Rethinking Class Participation

By Nicole Sung

When participating in class discussions, some thrive, others don’t. Some take it as a chance to banter with the lecturer. Others find it mortifying. According to UNSW, classroom participation is “an assessment strategy to encourage students to participate in class discussion, and to motivate students to do the background reading and preparation for a class session.” Wishful thinking. The way we currently do class participation (CP) at UNSW isn’t ideal because the classroom environment isn’t always conducive to productive discussion. Teaching staff, especially inexperienced ones, are often ill-equipped to navigate the cacophony of ideas thrown about. With class sizes rising, lectures can turn into a disorientating mess of tangential points, with everyone throwing their two cents in just for the sake of satisfying CP requirements, leaving little to no time to actually synthesise what was discussed, let alone get through all the content. All of this compounded by the fact Term 2 2020 classes are conducted entirely online.

You might be familiar with those lovely classmates who seem to think CP is a chance to present a Shakespearean-length monologue about something that could’ve easily been said in two sentences. Or are you one of those people typing away in awe while that girl in the front row eloquently summarises every reading while demonstrating independent thought? Or for you, perhaps it’s another hour of silently rehearsing the start to your sentence (“I might be completely wrong, but…), before you finally muster the courage to raise your hand, but alas! The lecturer abruptly moves on to the next topic, which you didn’t do the readings on.

Let me tell you, it doesn’t always have to be this way. During my Exchange to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2019, among many profound realisations, I realised just how incredible Singaporean learning environments were. Futuristic, state-of-the-art facilities pumping cool airconditioned air throughout the room while students, sat on chairs with wheels(!) with attached collapsible mini-desks, glided to and fro as we broke off into group work activities… But by far the most remarkable thing about my classes was that despite large class sizes, we were given plentiful opportunities to contribute, our tutor/lecturer striking the perfect balance between letting us air our thoughts, while constantly compelling us to support our opinions with evidence. No waffling or raising your hand for the sake of satisfying CP requirements, despite CP accounting for 25 or 30% of my final grade for every class I took at NUS.

I felt like my participation in the classroom really mattered. I loved when people shared personal stories in the Southeast Asian Politics tutorials, or when we did classroom debates in our International Organisations lecture. I loved when we challenged each other to probe deeper into complex philosophical questions during Modern Western Political Thought. I didn’t even mind when my lecturer thought I was from New Zealand for the entire semester, continually asking me for my personal opinions from a Kiwi perspective. In every class I took in Singapore, CP was engaging, interesting, and dare I say: fun! I didn’t want to miss out on the discussion, so I did all my readings in quite some detail (admittedly, I probably overdid it, given that I only had to pass my courses on Exchange). Maybe my classmates were especially polite, but I also noticed that the discussions always remained respectful, despite differences of opinion. Speaking over someone else? Unheard of.

Put simply, CP was done right. What has stuck with me the longest, and something I think about even a year on from my Exchange, is that perhaps for the first time, I felt like my contributions actually mattered. That sounds incredibly dramatic, so let me backtrack a little. Being Asian, I think I blended in pretty well in the lecture halls. Wearing the iconic Singaporean campus outfit – a t-shirt, paired with shorts and flip flops, with my water bottle at the ready, topped off with a perennially glistening complexion due to the humidity – you could practically call me a local. But when I first raised my hand to answer the lecturer’s open question, everyone’s heads turned to me, trying to figure out the origins of my so-called accent. Despite this initial awkwardness, I experienced a steadily increasing sense of courage to raise my hand and participate in class discussions. I should say it’s not that I suddenly felt like I had a lot of important things to say – it was rather that the learning environment was so conducive to interesting, insightful conversations – both in small groups, as well as more structured discussions so hats off to my classmates, my teachers and the Singaporean culture where they take education very seriously.

Now that I’m back at UNSW (more accurately, back in the comfort of my bedroom logging onto Blackboard Collaborate lectures), to my teachers, classmates, and myself (since I need to hear it again myself), let me say this: CP matters a lot.

I can see the eyerolls coming. What’s the big deal? Who cares about CP anyway? We get it, you went on Exchange.

Participation in class matters for a number of reasons. It matters to me, and it should matter to our teachers, and for those who have no issues speaking up as well as those perennially on mute.

Of course, participating in class compels students to really engage with academic material, since, to participate well, you have to understand what you’re talking about. This requires a lot more critical thinking compared to a quick skim of the readings five minutes before class. I also learnt that CP matters because it’s a great way to practise presenting your ideas in front of others in a concise and articulate way. Maybe that’s why I was so hesitant to speak up during the early semesters of my degree – I was scared of the possibility of my mind blanking mid-sentence. But the more you do it, the better you get at it, and gosh, would I be glad to be able to speak up articulately and confidently when it comes to matters of much greater importance in life.

And that’s the same with listening to others, which I think is an equally important aspect of CP, though sadly often overlooked. It shouldn’t take an unfamiliar accent for us to become active listeners towards our classmates. And learning to disagree with others eloquently yet politely is another reason why CP really matters.

If the classroom is a microcosm for the big bad world, it matters that we practise participating not only as vocal contributors, but also as receptive listeners and respectful dissenters. I’m sure we have all witnessed inklings of unfair power structures, dominating personalities, and perhaps even outright favouritism in one class or another, and to think that these hierarchies will likely transfer across to all sorts of real-life situations (say, from informal social settings to major boardroom decision-making processes), is reason enough to start radically rethinking the way we do CP at UNSW.

Let me make some small, concrete suggestions that we could implement immediately:

  1. Teaching staff should proactively call for people who have not previously had a chance to speak during class: either by picking directly from the roll (though that does seem a bit like primary school), or perhaps, simply saying, ‘Thanks Bobby, I might hear from someone else since you’ve already spoken.’ I’ve heard this used quite skilfully this term, and it’s been refreshingly splendid when teachers mediate the class discussion, enabling a fairer and more varied discussion.
  2. Alternative activities for CP can be useful, especially if they are reserved for students who have not yet had the chance to contribute significantly to class discussions eg. assigning specific topics to particular students, so they’re able to lead discussion before other students jump in and whisk the conversation away.
  3. As students, let’s be proactive in supporting others. Many students, including those with English as their second language, may find it difficult to articulate their thoughts, causing them to opt out of CP. But small group settings are a great way to proactively initiate discussions with those who rarely speak out. It can be as simple as encouraging them to report back to the class on the discussion points, rather than someone else (or yourself).
  4.  Do your readings! Yes, you! That means you can form your own opinions and share them with the class, contributing to the discussion. Trust me, your voice will be music to my ears in contrast to hearing the same four people on repeat.  Since we’re all in this together, let’s all do the readings (procrastination, be gone), engage with the material, jotting down a few of our own thoughts and questions before class.

If we want to contribute meaningfully to our communities and be able to speak out in the public sphere when we know something’s wrong in the workplace, in our home, on the streets (and who doesn’t want that?), we need to implement some changes to the format, marking and attitudes towards participation in class. Because it should never be a meaningless exercise of ‘getting your CP in’.

The skill of listening to others, interacting with their ideas, and being able to reflect on our own ingrained assumptions before responding respectfully and productively – all honed through CP – that’s surely of lifelong importance.

Nicole is currently in her fourth year of a Law/Arts degree, majoring in Politics and IR. Outside of uni you can find her dreaming about future travel plans and/or trying to finish reading the ten books she has started since the start of quarantine.