Nancy E. Wright • Long Island University – Brooklyn
This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s December 2005 edition.
Class participation, while always a component of course grades, is not always assigned as useful a role as it can play. Granted, if it comprises only ten or fifteen percent of a student’s grade, it can still be the deciding factor between a B+ and an A-. However, if it comprises up to twenty-five or thirty percent, it becomes a true cornerstone. Small classes or discussion sections of larger classes are most conducive to this high priority on class participation, but it merits this emphasis wherever possible. It encourages regular class attendance (for how can one participate when one is absent?)
without having to resort to penalties. It can test students’ familiarity with assigned material, especially if the instructor begins class with a question such as “What is the author’s key argument?” When class participation is assigned a low percentage, replies to such a question tend to come con-sistently from a few eager students while the rest remain silent. Conversely, a higher emphasis is likely to encourage a broader spectrum of response.
The following suggestions may overcome students’ reluctance to participate:
ANNOUNCE FROM THE BEGINNING THAT QUESTIONS COUNT
Too often students are reluctant to speak in class when they are confused by what they have read. If it is understood from the be-ginning that raising questions counts as participation, students will be more inclined to express their confusion (and thereby of-ten discover that their fellow students share the same confusion). Furthermore, students can be encouraged to express their frustration over what they believe but fear to state is unclear writing; for confusion is not always due to faulty comprehension.
ASSIGN TO SMALL GROUPS THE TASK OF SUMMARIZ-ING KEY CONCEPTS OF THE LITERATURE
A class can be divided into small groups, with the instruction that each member of the group must say something when his/ her group is called to state key concepts. The instructor can then follow up by asking the student what those concepts mean to him or her. If the student hesitates, the instructor can then open the question to the rest of the group, or to the class as a whole. This approach places friendly pressure on everyone to partici-pate without intimidating more reticent students.
ASK THE STUDENTS TO CONTRIBUTE EXAMPLES FROM THEIR OWN OBSERVATIONS AND EXPERIENCES
Concepts such as power, authority, legitimacy and governance can be difficult to grasp in discussions on political theory. They are, however, very familiar to all of us on a daily basis, though we may not realize their constant presence. If students can relate these concepts to their own lives, the concepts will be clearer. From that point of departure, the instructor can then discuss the differences in analysis at the individual level versus the level of the state or the international organization.
Ensuring active participation by every student is important, both for students’ individual growth as scholars and professionals, and for the evolution of the class as a community. The above suggestions are but a few ways to enhance class participation quantitatively and qualitatively. When combined with the assignment of a higher percentage of the course grade, these suggestions can ensure class participation that is dynamic, substantive, and truly educational for the students and instructor alike.
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