The Meaning of Participation

Ever wondered what the difference is between your definition of participation and school’s?


Erela I., Reporter

Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the verb participate as “to take part.” While it seems simple enough, many people (myself included) have found participating to be one of the most daunting parts of school.

As an introvert and perfectionist, talking in class is difficult. Answering questions on the spot is unbearable and presenting projects is complete torture. However, I’ve accepted these things as necessary evils that I can live with. 

It wasn’t until recently that my supposed “lack of participation” began to bother me. As classes became increasingly more challenging, forcing myself to be outspoken has as well. But with countless sleepless nights, I had managed to scrape by. Discussing my progress with a teacher, they finished the conversation with “I just wish you participated more in class.” 

I knew the comment was meant to be encouraging and I’m not a particularly confrontational person, so I nodded, thanked them for their time, and headed off. But, underneath, my blood boiled. Any other day, I would have let the comment roll off my back. It stung, but it’s nothing I hadn’t heard before. So why did it irritate me so much?

My frustration manifested into an entire mental argument that went as follows:How could they say I didn’t participate? I, who took notes in triplicate, who went over the material countless times, who read the textbook cover to cover, who wrote multiple study guides, whose determination to do well in the class surpassed my hatred of the subject. How could anyone say that I didn’t participate?

Classroom education’s typical definition of participating punishes people uncomfortable with speaking up, struggle in class, or prefer to observe. It does not take into account the diligent and hard-working students who just have difficulty speaking up. They are often penalized for a “lack of participation,” when in reality, they participate just as much, if not more, only less obviously.     

The meaning of participation, like so many other concepts, must be broadened. The classic “ ask questions frequently and engage in discussion” definition is simply incorrect. It’s geared to benefit certain students and punish others. Under this inaccurate interpretation, teachers tend to regard “a lack of participation” as an indication of student’s boredom or lack of opinion. In my case, it meant anything but. Personally, I believe that  the meaning of participation should be replaced by a more inclusive term, one that reflects the amount of effort put into a class and possible obstructions students might face in them. If corrected, teachers might be surprised to find diligent students who merely have difficulty speaking. Or intelligent people that simply prefer to observe rather than partake. If classroom education expanded their definition of participation, they would see participating encompasses far more than they originally thought.