Photo by Cindy Cui / Photo Editor
By Elisa Do, Staff Writer
What does catering to folks with different needs and learning styles look like? Is it vast, overfilled lecture halls, too large for questions to be asked? Or small, close-up tutorial groups meant for lively discussion?
From both my personal experiences and speaking to students from other classes, I have noticed an ongoing pattern of anxiety and discomfort involving tutorial groups that include participation grades. Although participation may seem like a simple task, for some folks, it can be an incredibly nerve-wracking experience.
I believe that incorporating smaller tutorial groups in classes comes with many benefits, but designating a portion of one’s grade solely towards performance in the classroom can bring unnecessary pressure and more often than not, does not serve its purpose in enriching the learning experience.
Oftentimes, students enter the classroom worrying about the number of times they have to raise their hands and keep a count of the times they get the chance to speak. Whether or not the ones who were able to “participate” were truly active in their learning compared to those who did not speak is difficult to determine.
For example, in my first year, PSYCH 1X03 was one of my classes that included participation as a large percentage of our grade. I remember not fully watching the online modules like we were meant to before the tutorial and thus walked in with only a mediocre understanding of that week’s content. Rather than incentivizing me to work harder, the idea of participation grades only taught me how to adapt by raising my hand and saying however much I knew of the chapter.
The pressure to contribute to the discussion in the classroom has implemented the idea that saying anything is better than saying nothing. Even if what is being said does not make sense or does not truly promote deeper understanding of the course content, students raise their hands anyways.
If and when a student does not feel comfortable contributing to the discussion, they should not have to worry about being penalized with their grades. Many tutorial groups, such as the ones from PSYCH 1X03, assess participation in a way that forces students to vocalize their thoughts during each class. However, I believe grading participation based on an average level of engagement versus a specific moment in time would provide students with a greater freedom to express their thoughts naturally.
While the pressure for students to engage in tutorial can be seen as a benefit, it can also easily become a barrier for some others. And to be clear, getting rid of tutorials or participation grades all together is not the ultimate solution that I am suggesting here. Instead, I believe that there could be greater improvements made to teaching approaches and the way the curriculum is designed. To allow space for a more diverse range of learning abilities, tutorial participation grades should be more flexible, or alternative grading components could be provided. For example, rather than measuring participation through the number of times a student speaks up, written reflections could be done, or participation could be counted as an optional bonus grade, with other substitutes that could account for the same percentage.
Lastly, usually people understand that accommodations are sometimes provided for disabled students. However, conversations regarding disabilities can vary from both physical to intellectual, including invisible disabilities. Therefore, it is important that accomodations are made for students who can identify themselves as folks who may require alternative strategies in the classroom. While accommodations within the university deserves an article of its own, I would like to point out here that participation grades are not only something that can create barriers for students who prefer to learn differently, but also can be extremely isolating for folks who require different learning methods.
At the end of the day, some students learn better by listening and absorbing the material at their own pace. Some students enjoy the idea of stimulating conversation, of bouncing off other ideas to strengthen their learning. Some students love the idea of back-to-back assigned readings and others can only connect to the material when given the opportunity to learn through hands-on experiences. But either way, students should not have to feel pressured to share in the classroom. The classroom should be a safe space for students to feel encouraged about learning—a place for true participation.