Thursday, September 09, 2004

Class Participation

This is the first time I've been a full time student in over 6 years. It's been pretty much a blast so far. It really is preferable to full time work. In school, a paper that's 10% wrong gets a designation of "A-" That's great! Pat yourself on the back for an A minus. At a real job, if you prepare a document for a client or perform some kind of service that's 10% wrong, you can kiss your ass goodbye. I love these relaxed standards of whats expected of me.

But the topic today is CLASS PARTICIPATION. Specifically, my own, personally crafted users guide to good class participation. These are all observations and thoughts I had as an undergrad, but now, 6 years later, they all suddenly come into focus. I have been annoyed over and over again these last two weeks by shoddy, piss poor class participation. When the hand goes up, and the professor points to you, you have an opportunity to say something useful, but you can also easily end up looking like an asshole or a jerk. This one woman in all my classes monopolizes the class discussions and is kind of a walking example of what not to do. So here is a list, in order, of the kind of comments you should be participating to the class.

1) (Best) The Question of Clarification

This is the best kind of class participation you can provide. Example: "Professor, I'm a little confused how you found the maximum profit. In the last example we had to take the marginal cost curve and set it to zero and solve for x - but this time we just looked for the intersection of marginal cost and revenue. Why couldn't we do that last time?"

It's not the substance of the question that's important here. It's that this question plays very well with both of your audiences: the professor AND the class. The professor is pleased that you're following his lesson so closely. He's happy to clarify the point. The class is impressed because a) the way you asked it showed humility - exposing your lack of understanding (this makes them feel better) and b) it also exposes a deeper underlying intelligence - you were on top of the lesson to the degree that you could ask this nuanced question. They may not have been there.

For classes that require participation for the grade, the Question of Clarification is absolutely your best bet. Everyone's happy. (Note: don't overuse it. Never more than once per class. You risk a) not looking that smart after all, b) appearing to dominate the class discussion)

2. The Truly Insightful Observation

Example: "In the homework, that list of zip codes was labelled as nominal data. (since zip codes have no inherent hierarchy) Doesn't that violate the rule that any data represented as numbers must be interval data?"

Make these very sparingly, and make sure they are truly insightful. If you overuse this one, no matter how insightful the comment, you will look like a showoff big time. A real asshole. Also, if the comment is not truly insightful, you risk looking like a pretentious idiot. Once every week or so, tops.

3. Offering one Answer when the Prof asks for a group of answers

This is when the Prof asks the class to come up with several examples of something, or several possible answers to a question, and students are encouraged to call them out.

I don't encourage you to participate in this. First of all, anything you say is going to end up lost in the list. Anonymity for you. No credit. Secondly, chances are the question has several obvious answers. Let the dumb students tackle those. Maybe there are also some truly insightful answers too. Don't bother - you'll look like a showoff.

4. The ridiculouly easy answer

This is a trap. When the prof asks a question that is just overwhelmingly obvious to the point of rhetorical, yet he wants an answer anyway, don't take the bait. Oh don't get me wrong, he's not trying to trap you, he just wants to introduce a little class participation to keep his lesson moving. He will not be impressed with the person who provides the easy answer. In fact, when the easy question gets asked and the hands shoot up, take note of these people. This is your class dead weight. Avoid them when choosing a study group.

5. (Worst) The Showoff Question

This is a "question" that, when analyzed, is really a statement. That statement is "Hey prof, I've done all the reading." Or possibly "By the way, I've read ahead." It has no other point. It typically takes the form of a challenge to something the prof has just said, not indicating a fresh thought, but indicating knowledge of a concept later in the chapter/lesson plan. Maybe the prof is explaining a rule. He's going over it in detail because it's a useful, fundamental rule that needs to be learned well. However, the rule has an exception and the showoff's hand goes up! up! up! "But Professor! Isn't there an exception when inflation can actually go DOWN when there's a trade surplus???"

We weren't talking about trade. Trade was neither here nor there. The professor is exasperated, not impressed, because he wasn't going to get to this for another half hour, and the students are annoyed, because suddenly they have to deal with the distraction of someone needing to announce that they've done the reading.

Class is not the place to show off. Show off in your papers and exams.

6. Monopolizing the Discussion

Just do not command the discussion. Do not turn the class into a dialogue between you and the prof. No one will like you.

And that's important. Being liked is important. School (at the graduate level certainly) is partially about meeting the right people and forming the right networks. Your participation in class must be tailored to both the class at large as well as the prof. Do not upstage the prof or your classmates.

Now my system applies primarily to classes of a quantitative kind. If your class is all about poetry criticism or interpretive dance, or some other kind of format, my advice may not apply.

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