With the new academic year now under way at American colleges and universities, millions of new course syllabi will have been handed out to undergraduate and graduate students around the country. These syllabi will spell out, (usually in shockingly tepid, legalistic detail), the criteria by which students will be judged for their final course grades. One of the most ubiquitous conditions spelled out in these syllabi will be a seemingly innocuous requirement that students "participate" in some form or another during class meetings. The "participation" requirement seems innocent enough (who, after all, would oppose students taking an active part in their own instruction?), but it is almost invariably the case that professors proclaim that they intend to grade student participation. There are a number of seriously myopic and counterproductive consequences that flow from this propensity to grade class participation in the academic world, the sum of which amount to a serious bias against shy students, and, what is even more troubling, contemplative students.
The first baneful effect of grading class participation flows from the fact that the very word "participation" can be used in a number of ways. While one can "participate" in the proceedings of a conference, one can also "participate" in a riot. Professors and teaching assistants, of course, only intend to promote the former of these types of participation, but the difficulty of discriminating "good" participation from "bad" participation creates a fog of uncertainty for both students and professors. This uncertainty about what participation is "good," moreover, creates an inherent bias against contemplative students who are keen enough to recognize that there is a difference between constructively participating and detrimentally participating in class discussions. For students too dull to realize that there are times to keep your mouth shut, there arises no problem hereu2014they continue to raise their hands and blurt out whatever fleeting and superficial thoughts happen to cross their minds. The contemplative or shy student prudently holds his tongue and receives no points, while the dullard, who disrupts class with his moronic ejaculations, receives credit for participating.
Another baneful effect of grading participation arises from the general incentive that this creates to speak rather than to listen in class. One of the main purposes of a college education is to learn complex ideas from men who are (or, I should say, claim to be) thoroughly accomplished in their fields. This simply cannot be effectively accomplished with students constantly raising their hands and blurting out whatever they happen to think at the moment in order to get participation pointsu2014which is exactly what grading participation serves to reward while simultaneously punishing those who want to listen and learn from the professor rather than from their blabber-mouthed peers.
Another main purpose of a college education is to foster the ability to take part in arguments. Arguments are not, however, simply verbal free-for-alls. On the contrary, there is a very vital logical structure to arguments that must be painstakingly learned, with special attention to the fallacies that undermine rational argumentation. In other words, learning how to argue means learning how to carefully listen to another person's position, and respond with thought out, logically defensible and non-fallacious counterarguments. This form of careful and well-reasoned argumentation, however, rarely occurs in the course of class discussions, for the simple reason that there is not enough time in the course of verbally arguing to thoroughly consider one's own argument, let alone the argument of one's opponents. The contemplative student is aware of this problem, and is wary of entering class discussions where half-baked arguments masquerade as logically-defensible arguments. Again, the contemplative student prudently avoids participating in arguments in which he feels the positions of each side cannot be fully appreciated, while the loudmouthed dullard jumps right in, completely oblivious to the possibility that his argument might not be well thought out. And again, the contemplative student receives no participation points, while the loudmouthed dullard earns still more.
An even more serious problem arises from the fact that these participation points are almost invariably taken away from what were previously points for writing a term paper. The term paper is precisely the place for well-reasoned and logically defensible arguments, because it forces students to absorb complex ideas throughout the semester, to critically analyze these ideas, and to present and defend an argument of their own. Contemplative students know that the term paper is the place where their arguments can be given the thoughtful attention that they deserve, and where they can present well-reasoned criticisms of other arguments. The grading of participation, however, (especially in cases where participation accounts for 30% or more of the overall course grade), serves to minimize the accomplishment of a well-reasoned written argument, while it simultaneously serves to inflate the value of participating in rhetorical combat with dubious logical arguments.
As an example of how ridiculous the grading of participation can actually become, imagine three students in an introductory class where class participation accounts for 20% of the overall course grade and the term paper accounts for 30% of the overall course grade. Student #1 is a dull-witted and loudmouthed youth, while student #2 is a contemplative person who does not like to argue about things that haven't been fully thought out, and student #3 is simply a shy student who doesn't like to speak in class. Now, over the course of the semester, student #1 "participates" in class discussions all the time, offering all sorts of trivial and worthless arguments and simple declarations about his opinions. Students #2 and #3, on the other hand, rarely participate in the class discussions, but, because they listen attentively to the professor's lectures all semester, they have learned a great deal about the subject under study. When it comes time to hand in term papers, student #1 turns in a paper that resembles his classroom outbursts; it is trivial and worthless because during class he is always thinking about what to say rather than listening to the professor. Students #2 and #3, on the other hand, turn in papers that are well-reasoned and carefully considered as a result of their quiet attention in class. Because the professor has chosen to grade participation, however, student #1 will likely receive the same, and in some cases higher, grade than students #2 and #3 because he will have earned 100% of the participation points! The professor will have created a situation in which loudmouthed dullards are given the same or more credit than the students who are attentive listeners and careful writers. Does this seem either fair or reasonable?
An obvious solution to the problem I am discussing here is to stop grading class participation. I would like to suggest, however, that a more far-reaching solution is called for. The problem is not so much one of grading as it is a failure to properly segregate students of differing abilities, and this failure to segregate students is wholly the effect of a socialized education system. The system of socialized education always ends up lumping all students together into a giant, supposedly indistinguishable, mass that is capable of being "graded" by exactly the same standards. All public school students, from kindergarten to the state university, are judged by exactly the same criteria at each stage of their education. The fact that students learn in different ways and have different talents is completely lost.
Purely private schools, on the other hand, cannot afford to lump their students all together at the risk of belittling or stunting the abilities of certain students (e.g., contemplative or shy students). In fact, purely private schools, (that is, schools who compete for students on the purely free market), absolutely must not belittle, or grade in a biased manner, the abilities of their customer-students who voluntarily attend their schools, or these student will simply leave. The effect of purely private schooling would be to foster the creation of myriad segregated schools for students of differing abilities and different talents.
I think it is likely, moreover, that schools on the purely free market which produced contemplative students would out-compete schools which produced blabbermouths, because contemplative students would out-compete the blabbermouths on the job market. Employers are typically not looking for impulsive blabbermouths; instead, they usually seek to find employees who are careful, disciplined and have excellent writing skills. I could be wrong. The only way to find out is to abolish this ridiculously homogeneous, socialized education system, and allow the schools to compete for students, and compete to create the best future employees for the job market.
September 13, 2006