Class participation, or just “class part” as it is often fondly called, is an essential part of a healthy SMU diet, and also the bane of every student in existence. Depending on the circumstances, class participation will either make your lessons sparkle with interesting perspectives and commentaries, or turn your life into some sort of surreal hell, where only the swiftest hands and sharpest tongues survive.
What exactly is class part? If you attended convocation, you’ve probably been told multiple times – by wizened old men in blue robes – that SMU prides itself on an “interactive pedagogy” and “unique seminar-style teaching.” Well, they weren’t joking: in order to encourage open discussion, a sizeable portion of every module’s grade is allocated to class participation. The exact figure varies from class to class, but generally speaking, it hovers around 15 – 20 per cent depending on the type of module taken.
Modules that are more technical in nature, such as Introduction to Statistics or Mathematics for Economics, generally revolve around solving problem sets and learning concepts from the textbook. As a result, the weightage of class part for these modules tend to be lower, at around 10 per cent. The act of class part itself may also be limited to solving questions on a whiteboard, in order to not disrupt the flow of the class. In some cases, the professor may not view class participation as a reliable indicator of student performance, and instead peg the class part scores to attendance or pop quizzes.
For modules such as Leadership and Teambuilding, in which discussion is fundamental to the learning process, class participation tends to have a higher weightage. It is not uncommon to see class part making up 25 per cent; in other words, a quarter of your grade. With such high stakes, the discussions that take place in such classes can get a “little heated”, in the same way that the North Pole can get a “little chilly”.
Understandably, class part can seem a bit daunting for freshmen. The high grade weightage, coupled with the fast pace of classes in SMU often pressures students into adopting a take-no-prisoners approach towards class part: speaking up whenever possible in class, even if they are hard pressed to find something worthwhile to say. In fact, many friends confide in me that they constantly aim to either speak up 5 times per class or die trying. This inevitably leads to a dizzying spiral of one-upmanship, where students attempt to speak more than each other in order to maximise their scores. The most extreme example I have encountered so far was a class where the professor was interrupted no less than 10 times by the same person, much to everyone’s exasperation. I have not heard from the fellow since; presumably, he is now in a shallow grave somewhere.
In truth, there is no need to “out-part” your classmates for any module. Unless explicitly stated by the professor, class participation does not follow a bell-curve, meaning that speaking up 3-4 times per class will net you the same component grade as speaking up for, say, 20 times per class. Despite whatever your friends might tell you: quality does matter. I think it is far better to be remembered for one well thought-out comment than to be remembered as “that guy who always talks a lot.”
Personally, I find that the best way to deal with class participation is to ignore the grade component entirely. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t care about class part at all – but that you should treat it as a tool for discussion, rather than a means to squeeze out more points to bolster a grade. Class part should feel natural: just ask questions whenever you are in doubt, and make remarks that you feel add value to the class. It takes away a lot of the stress that comes with fussing over whether or not you’ve spoken enough to secure that “A”. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly and intuitively ideas and arguments form once you let go of the nagging pressure to talk, and how enjoyable a good debate can be.
My last piece of advice goes out to those who are shy, or just find it incredibly difficult to speak up in class. Don’t fret! Class parting takes some getting used to, especially if you’re coming from JC and aren’t used to speaking up regularly during lessons. Just pluck up your courage and speak: don’t feel embarrassed for asking questions whenever you feel lost, or questions that you think might have obvious answers. If you find yourself struggling over a particular concept, chances are, half the class haven’t the foggiest idea of what’s going on as well. As you go for more and more classes, you’ll find yourself growing more and more confident – in time, class part will become second nature, and you’ll soon be parting like the red sea before Moses’ feet.