A Necessary Discussion
Published: Thursday, February 9, 2012
Updated: Friday, February 10, 2012 00:02
High school students are often warned that academic hand-holding ends after graduation. But many college professors continue to coddle students by requiring attendance at discussion sections.
While it is fair for attendance to be required in seminars, which depend on active participation to create a learning environment, professors should scale back attendance requirements for discussion sections. This change would place personal responsibility on students, where it belongs.
To add accountability for students, we propose a blog system that would demonstrate that students have completed assigned readings. Attendance in discussion sections would then become supplementary for those students who want to discuss the material further.
Most professors do not mark students down for skipping out on lecture classes (who can take attendance in the Intercultural Center auditorium?), but nearly all recitation sections are mandatory. While forcing students to read challenging material, engage with the text and bring questions about it to a teaching assistant is a good idea in theory, in practice things often play out differently.
Too often discussion sections are dominated by students who did not do the reading and ask shallow questions in order to learn the basics for the exam. And when participation, not only attendance, is mandatory, many students ask a question, no matter how basic, just to clock in their two minutes of speaking time.
Reducing discussion section attendance requirements would also benefit more committed students. Those students who are forced to grudgingly attend class detract from the classroom environment. The collection of students surfing the Internet during class is a byproduct of this policy, and their disengagement is a distraction. Furthermore, their misuse of laptops has led to an increasing number of professors banning computers in class — an unfortunate penalty for students who diligently use laptops to take notes.
Instead, students should be asked to comment about the reading ahead of class on a blog or discussion board, and those who want to continue the online conversation can attend discussion section. Thus, the most committed students and those who have complex questions can show up and count on a TA's full attention. Meanwhile, students who do not wish to attend discussion section will not be penalized as long as they complete a blog post at some point during the week.
Georgetown professors are understandably frustrated and concerned when students miss discussion sections, but imposing exorbitant grade penalties for poor attendance to motivate students is outside their responsibilities. Maturity and motivation vary among college students, but professors should no more enforce strict attendance than they should insist students eat their vegetables or brush their teeth before bed.