Speaking your mind: UNH professors’ talk class participation

Bret Belden

By Greg Laudani, Staff Writer

Class participation is not for everyone. Some students do everything in their power to avoid talking in class, while other people have a hard time staying quiet.

But from the point of view of several professors on campus, speaking up in class is one of the most effective ways students can help themselves.

Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at UNH, defines participation while touching on preparation.

“A student has achieved a good level of participation if he [or] she comes to class prepared,” Scala said. “They have done the reading, they have digested the reading, and in class they are ready to participate in discussion and contribute to the conversation taking place in class.”

Being prepared pays off. In Scala’s course, introduction to American politics, class participation counts for 20 percent of each student’s final grade. However, Scala said it should not matter how much it counts for. He encourages students of the advantages of being engaged during class every day.

“Even if class participation is not counted toward your grade, it is a real help to stay on top of things and to really understand the information in a way that you’re not going to if you procrastinate and wait until the last minute to be prepared,” Scala said.

Scala said he believes that being engaged in the classroom is a fundamental part of learning.

“I think you don’t really understand something until you can put it into your own words,” Scala said. “And I think it’s important for students to learn not just how to write, but how to vocalize what they are learning, and that shows real understanding as opposed to just memorization.”

Dr. Anne Lightbody, who teaches Earth hazards at UNH, is also a firm believer in the benefits of engaging in class discussions. Lightbody factors class participation at approximately 15 percent of each student’s grade. Her in-class assignments are designed to help prepared students succeed, as they often require understanding of the course’s textbook.

Like Scala, Lightbody aligns students’ preparation outside of class with their ability to contribute during class. Students who constantly contrib– -ute in class show Lightbody a lot about their drive to succeed.

“I explicitly reward students for attending and constructively participating in my 400-level course [earth hazards], because I find that students who do so exhibit a deeper level of understanding of scientific principles as applied to earth hazards and therefore perform better on tests; and I want to reward students who take steps that will further their learning.”

Kristen Swann, a UNH lecturer in Italian studies, looks for similar behaviors while rating a student’s in-class work. She does not value simply coming to class having done the homework.

Swann said she wants each of her students to have their own voice during class to vocalize what they have learned. She details these expectations in her Italian 503 course, which places 15 percent of students’ grades on students’ in-class participation.

“What I am looking for when I give you a grade for participation and discussion is regular attendance, preparation, attentive listening to classmates and an effort to regularly contribute your own point of view,” Swann said.

On the other hand, Swann also described how not to act in class. She said that a poor participator is often late, distracted, texting in class, rude to other students or is usually unprepared or absent.

Douglas Lanier, a professor of English and the UNH London Program director, said there is a lacking in students who are willing to contribute to class discussions compared to other universities he has taught at.

“My experience from teaching at UNH and elsewhere is that UNH students are unusually unwilling to participate in classroom discussions,” Lanier said. “My experience is that at UNH, students aren’t as used to discussing material in class than one would expect they might be.”

Lanier teaches Shakespeare and Renaissance literature, subjects that turn many students off. However, with participation worth 15 to 20 percent in his Shakespeare course, Lanier said he makes a conscious effort during class to engage students in the material.

“I will acknowledge that perhaps that’s the subject matter I teach [Shakespeare and Renaissance literature], which may be intimidating to more students than is usual,” Lanier said. “But I do find I have to do more work bringing students into the conversation than I’ve had to do teaching at other institutions, and my colleagues tell me that they have to work hard on this as well.”

Lanier also made the distinction that not all UNH students are unwilling to speak up in class.

But he said he believes large class sizes and advanced technology carry some of the blame. Huge lectures with hundreds of students leave more room for iClickers and Tegrity and less room for student voices.

“My view is that larger classes and e-ed often lead to students being less well-trained for face-to-face forms of participation like discussion,” Lanier said.

With a whole lecture hall full of people, iClicker quizzes offer an easier way to engage students. That being said, Scala considers students’ contributions to class more in smaller class than a massive lecture. 

“I tend to weigh it [class participation] more in my own grading with smaller classes as opposed to larger classes,” Scala said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t notice who participates and who doesn’t, but it isn’t as big of a factor in larger classes as it is in smaller classes.”

And with all the distractions that exist today like Twitter, Yik Yak, Facebook and Instagram, it is difficult for some students to feel compelled to talk in class. Technology certainly has a hand in this, as many would argue that school is not as fun as playing games on your iPhone.

That is why Scala works from the first day of the semester to encourage students that he wants to hear what they think.

“For me, it’s important from the very first class to show students that I’m interested in what they have to say,” Scala said. “And the only way you can do that in the classroom is to ask them questions and see what they have to say.”

Scala said asking questions gives him a way to “take the temperature” of his classes. In other words, students’ responses enable him to see what is sinking and what requires more explanation.

Asking questions is also a way Scala believes he can make class more intriguing to his students.

“For professors, it’s a good measure of interest, too,” Scala said. “I think it’s a more interesting class where there is a discussion going on between the professor and the students, as opposed to the professor holding forth for 80 minutes and the students just sit there wondering when he’s going to stop talking.”