Carrots and sticks: considerations concerning class participation

By Elijah Stauth

When I first came to university I welcomed the freedom. No one was making me go to class, telling me to study or to do my homework. It was a lot of responsibility for a young student and I answered its call by promptly failing out of university after a single semester.

Suggesting I participated poorly in my early days is a nice way of putting it. I was lazy, disinterested and a bit egotistical. For me, this apathy was remedied by the unapologetically mindless jobs I found myself holding in the years immediately following my curt dismissal. I won’t get into the details, but suffice to say, I have great respect for the motivational powers of the minimum wage job market.

So what is there to do to keep the student interested, engaged even, while in the classroom? A lot of professors seem to take kindly to the idea of the participation grade. That five to 10 per cent serves our instructors as a motivational tool to encourage both attendance and discussion in the classroom, two concepts I’m entirely in favour of. But the participation grade, in its quaint simplicity, can too easily be considered a solution when it is in fact nothing of the sort.

There is a type of person who will devour these percentage points whole and, like the cuddly snake, curl up and allow them to fully digest over the course of the cold winter. The marks aren’t really necessary for motivation, but serve more as a reward for their already effective learned behaviors. There are others though, akin to the lazy grasshopper whose lack of motivation forces him to beg the ant for food come winter lest he agonizingly, slowly die of starvation.

For the grasshopper folks this meager 10 per cent– an amount I’ve consistently been willing to write off– is meant to stir them to action, to light a fire beneath their asses, to have them give it their all. Forgive the cliches, but that’s all these participation marks serve as. It attempts to motivate an unmotivated cross-section of the students.

In my experience, the most effective professors are not the ones willing to hand out freebie percentage points to the class’ chatty-Cathys, but instead those willing to take an active interest in the students’ contributions and attendance. Remembering the names of 40 new students is about as easy as bathing a cat and for any class larger than 40 it is, as far as I’m concerned, near impossible in the short semesters we have. But the effort can go a long way in the minds of the students.

Moreover, remembering the names of the students that aren’t actively participating in class is a much better tactic to win over the minds of the more reserved learners.

Of course, I’m just speaking from my experiences (they’re really all I have) and they might not be the same as yours. As someone who has gone through the majority of their degree harboring a lack of enthusiasm for the dispersal of their thoughts and opinions, I have rarely felt encouraged to “open up” and so am often only motivated by the lackluster bribe of paltry percentage points.

On rare occasions I have been lucky enough to experience teachers who actually seem interested in what I have to say. Our instructors need to be willing to put more effort into motivating their students and not relying on a portion of the grade to do that work for them.

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