At this point in the semester, most section assholes have established a reputation for themselves. As campus small talk shifts from “what classes are you taking” to “how are your midterms,” it is worth thinking about a seldom-discussed aspect of assessment in Yale classes: the participation grade. Not only are participation grades unfair and pedagogically unsound, they also reward and reflect the flaws of modern intellectual culture.
In many classes, the participation grade does not actually seem to influence a student’s final grade, rendering it redundant. In other classes, the participation grade is a giveaway of sorts, contributing to grade inflation.
What about classes in which the participation grade actually makes a difference? The most common argument used in its favor is that it rewards “good citizenship” — showing up for class, doing the readings and making intelligent comments. But class participation is a virtue, not an achievement. We cannot and should not try to quantify it. After all, we don’t give tax breaks to people who vote, or who attend meetings at City Hall. According to Yale’s academic regulations, instructors can already use “cut restrictions” to deal with persistently absent students.
Moreover, participation grades are arbitrary. Research suggests that the human mind is almost always influenced by external biases when making subjective evaluations. There is no reason to believe that Yale professors or graduate students are exempt from this phenomenon. If this is a problem in assessing a piece of written work, it is an even bigger problem when evaluating something as amorphous as oral participation over the course of an entire semester. How well one dresses and how one speaks are likely to count for just as much as what one actually says in class.
Moreover, there are many reasons why students might not participate actively in section. Perhaps they suffer from some form of social anxiety, or were shut up by a teacher or bullied by their peers in fourth grade for talking too much.
Or maybe it has to do with aspects of race, gender, socioeconomic and cultural background. Some East Asian cultures, for example, do not stress the loud and sometimes aggressive mode of oration that tends to prevail in classroom conversation. In addition, we have all heard about “mansplaining” — a man explaining something to a woman in a patronizing manner — and I have observed this dynamic in seminar.
The next time you get bored in a discussion section, look at who is being interrupted or talked over, at who is getting their classmates’ attention and at who is generally speaking the most. Is it the kid from Choate or the kid from an underfunded public school? Though there are certainly exceptions, chances are that the pattern will be demographically inflected.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter that a student is quiet in class, or even that she never turns up, if she can prove that she has mastered the material. And even if we wanted to encourage participation, assigning grades hurts the aim by discouraging students from putting themselves out there for fear of making a silly remark.
But mostly, we should abolish participation grades because they represent the pitfalls of contemporary civic discourse. They reward provocative sound bites over quiet contemplation, hasty interjections over well-considered arguments, and the illusion of involvement over substantive engagement. Collectively, these effects denigrate intellectual life and undermine the foundations of public debate.
When Donald Trump was in college, he probably would have gotten a good participation grade. And that should say enough.
jun Yan chua is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at