Pimping Participation in the Classroom

Last Updated Jan 10, 2008 9:31 PM EST

Last night, as we drove to our first class of the new year, my husband and I deconstructed the syllabus and expectations of our latest class. Headlining our concerns was a mandatory participation component -- one that accounts for 20 percent of our grade.

As an undergrad, nothing threw me into a tizzy more than a class with a participation requirement. I'm naturally an introvert, but nothing brings out that part of my personality more than a classroom setting.

While many people -- my husband included -- will tell you that it's hard to shut me up in a one-on-one basis, group settings quiet me like no other. Even now in meetings with people I've worked with for years, I listen far more than I speak.

Mandatory participation drives me crazy -- particularly when it's directly tied to a grade. In fact, when I was in school before, more often than not, I would immediately write off whatever portion of my grade was participation and resolve to do better on the exams, papers, or whatever else made up the rest.

However, not only is such a grade component completely subjective, but it also encourages one of my biggest pet peeves: People who talk just to talk.

And that's what we focused on during our drive to school last night. Like every other group of people in the world, our MBA class has its share of those people who like to talk. Of course, they're the easiest to identify.

You know the ones I'm talking about -- you might even be one yourself. Be it classroom or boardroom, when they start speaking, all you have to do is look around for the characteristic reactions or just feel the change in the air. Every office has at least one.

Now, that's not to say that these types of people don't have important things to say. But unfortunately, those nuggets of wisdom often get lost in the hundreds of other words they inflict on their captive audience.

The thing is, people like this are going to talk regardless of any requirement -- using up precious minutes of class time. But adding a participation requirement means that, in addition to the expected discourse from the chattiest class members, everyone else is expected to contribute a brilliant insight as well. Some will, but others will throw out a bunch of words just to earn those points.

To me, an even more chilling possibility is the unintended outcome of creating more people who talk just to talk -- without carefully weighing their words and without listening to the others around them. Do we really need more talking and less listening in the corporate arena? And when do we start rewarding students -- and colleagues -- for listening?

Obviously, I'm not against encouraging valuable discussions in the classroom, but forcing such discourse often falls short of the intended effect. And really, such a component should be superfluous. At the graduate school level, is it really necessary to require participation? We're all adults and in an MBA program by choice. Must I really validate my intelligence or my desire to be there by raising my hand?