Katrina Williams explores whether seminar participation grades hinder students more than help them.
We’ve all had the same experience. Crammed into a tiny seminar room around a miniscule table with barely any room to push back your chair – a claustrophobic feeling beaten only by the unflinching expectation weighing down on your shoulders that, at some point during these next 50 minutes, you need to speak. Your lofty ambitions of academic conversation are not tied to a wish to uplift your pursuit of knowledge through intellectual discussion, however. It’s that curious percentage of your grade allotted to seminar participation, too small a number to be a massive concern, but big enough to be a dealbreaker.
That magic number for me has usually been 10% - the difference between a C1 and a B3, or a B1 and an A5. All of my seminar tutors have had a habit of hammering it into me that this could be the difference between a pass and a fail. In short: life or death.
The curtain thus rises on the stage of that weekly seminar. Its actors are you and your fellow students, predators waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on their prey – a moment in conversation wherein you can prove your academic mettle. A time that should be used to further your knowledge and encourage further learning becomes a red, heavy haze. Instead of the stench of blood though, it’s that repeated mantra of a percentage chanted in your brain like some sort of twisted ritual.
Yet when push comes to shove, I end up acting more like scared prey than the apex predator. Once it’s my turn to speak (if I can even bring myself to) my palms get sweaty, my voice shaky, and I always find myself having to try to force the words out of my closed-up throat.
According to Unlocking Potential, an organisation who work with young people with social, emotional and mental health needs; after depression and alcoholism social anxiety disorder is the most common psychiatric condition. Tons of students struggle with social anxiety throughout university, and the expectation of participation in seminars often serves only to heighten a student’s bad experiences with their mental health. Now, as we move into online-only classes thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, that stifling need to bump up your grade might start feeling even worse for students having these sorts of difficulties. I could pretend no-one was looking at me when I chose the banal patch of wall behind my tutor’s head to glare a hole into, but there’s no ignoring fifteen pairs of beady eyes watching you from tessellated squares in a Zoom meeting.
Online learning comes with a whole host of unfamiliar issues to push through. A lot of people find it increasingly difficult to stick to a routine without timed classes – this year, a lot of mine are online anytime, and I’m already dreading the mountain of pre-recorded lectures I’ll have to dig through when I, of course, forget about them completely. There’s the problem of students having little or difficult access to necessary technology or a reliable internet connection, as well as those now having to stay at home in less than ideal living situations. To put it simply, we’re living in scary and strange times, which makes those needling little fears like participation grades feel that much more overwhelming.
I don’t think participation grades are necessary. Regardless of their intended use – as a catalyst to get quieter students (who are usually quiet for good reason) to chat and hold a discussion - they end up feeling more like a threat than encouragement. Seminar discussion, however, is necessary. Being able to chat about your course content with peers helps develop your understanding of your subject, getting you closer to those better grades when you write that bomb essay which you wouldn’t have had the idea for if it wasn’t for your seat neighbour’s thrilling analysis of The Communist Manifesto. In an ideal world, I’d advocate that we get rid of seminar participation grades completely, but that would rely on a perfect academic setup wherein each seminar is an entirely safe and encouraging space in order to allow every student the comfort to offer up ideas without worrying about embarrassing themselves. However, a roster of factors make that impossible, so the next best thing is what I think of as safety-net grades.
One of the courses I study has participation grades for seminars, but as long as you show up to a certain number of them you will be guaranteed at least a specific letter grade. You can then build upon that grade by offering what you feel secure saying, whilst the grade obtained from attendance usually allows a comfortable pass for those who find it more difficult to speak. It’s not a total fix, but it’s a start. Because, at the end of the day, speaking in your seminars really does help – and it’s a lot easier to feel comfortable talking when you’re not just spitting out phrases to try and get a hold of that 10%.
But if you’re struggling with something like social anxiety, it shouldn’t fall on you to force yourself to talk. All academic institutions need to be more sensitive to the issues of its students. Safety-net grades for participation can be a start, but an encouraging and welcoming atmosphere needs to be fostered in seminars which falls to both the students and tutors to create. If you’re feeling at all scared about your participation grade for any reason, you should try reaching out to your tutor and making your worries known. At the end of the day they’re there to help you, and hopefully you’ll be able to work out a solution together.
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