I have one term left at Carleton. By my rough estimate, I’ve taken a little over 33 different classes. On only a couple occasions have I repeated a professor. I counted about 11 different departments. Yet, despite the breadth afforded to me by the liberal arts, I can count on one hand the amount of classes with good discussions. In all of these classes, I noticed that at least one (if not more) person in the class uttered approximately zero words through the ten weeks. From my first-year argument and inquiry seminar, to 300-level classes in both of my majors, the “quiet participant” is always present and never missed. It pains me to say it, but I hate it.
If this comes as a surprise to you, I fully invite you to send me your list of classes for next term, you must have discovered some secret to good discussion. But every single person I’ve talked to and is remotely interested in learning what they signed up to learn has mimicked my thoughts on this: In most classes, discussion is frequently lacking, and when it is not lacking in participation, it almost certainly lacks in dissent. I can’t say whether our discussions match up to the peer institutions our administrators love to compare us to; I can’t even guarantee that my experience is universal. After all, I can only take a very small selection of classes that are offered. It’s also hard to tell when half of them are STEM classes, where space for discussion is limited. Still, in my discussion-enabled classes, it is not a rare sight for a small group of students to participate repeatedly in a short period of time. It is even more frequent to see a solid percentage of the class go through all ten weeks without participating more than once.
To me, the solutions to this seem pretty cut and dry. That measly little 5 to 10% of the class grade professors love to allot to participation? How about bringing that sucker up to 30%? If it were up to me, it’d be at least 50% for most humanities classes. Don’t participate enough (quality and quantity-wise)? You fail. Simple as that. Sound harsh? It’s really not harsher than 30% of your grade being allotted to two and a half hours of writing the right words on a piece of paper. I don’t hear anyone asking for the end of exams though. The standards for discussion are lower, as is. No professor is asking fully-formed perfect thoughts during class. Yet because they are not given the grade value they deserve, students choose to forgo them altogether. There are no true concerns for students participating for the sake of the grade. When everyone participates and everyone understands the purposes of discussion, any intervention is a welcome one. Plus, the perceived “threat” of social embarrassment is still there. If I am forced to participate, I will not want to feel embarrassed, and I will thus think critically about what I am saying.
However, for the sake of rhetorically allowing me to introduce another solution, let’s pretend that this is not possible. There’s a reason why people are allowed to skip out on participating and do fine. Discussions will be bad if you are too lenient on what “participation” entails. Some professors have actually already figured this one out. Others still present an option to prove participation via a Moodle discussion forum, a “learning check” or whatever terminology they decided to make up. Cut that out. It’s useless. Never in the history of the million Moodle forums I’ve been a part of, have I heard of someone who actually read and had a stake in what was being discussed. There is no engagement; students are writing for the sake of ticking a box. If we had these discussions face-to-face, in class, we’d be forced to think on our feet and have some stake in the discussion.
But what, pray tell, should professors do, if students are not participating despite a higher importance placed on discussion? Simplicity is best: cold-call them. No one raises their hands? Great. Now instead of a small selection of raised hands to pick, you have the entire classroom’s worth. Research suggests that cold calling increases student participation. “Finally, in classes with high cold-calling, students’ comfort participating in class discussions increases while in classes with low cold-calling, students’ comfort participating does not change. Research findings show that cold-calling can be done fairly extensively without making students uncomfortable,” reads a study done by Northeastern University researchers. If you don’t want to get cold-called, try participating voluntarily. Most professors will not cold-call someone if they are already an active participant.
Those that know me will quickly point out that the only reason I want this is because I struggle with choosing which word will be my last, and as a result, none of them are. I agree. I also think it is downright shameful for a liberal arts institution to allow people to graduate, certifying them as holders of a bachelor’s degree from a liberal arts school, when they have never uttered a word in class. If the liberal arts are about learning to learn, then learning to think and speak critically, while face-to-face, seems incredibly important to achieve that goal. There are schools where size does not permit this as easily, but I think we can agree that we did not choose Carleton to be anonymous students in a lecture hall. If we want to take advantage of what small class sizes offer, then perfecting our in-class discussion should be at the top of our agenda. Even then, in larger schools, students are often required to attend discussion groups after lectures, where these skills are developed.
Personally, I don’t particularly care if you can write an excellent paper on a topic. If you cannot bring yourself to think out loud, to state a point, to answer a professor’s question, you do not have mastery of the topic. Of course, by the generalizing nature of the statement your eyes just read, I have excluded a set of people. There are legitimate accessibility reasons why a student would require accommodations. Such accommodations should be organized through the Office of Accessibility Resources, in the same way that others are.
Ultimately, discussions teach students many skills. Sure, public speaking and thinking on your feet are important ones. However, I’d argue that the number one skill that in-class discussions teach is the ability to be okay with being incorrect. No one should think it is embarrassing to be wrong in class. This is a skill that is woefully underappreciated in the 21st century. We’d be a lot less worried about coming across as uneducated if we were okay with ourselves (and others) coming across as uneducated. I am constantly talking in class. I am also constantly wrong. It’s about time someone calls me out. Maybe then I’ll learn to be quiet.
Weak discussions lead to weak degrees
BY ALDO POLANCO ON FEBRUARY 23, 2023
This was an extremely interesting article. Thanks for writing it. It would indeed be great to hear from everyone in a class. I realize that having certain people repeatedly contribute more than their share to discussions (and, yes, I am talking about myself, for sure) might make it even less likely for certain other people to talk. However, that’s something else that the professor can and should control.
The following occurred in a Carleton English class in the ’70s. I won’t name the professor but most people who guess will be correct.
After the professor and I had been arguing for a few minutes about some long-forgotten topic, he said “This is the kind of thing which can only be settled over a bottle of Scotch.”
One of my classmates said “Paul doesn’t drink.”
The professor replied “Oh, I can’t trust a man who doesn’t drink.”
[Just a good story about a classroom discussion.]