For the majority of students in the College of Humanities, 10% of your module grade is on seminar participation. If you are a confident, self-assured individual then this is an easy way to boost your module mark, and could be the difference between a second-class and first-class degree. It’s become a key measure of academic success: you can excel in essays and exams but your overall grade might be dragged down by a low seminar participation mark. These courses have been skewed to favour the extroverted, with quieter students having to combat personal anxieties just to keep up.

In some cases, there does need to be an incentive to attend classes, as a reduced group size affects the quality of the discussion and the learning of everyone who has bothered to tackle Forum Hill for an 8:30. There have been plenty of mornings where this 10% has rallied my ill or overly-tired self to an early seminar, knowing that just sitting there will somewhat contribute to my overall grade. Attendance of seminars can also help the university ensure the wellbeing of students, by sending follow-up emails to absent students to offer any mental health support if required. If the reason for marking seminar participation is to monitor students’ mental wellbeing, isn’t it paradoxical to have a form of assessment so likely to cause anxiety?

It seems like tutors may have forgotten the pressure of trying to formulate an intelligent point on a topic on the spot, especially when surrounded by a bunch of students equally as clever as you. Some tutors have said that if a student’s anxiety hinders their ability to take part in presentations, then an alternative form of assessment can be arranged. Yet there is no alternative form of assessment to seminar participation. Surely this presents the same obstacles to those suffering with anxiety? It isn’t the lazy students complaining about this form of assessment; it’s the conscientious yet quiet students pouring all their energy into their essays because they know that this 10% is a lost cause.
In the first few weeks of term, already faced with the likes of Derrida, homesickness and freshers’ flu, it’s daunting to have to voice your thoughts to a room full of strangers and an academic expert on a subject you’re only just starting to get your head around. The pressure of knowing that you should be speaking overrides the desire to make a carefully thought-out, valuable contribution to the discussion. You end up sweating through your first few seminars in the midst of your more articulate peers who are navigating the discussion with ease while you feel too intimidated to talk, and you eventually leave feeling horribly inadequate.

In third year seminars so far I have only heard comments about how nice it is that the pressure to speak has been lifted, even from my naturally more talkative peers.

And if seminar participation is going to feature so heavily in assessment criteria, then why hasn’t the marking been standardised? In some seminars I have said next to nothing, while contributing substantially in others, only to receive the same grade for both of them at the end of the term. Some tutors will generously award 75% or even 85% just for turning up every week and sharing a couple of ideas, and others will have you jumping through hoops to scrape 60%. In the instance that quieter students like myself do vocalise their thoughts, you can be disheartened three months later when you are given the same amount of credit as those who have said nothing at all. There is a twinge of guilt if I am given the same grade for seminar participation as my friends who contribute far more, only leading to more questions about how this grading system actually works. The final mark is seemingly unpredictable, with the same incredulous comments surfacing whenever grades are released for seminar participation: “They gave me what?”.
Since the grades achieved in first year do not count towards your degree, it could be used to establish the expectation that these seminars should not be dominated by a tutor talking. But in second year, should there still be this symbolic gun to your head to offer any random opinion you can twice a week? In third year seminars so far, I have only heard comments about how nice it is that the pressure to speak has been lifted, even from my naturally more talkative peers. And we’re not sat in silence for two hours; the seminars are equally as engaging with the majority of students still contributing ideas, and an air of calm around the ones who prefer to listen. It is a far more inviting space in which you can offer a point or ask a question, without the pressure of being assessed for every moment.

When I started this course, I thought my assignments would revolve around the work of the likes of Shakespeare and Austen, not realising that a segment of every module would be based on social prowess, confidence, and the mood of the tutors on my timetable. Sharing our thoughts and bouncing ideas off of each other should be enough, rather than having to compete to say the most in the hope that you’ll stand out in your tutor’s mind.


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