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Class Part, Class Fart?

I used to instinctively avoid classes with a heavy focus on class participation, as they often meant ripe opportunities for instinctive panic, horrific embarrassment, making oneself stand out and therefore, committing social suicide.

Even though these jitters have since faded, it hasn’t stopped me from questioning the prevalent focus on graded class participation (colloquially known as ‘class part’), especially in FASS where I’ve studied for the last three years.

During my brief stint on Student Exchange Programme (SEP) in the US, I saw classroom enthusiasm among students skyrocket, with everyone contributing to the lesson through both questions and answers despite the fact that class participation was not graded. Compared to Singapore, my experience is that questions posed by tutors are often met with silence. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference: expressing one’s opinion remains more of an exception than a norm in Asian societies.

The fear of speaking, the fear of embarrassing or differentiating oneself is less so a personal fault as it is a learnt habit; a way of life and acting that gradually cemented over time to produce the mute souls we are today.

Yup, I'm sure we can all relate. Credits.
Yup, I’m sure we can all relate. Credits.

But there are implications for staying in our comfort zones. Be it participating on the IVLE Forum, tutorials or seminars, you know you’ve got to learn to speak up or screw up. If you lose that 10 or 20%, you might be on course for tanking the bell curve. Worse still, some professors or tutors don’t seem to register the students’ names, leaving us to wonder if our participation (however scant) is counted for.

Unpacking the farce

In September 2010, a paper by the NUS Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL) extolled graded class participation for its ability to force students to think spontaneously, provide educators with feedback on student progress, increase interest in classes through interaction, and of course – build confidence and expression as a skill in the so-called “real world”.

In reality, things could not be further from the truth. Here are three reasons why.

  1. The Usual Suspects

Having taken classes in a variety of departments, I’ve found that it’s often the usual suspects, a few individuals amongst the silent majority who dominate the conversation. You may find some of them familiar:

The four people you cannot avoid in class participation.
The four people you cannot avoid in class participation.

Accordingly, one professor (who declined to be named), when asked if he thought class participation was meaningful, commented, “Honestly, no, it isn’t useful. Students don’t always say helpful things, and usually it’s just one or two people talking.” Naturally, the presence of one to two of these individuals is more than enough to sour the classroom environment.

  1. Classroom chaos

Many a time, class part can result in a colossal waste of time. I for one, have noticed many poor tutors glancing at the clock while pretending to listen attentively to the verbal vomit of a few who bring the term digression to new lengths. So don’t be surprised if your lecture or tutorial questions never get finished because of a raucous minority.

  1. Participatory plagiarism

“She expects us to write like at least 500 words on the (IVLE) Forum every week… unlike you I’m really not the writing type. So I always look at what others write first, then just copy slash paraphrase.”

An affirmative confession by an Engineering student, but unfortunately this doesn’t just happen to our friends from faculties with less emphasis on the written word. Even us flowery, more verbose types know how to copy smartly; often (especially in more theoretical, abstract mods) I’ve witnessed and know people who simply reproduce what others have written.

In the end, graded class participation really is a just sloppy way to solve the deafening silence of our students. No offense to those who do it out of interest and that rare, purist desire – there are often many more black sheep than white ones. We have to be forced to speak up now rather than learn from young the inherent worth of giving our voice to an often faceless system.

And of course, many tutors use IVLE statistics for forum postings to decide class part on the basis of the number student submissions, not what they actually say… Without a standardised, objective rubric for computing “participation”, we may very well just be barking at the tutor for attention.

Learning to speak up

So why do such problems continue to persist? This being Singapore, we can almost blame everything on one thing: the education system. No longer do we have the luxury of disappearing into our seats, hiding behind classmates to avoid the teacher’s gaze and relying on our more vocal classmates to take one for the team.

Yet, if we put aside our fears for just a second, isn’t that precisely the problem? The fear of speaking, the fear of embarrassing or differentiating oneself is less so a personal fault as it is a learnt habit; a way of life and acting that gradually cemented over time to produce the mute souls we are today.

In Primary School, I remember with distaste that it was characterised by intense repetition. Languages were about compositions, comprehensions and penmanship. Math emphasised frequent practice of the same types of questions (i.e. drilling) and Science was about memorising definitions word-for-word.

The curricula, teachers themselves and the system encourage a pervasive mode of rote learning and memorising. Then, without warning, vigorous class part suddenly becomes an expectation.

In essence, there was a tremendous amount of rote learning – a fact of life exacerbated by even-more-repetitive assessment books, and regular tuition. I called it life support because it kept me barely alive even as learning was dead. When we were nearing the exams, ten year series (TYS) became our best friends. Even if it wasn’t an absolute bore, it certainly drummed in the idea that school was a lot about practice makes perfect.

Given the insignificance of class participation in one’s educational career, it comes to no surprise that many become uncomfortable with speaking up in university. Changing the context does little to change us as students. The disjuncture between largely anti-participatory public education and university is enormous in this respect. The curricula, teachers themselves and the system encourage a pervasive mode of rote learning and memorising. Then, without warning, vigorous class part suddenly becomes an expectation.

Shutting out the white noise

In the end, graded class participation really is a just sloppy way to solve the deafening silence of our students. No offense to those who do it out of interest and that rare, purist desire – there are often many more black sheep than white ones. We have to be forced to speak up now rather than learn from young the inherent worth of giving our voice to an often faceless system.


What are your main gripes with “class participation” in NUS? Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page!

Want to read more articles like this? This article first appeared in Issue #2 of AY2015/16. You can grab a copy right here on campus!