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Academic Karma Kicking Me in the Ass

I finally realize why my professors always encouraged class participation and why it was always such a large component of our final grades.

When students don’t participate, especially in a discussion-based class, the learning environment suffers. I try really hard to engage my students, but I can’t force them to be interested in anything I’m teaching.

Today, in my class of 25, the same five people were participating. I was grateful for their input, but I wanted to hear what the other students had to say. No matter how many different questions I asked or how many different ways I tried to approach the text, no one seemed to want to contribute to the discussion.

I said, “I realize that you have other classes and that reading can be overwhelming, but please come to class prepared to share at least one thing. Otherwise, don’t bother coming to class.”

I tried so hard to keep a straight face, to hide the fact that I felt bad saying it. The truth is, when my students don’t participate at all, I really want to ask them to leave the room. Coming to class and not participating isn’t going to benefit them in any way – I don’t give quizzes, and they don’t have to write academic papers. They don’t even have to take notes!

They are simply required to think and share.

And then I thought about how, when I was in school, I didn’t always participate in all my classes. I was excited to contribute in my creative writing classes, mostly because I love the subject and always wanted to share, but I rarely spoke up in my history and philosophy classes, which were required by my school’s core curriculum.

To be honest, I was even lost in some of my grad school classes, like Readings in Renaissance Literature and Textual Theory. I rarely participated and was mystified by my classmates, who always seemed to have insightful things to say.

I know what it’s like to desperately hope that the teacher doesn’t call on you. It’s uncomfortable and painful, especially in a longer class.

How could I be so hard on my students when I wasn’t always the most diligent student? Am I being a hypocrite? Should I expect more from students who have signed up for an elective course? Should I ignore the lack of interest and pay attention to the students who do care? Academic karma, if there is such a thing, is biting me in the ass.

(Photo by sidewalk flying)


  1. Nobody wants to risk looking stupid in front of other people by being wrong, stumbling on their words, forgetting what they were going to say or anything like that. By avoiding participating, students remove themselves from the running for public ridicule (at least while in the classroom). The fear of ridicule outweighs the desire to enjoy the class fully for most people.

    Me–I hated school–but damn if I didn’t participate in every class I was a part of. If I couldn’t, I’d almost always fail the class. I HAD to engage with the teacher on some level outside of reading required texts and listening to them babble. I’d answer with the wrong answer quite frequently. I wasn’t doing it to impress the teacher or the other students. I was doing it because it was the ONLY way I could stay interested on any level.

    That’s why lecture-based classes KILLED me.

  2. It does seem a bit silly for nobody to be engaging if it is an elective course. By it’s very nature, most people in that class CHOSE to take it. (Not 100% I realize.)

    Maybe you could start having class participation be a percentage of their grade? Mark down a few points anyone who hasn’t said anything in a few sessions?

    Either way I don’t think it make you a hypocrite. You just see a different side now. You can’t really expect your student self to have known what it was going to feel like to be your instructor self.

  3. Chris Maddox Chris Maddox


    You have every right to expect/demand that your students participate in the classroom discussion *regardless* of how you might have behaved yourself in a similar situation. After all, don’t you know by experience that they will benefit more when they are active participants in learning? As an instructor your students should benefit from the lessons you learned. You should decouple the expectations you have of them from your past behavior.

    You should make it clear, since they are not given quizzes or writing assignments, that the *graded* expectation is classroom participation. You may find that this increases the quantity, not necessarily the quality, of discourse, but this may also result in some out-of-the-box comments that will surprise you. I’m a firm believer that there is real value in ignorance if you can get it to speak up.

    Your expectations should be no different whether this is an elective or required course. If students are there and not participating, they are wasting their time as well as yours. I’m not so sure about telling them not to show up if they are not going to participate unless you put some teeth (grade-wise) in that as well. But temper the message with the positive – can you elucidate the benefit (besides the obvious GPA-related) the students get out of participation?

    I hope that you can improve this – it must be terribly frustrating for you, even without the ‘karma’ factor.

  4. Jon Celso Jon Celso

    Hey Laryssa,

    I know it’s a little overdue, but welcome to the world of the professoriate! There were some moments that I’ve had lectures where the same people were speaking up and (in a way) became the class representatives. But what I do know is that there are some people that want to engage in the class but feel intimidated by the people who always speak up because they prefer to talk with me one-on-one after class or in office hours to avoid the vocal students. So I have a proposition that may improve your situation based on a class I’m taking right now.

    This semester, I signed up for a PhD level course about applications of Operations Research in the service industry and the environment that meets once a week. Basically, we read a bunch of journal articles and work on a semester-long project. Before each class, we have to read one or more journal articles and submit a write-up of what we learned from them by 11:59PM the night before we meet. He has a systematic method of doing these write-ups that I’m not going to mention because I don’t think it translates well to the creative writing world. Nonetheless, my professor peruses through the emails in the morning, sends back comments to us if there was something critical that we missed in our evaluations, and discusses the remarks he found to be interesting with the class during lecture. This way, he knows that we’ve been doing the reading while allowing us to exercise our critical thinking skills and creativity. And if he brings up a great point that was made by one of the “quieter” students, then it’s an opportunity for that student to back up his/her observation(s).

    Perhaps this approach can help you out with your class. I know that there are many ways to skin a cat, so you have to choose whichever one works for you. I hope that you keep up with being a faculty member. It would be great to know that there’s more than one person I know from Loyola that’s involved in academia :-).

    Take Care,

    GO VOLS!!! (and Hokies and Greyhounds…boo to the Maryland Twerps :-p)

  5. In my comp classes this semester, I’m having the students write a paper about this very topic–about class discussion, and why more kids don;t talk. I’m looking forward to what they say. In my experience, I’ve found that many times, students don’t know how to participate–you have to teach them. And then there’s that fear they have of being wrong….

    Sitting in a silent classroom can be tough. But you’re in no way a hypocrite! You’re just learning, just like the students do, like we all do….


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