because it is an effective learning technique that is transferred into the world of work. A starting point is to think “contribution,” not mere “participation.”

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