Speaking up in class: Does your classroom participation reflect your grade?

A student raising his hand during a lecture. Photo by Andrei Pop

By Ladaisha Greenfield

It is well known that active participation is part of any college class.

Many students know what it’s like to sit through a class discussion and give input on a topic — whether they’ve raised a hand, or had an instructor call on them. Many students have also managed to survive making a presentation, a task that can leave new presenters nervous and tongue-tied.

What do these instances have in common?  Speaking. According to some instructors, speaking and participating in class can demonstrate their understanding of materials, and affects their performance in the course.

Instructors want to find out what students are getting out of their course:

  • Are they grasping the material?
  • What do they have to add?
  • Are they attentive?

Whether the subject is math, language arts or social sciences, speaking is a way for instructors to get those answers out of the people sitting in the classroom.

Does your participation matter when learning a subject? The answers are mixed.

At least some instructors say “No.” Hava Levitt-Phillips is a WCC instructor in the field of English language arts, who teaches African American literature and English 111. She always encourages her students to use their voices, because through the power of writing, anyone can express what they don’t say. Levitt-Phillips compared the two courses that she teaches. In African American literature, the course material provided can often be difficult to talk about, covering stories of slavery, segregation, and racism throughout American history.

On the other hand, English 111 makes students discuss what’s on their minds to write about. Levitt-Phillips said she’s noticed that of many of her literature students who actually read the homework assigned decline to speak in class. In contrast, those who don’t complete the homework like to discuss it in class. The same kind of thing  happens in English 111, she said, with the talkative students not finishing their writing center assignments.

“Some need time to process, and think about what’s going on, then let their work speak for itself,” Levitt-Phillips said.

But other instructors hold that participation is an important skill for students to succeed. WCC web development instructor Scott Shaper said asking questions and completing assignments is necessary, and so is the obligation to show up to every class session.

“If students don’t come to class and participate in the discussions they will not do well,” Shaper said. “Why would any student want to take a class and not participate? What will they learn? Why take the class in the first place?”

Yet, it’s evident that some students have serious difficulty speaking in front of their peers in a classroom situation.

In an article discussing the importance of classroom participation, Bonnie M. Miller, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, expressed concern about how participation should be graded in courses. “In formulating our criteria for evaluation of classroom participation, we need to think about the circumstances that may inhibit participation — language barriers, cultural differences, shyness, public speaking anxieties and socioeconomic factors that may diminish our students’ sense of their own value in contributing,” she wrote in a 2009 article in American Historical Association.

Miller wrote that when teaching history, students need a variety of ways to participate, to not only accommodate people that dislike speaking, but also help everyone learn the material.

Luke Huff, has been a WCC student for three years. Naturally extroverted, he says he tries to volunteer to speak in all of his classes.

“I want to answer questions…something needs to be said…” Huff said that, as a hands-on learner, lectures are “insufferable” and presentations can actually be fun.

Part of a band called “Vote for Pedro,” Huff said giving a presentation in school is like giving a performance: “You got to keep people engaged,” he said, “…just be prepared, and keep it cool.”

What about students that may have a hard time using their voice (literally and metaphorically) in the classroom?

Leslie Gilbert, a math instructor new to WCC, said that making students work in groups, allows the shy students to complete a problem without having to raise their hand.

“People get really quiet when they’re confused,” she said. “In groups, people can get help, and everyone has a chance to solve problems.”

Relax— having to talk in college can be scary, stressful, and annoying. However, just tell yourself that the more you get through classes, the closer you are to completing your education, and ultimately obtaining the right career. Take a deep breath, talk about any issues that you may have, and work hard the rest of the semester.



scroll to top