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ISSUE 115 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/12/2002

Class participation becomes a game

By Dan Schramm
Staff Writer

Friday, April 12, 2002

It's going on two years now since I first trod the heights of Manitou, and since most of the classes I have taken here have been discussion-based, I have developed some thoughts on this style of higher education: namely, that it is bogus.

Fellow students, have you ever walked into a class calculating the number of times you would raise your hand that day? Have you ever checked your calendar and realized it was once again time for your monthly contribution? Have you ever sat through those countless awkward moments when the professor looks with desperate expectation around the room for any form of student engagement, and you wonder whether or not it is your duty to placate him? Have you ever given an icy stare to that one girl in the front row who always has some meaningless question to ask and thought to yourself, "Keep it up, you grade-grubbing wench; you know how to work the system, good for you?"

Students, you know what I'm talking about. How many more of your ungodly expensive classroom hours are you willing to waste playing games with the professor?

Speaking of which, professors, have you ever caught yourself justifying your lack of preparation for the day's class by thinking to yourself, "most of class time should be spent by the students engaging the material, not me lecturing about it?"

Have you ever felt obligated to give a better grade to a student than they deserve because they managed to seem more interested in the material than the other students? Have you ever felt the need to apologize for saying too much in the classroom and not letting other students speak their minds? Have you ever wondered to yourself why, when St. Olaf students have obviously proved their intellectual capacities in so many other ways, getting them to discuss issues openly in class is about as hard as convincing Dick Cheney to discuss his ties to the energy industry?

Professors, you know what I'm talking about, too. How many more days are you going to walk to your car asking yourself why you spent those extra six years getting a Ph.D. when you spend the majority of your class time either waiting for students to say something or listening to countless misinterpretations of the material you've spent your life researching by someone who actually only read a quarter of what you assigned?

Discussion-based classes face problems because they are diverse and, sometimes, contradictory. Often, a professor may feel uncomfortable telling a student that their opinion is just flat out wrong. Everyone knows the person is wrong, they're waiting for the professor to correct the error, but it doesn't get corrected. The professor doesn't want to deal with hurt egos so he or she moves on by saying something like, "yes, I guess that's one way of looking at it."

But the opposite happens just as often. A particularly astute student may point out that the professor has made a mistake, but rather than admit the error, the professor will argue the point longer than necessary in order to save face.

I have lost faith in discussion-based classes, furthermore, because no matter how many students are actually participating on a given day, no true "discussing" is actually taking place. More often than not, students decide they have something to say, raise their hands, wait patiently (but obliviously) while other students make their points. Then when it finally comes time for them to speak, they say what they were thinking about five minutes ago, even though it has nothing to do with the present topic. These circumstances tend to contribute on any given day, not to a discussion, but to an incoherent cacophony of blow-hards listening to themselves talk without any relation to the comments of others.

Wouldn't we be lucky, however, if students were prompted by genuine interest in the material to offer their opinions on it to others in the class? Far more frequently, a herd mentality sets in early in the semester, a mentality which makes students who participate on a regular basis appear to be playing a game with the professor.

The game is simple: I act interested in the material, then you give me a good participation grade at the least, and maybe even a higher grade for the course. When discussion is seen as a game, the whole class suffers, and students participate not because they are interested but because they want the professor to think they are interested. Those who participate the most, even if they actually do find the material engaging, are seen as brown-nosers trying to impress the instructor.

I do not necessarily recommend that we rid ourselves of the discussion-formatted class, but I often feel as though my class time is being wasted. Occasionally I even pine for a good old lecture format, in which a professor has a chance to share with the students his or her expert knowledge, and students don't have to feel like they are competing with each other for their professor's attention.

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