Rethinking the “Participation Point” System

Jacey Brown, Writer

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It’s a common occurrence in Murray High classrooms and gradebooks – students are earning points for how little or how often they talk and connect during class discussions.

For teachers, these little points are a strategy used so they don’t feel like they’re talking to brick walls with AirPods in. The points are a nuisance, but an achievable feat for the average student. However, for the atypical student (meaning those with mental illnesses or disabilities, or those who don’t learn in the typical ways) the traditional “participation point” system might be doing more harm than good.

17 million U.S. children have already experienced a diagnosable mental disorder such as generalized anxiety or depression, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Think of the populations of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Idaho; that’s how many students are navigating through both everyday classes and mental illness at the same time.

For a large number of these atypical students, the traditional system of “participation points” quickly morphs from a small obstacle in their day to an anxiety-inducing, learning-reducing nightmare. Students like these are having points taken off their grade for not talking as much as the neurotypical, mentally healthy student, and that’s not fair.

Simply put, the health and grades of an otherwise bright student can take a tumble, all for a part of themselves they don’t know how to define, much less manage, yet.

“One con of participation points is it can affect students’ grades in a way that may not actually reflect their ability level,” says Murray High English teacher, Ms. Cooper. “I’ve had  students who should be in an honors class and whose skills are above grade level, but because they chose not to participate, they ended up with a C grade at the end of the term.”

Still, there’s no denying that participation points have proven to be an effective way to engage students and aid them in becoming active learners, not just information regurgitators.

“I believe that the more a student is involved and participating in their learning, the more likely they are to learn and retain the information,” says Cooper.

The question is, how do we make this participation point system more flexible? How do teachers broaden the gradebook to include both those who are successful with the traditional ways and the students who we are failing by sticking to tradition?

The answer to this question, much like the answers to many other questions of this time period, lies in technology.

In an age of rapidly developing technology and culture, the energy of innovation can and should be harnessed to give every student of every background the opportunity to contribute and earn points in ways that benefit their learning style. It’s important that kids are taught ways to earn these points that don’t make them fearful of learning, fearful of connection.

Cooper, who incorporates many forms of participation or bonus points in her daily classes, adds, “Technology is a good way to engage the atypical student. You can post a discussion question online, and everyone can see the response, add new ideas, and ask questions. Also, having students write is a good way to give every student an opportunity to participate. You can ask them to share their opinions, to write a question, to record what they learned, etc.”

With the growing mental health concerns students in Utah, in the United States, and all over the world are facing today, the atypical student needs an advocate. It’s time they stop losing their breath or panicking inside because they will fail if they can’t speak in front of their class, or if they didn’t look interested enough from a teacher’s point of view.

The job of a teacher is to encourage learning while dealing with the most complex kaleidoscope of minds and backgrounds, and that can’t be an easy job. But the hope for atypical students everywhere is that teachers will use the technology most people frown on to create classrooms where every student feels comfortable and represented – no matter how loud or quiet their voices are.

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