Why is Class Participation Such a Big Deal?

By Dawn Williams

We hear it over and over in class, our teachers include it in the syllabus, a percentage of student grades is often devoted to “class participation.”  So what is class participation and why is it such a big deal?  This question is especially asked of students who are passing and think that if they pass the tests in class that should be good enough for the teacher.  Let’s take a closer look at this, sometimes controversial, topic.   I interviewed several professors at ECC in Rolla, most of whom wish to remain anonymous to preserve their student/teacher relationships.

What exactly is class participation?  To different professors it is as simple as asking and answering questions.  For other professors it is a much more in depth process of group participation, working in groups, turning in assignments on time, giving oral presentations or participating in class discussions/debates about a topic or work being examined.  When in a group setting it may be individual contribution or collective thoughts collaborated upon and expressed by one or more member(s) of the group to summarize that groups “think tank” ideas.

So why is it vital that every class member participate?  This seems unfair to students who often claim to be shy or embarrassed about speaking out in class.  There turns out to be quite a few reasons that this class participation is important to both the teacher and the student, as well as the other classmates.  From the teacher’s standpoint, it is vital to have class participation because it helps them to know how much the students are comprehending; not just specific words but the context of what is being taught.  It also helps the instructor direct the usefulness of his or her time in a class by knowing what material is already known and redundant to the students and which areas they need to or are allowed to spend more time delving deeper in.  This allows the student to utilize the teacher resource to the fullest capacity by not having to dwell on unnecessary information and get to the heart of what a student needs to gain better understanding of.  Also, it makes the class more interesting for the instructor, and the students.  ECC has instructors that know the material by rote.  They do not want to teach the same mundane lectures over and over.  They like to be challenged and engaged and know that their knowledge is helping the students get a better understanding of the subject they are presenting.

For other students the questions and ideas one poses may trigger new ideas to themselves and give them viewpoints that they had never considered before.  Many students in community college have never had an experience outside of high school and their own family or small community.  Getting fresh perspectives from multiple areas and many other points of view or beliefs allows them to think about situations they may never have given any thought to previously.  It may spark something they had often wondered about themselves or present new and exciting possibilities to learn from the other side of the fence.  For the student asking the question, there is no doubt the answer is of benefit to them, but also they will have the experience of not only their instructor’s answer to the question but possibly that of several other people to consider who have a wide range of experience in different ways in dealing with the same situation or problem.  One student I spoke to noted that she got far more from the discussions in class than she did in just listening to a lecture.  Another student said that it was easier to stay awake and engaged in a class with multiple participants as opposed to the seemingly droning voice of a single individual.

Also, by learning to pose questions, phrase answers and have discussions, the students are learning how to deal with a variety of people from different levels of education, location, financial status and experience.  They learn communication skills that they can take with them for the rest of their lives and use in the workforce whether they deal directly with people on a personal level, talk to them over the phone for customer service or tech support, or have to communicate in writing for grants, billing, information or any other capacity.  The student who participates is better able to get their ideas across to an audience of one or several hundred equally well.  There are very few vocations in which one would have little or no interaction with other human beings and where communication skills become essential.

Class participation is not mandatory to make a student’s life miserable.  It is a tool for the teacher to be an effective source of preparing the students for work and life in general.  It is an aid to help the shy students come out of their shell, for the struggling communicator to learn these skills and to interact and connect on a deeper level with society as a whole.  Sometimes class participation even has the added benefit of helping one to make new friends by learning which students share similar interests in reading, movies, activities and beliefs.  The importance of class participation cannot be stressed enough because it is a vital part of our lives, especially in a world where we now have communication at our fingertips with millions of people instead of just a select few in our own home town.  Strong communication skills can solve problems, define areas of research, enable us to learn things that are not taught in any school and express ourselves to the world at large.


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