For the quiet ones

by Daniel Fortner
Contributing Writer

I am a participation grade sellout.

I noticed this morning during one of my classes that the professor was covertly checking names off of a piece of paper when students spoke up in class. At first I didn’t say anything; I kept quiet almost with deliberate effort. Before long, though, I found myself making some BS comment about social norms. Check.

I don’t like participation grades. I listen carefully in class. I reflect thoughtfully on the complexities of the ideas. And when I have something particularly relevant or informative to share, I speak up. Yet I often notice that I’m forcing myself to make some comment or other—even if I’m not particularly confident in or passionate about what I’m saying, even if I’m not fostering productive conversation—just for the sake of having my name ticked off of a participation roster.

I’m an effective writer and organizer and am good at creating and executing big plans. So why, by calling for often mindless classroom commentary, must academic environments reinforce the dominance and perceived social superiority of extraverted, talkative humans? The quiet, careful listeners, after all, can just as effectively implement positive changes.

I heard a TED Talk not too long ago by Susan Cain, a research psychologist one of whose newly published books has added a lot of chatter to recent discussion about introversion and extraversion. One of her most poignant arguments regards academic settings, which, she argues, overemphasize the apparent intelligence and leadership ability of talkative students while downplaying the more subtle strengths of quieter ones, who often tend to be creative and imaginative and who may therefore offer dynamic, previously overlooked solutions to complex social, political, and scientific problems.

Participation grades are in most cases well-intentioned. They exist primarily to develop group-setting communication skills, to move classroom conversation in a forward direction, and to build students’ confidence as speakers. It’s important to have balance, after all, and to be able to express one’s thoughts verbally, even if someone does tend more toward internalized, individual problem-solving.

but as Cain’s observations imply, participation-based evaluations tend to polarize classrooms between the ostensibly good students that converse frequently and the apparent slackers that say little, though they very well may more fully understand material or may have more productive solutions for complicated problems.

“There is zero correlation,” Cain observes, “between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” Besides, we’ve all been in classes comprised of humans that, even though they don’t find the material in question interesting and even though they haven’t thought carefully about it, take turns providing generic, dispassionate responses as a means of feeding their GPAs. And it’s hard to blame them.

Also important, standardized participation grades presuppose that all comments made in a class have the same value—each is worth precisely one check on a list of names—even though they involve varying degrees of careful reflection, may or may not reflect sincere interest on the part of the speaker, and are not all equally well-articulated. So let’s re-conceptualize academic success. I’m tired of feeling like a sell out.