Growing up, I attended relatively small schools with classes that were never larger than 18 people, so I knew my peers very well. As a naturally shy person, this close-knit environment enabled me to participate in class more comfortably and openly share my opinions. But since coming to Emory, adjusting to college classes and increasing expectations from my professors has been taxing. Many of my professors assume that their students easily know how to overcome personal challenges and contribute regularly to class discussions. However, this is not the case for all Emory students, and professors should recognize this discrepancy and make a concerted effort to help improve and develop the necessary participation skills with students in my position.
My 26-person philosophy class at Emory should have been a good opportunity for me to get to know my classmates and contribute to discussions confidently. However, with a 30% participation grade hanging over my head, the constant pressure to say something noteworthy and match the bar that my peers set in class makes the task more difficult. My high school courses did not prepare me for the large weight college professors place on participation — all of my teachers had very low expectations for participation, and I was able to get by without making significant contributions in classes. Emory’s recent shift to online learning has made assessing student participation through a computer screen even more difficult. As someone who struggles with classroom participation, professors who value active listening and infrequent, thoughtful contributions over constant, surface-level statements have helped make me a more confident person.
In an article from Quiet Revolution, teacher Jessica Lahey highlighted her minimalist approach to assessing student participation. Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” provided insight regarding her experience teaching students from diverse backgrounds and how those interactions shaped her current teaching methodology. For most of her teaching career, Lahey was a proponent of the idea that all students should learn how to participate in class discussions. Lahey addressed backlash from the parents of her shy students regarding her teaching style.
She emphasized that students “don’t get a pass for [their] personality type.” Lahey acknowledged that social anxiety inhibits student participation, but she recognized that her role as an instructor is to “teach people how to articulate and be heard.” Lahey emphasized that finding loopholes to existing participation rules for shy students is not a viable solution to solve their problems. Finding ways to observe shy student behavior, such as keeping track of how frequently these students look engaged in the classroom, is not an accurate or sustainable way to gauge their level of participation. After further evaluation, she concluded that taking small steps instead to show these students that their teachers care can help them become more comfortable voicing their opinions and can avoid the need to adjust any rules to account for the personal habits of specific students.
In order to accommodate her students’ needs in classroom discussions, Lahey implemented the “Think, Pair, Share” activities championed by Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Teachers practicing this technique instruct students to write down a response to a question posed to the class, share this thought with a partner and then present it to the class. Cain found that with this strategy shy students could find confidence in their contribution from the encouragement of their partner.
While the Think, Pair, Share technique, among other conventional teaching strategies, allows quiet students to receive positive feedback from their peers regarding their thought processes, some students still won’t have the confidence needed to raise their hand in a group of intimidating, extroverted people. In my philosophy class especially, many of my peers are upperclassmen with a command of the English language far beyond my own. I felt that these students were able to clearly articulate their points and apply complex topics from their other coursework in their discussions in a manner that I could never replicate even if I had all the confidence in the world. Because of this intellectual barrier I sensed between me and my peers, I was never able to muster the strength to share my opinions with them through this activity. Keeping these circumstances in mind, I think that a more personalized strategy is a better solution to the issue of encouraging class participation.
My philosophy professor this semester was aware of my participation-related difficulties, and she was more than willing to talk to me outside of class about how I could improve and find better ways to assess my participation in the future. After comprehensive discussion and analysis, she assured me that our one-on-one conversations about course material and the quality of my weekly online discussion posts were sufficient indicators of my sustained effort to add value to the class. However, she did agree that making at least one meaningful contribution each time our class meets is still a goal that I should aim for. By working together to determine feasible strategies for my success in the course, I was able to contribute more frequently and naturally to class discussions. All it took for me to see noticeable improvement were a few short conversations with my professor after class.
Such reassuring behavior is all that I ask from Emory professors. As participation is a necessary component of small, seminar-style courses, a professor’s willingness to consider individual students’ challenges with participation would go a long way to ensure their success. For example, a participation rubric from the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.) provides clear and fair criteria for assessing student performance, stating that more than just one comment in class is enough to demonstrate excellent engagement in the class, so long as your comments are “insightful” and “constructive.”
In addition to this rubric, Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the State University of New York College at Cortland Denise D. Knight found that allowing students to self-assess various aspects of their own participation in the classroom “can enhance both the amount and quality of participation” by building student confidence and encouraging accountability for every part of their course grade. Knight would consider her students’ self-evaluations and use their provided rationale as well as her own judgment for the participation grade each student eventually received. This system allowed students to compare their self-assessment to the teacher’s expectations, thus providing the students with insight on how to structure and improve discussion contributions in the future.
Ways that professors can be actively involved in introverted students’ performances include providing constructive feedback, integrating useful activities into class time and establishing clear criteria for assessments. Now that Emory has shifted to online learning, I believe that using the discussions feature on Canvas or requiring students to use the “raise hand” feature on Zoom before speaking are also excellent alternatives that work well. Although I understand that being a quiet person is not a valid excuse for me to avoid active classroom participation, knowing that my professors care about my progress and development as an individual allows me to become a more confident person both inside and outside the classroom.
Sara Khan (23C) is from Fairfax, Va.