July 28th, 2009

Reasons to Participate and Reasons Not to


I’m still working on updating my resources on participation and discovering useful findings. Here’s a study where 10 sessions of 16 different classes were observed and the teacher-student interactions recorded. More than half the students in those classes did not participate in any of the 10 sessions observed.

In response to survey questions, students said they participated because (they could indicate more than one reason): they were seeking information or clarification (82 percent); they had something to contribute (56.5 percent); they learn by participating (52.2 percent); they enjoy participating (44.2 percent); or participation is part of my grade (22.3 percent).

And students said they didn’t participate for these reasons: my ideas are not well formulated enough (38 percent); I don’t know enough about the subject (38 percent); fearing I will look unintelligent to other students (24 percent); I haven’t done the reading (21 percent), fearing I will look unintelligent to the instructor (16 percent), and because the class is large (13.6 percent), along with a few others.

I found several of these results surprising. Most instructors I talk with seem to think that if they didn’t give points for participation, nobody would talk. These students didn’t list that reason nearly as often as other reasons.

Apparently not having done the reading, which I would equate with coming to class unprepared, does not strongly prevent participation. Is that because the instructor doesn’t explicitly mention the reading and solicit commentary about it? Or is it because students think they have something to contribute even though they haven’t prepared for class?

Finally, I was reminded again that students care more about how their peers perceive them than how the instructor does. It is worse looking unintelligent in front of peers than in front of the professor, even though it’s the professor who gives the grades. I think this relates to that big percentage of students not participating in class. It is perfectly acceptable among peers not to take part in class, so why risk looking less than intelligent by saying something?

We do have work to do changing some of these norms and expectations.

Reference: Howard, J. R. and Henney, A. C. “Student Participation and Instructor Gender in Mixed Age Classrooms.” Journal of Higher Education, 1998, 69 (4), 384-405.