With the emphasis on discussion through the case method at Darden, class participation comprises a significant portion of the grade for each class. While grades matter much less than in undergrad, most Darden students want to do pretty well in class (surprise, surprise, a group of ambitious individuals want to do well on a comparable performance metric). There is a lot of thought that goes into people’s heads on how to contribute to class. Here are my thoughts:
Full disclosure: I probably think about this stuff more than the average person. If this post makes class participation sound a little cutthroat, note that it is not.
1. Establish Yourself in a Class. In the first week to two weeks of a new course, professors no doubt start to form opinions on the strength of individuals’ contributions. This can drive your participation grade for the whole term. Often times, professors will try to call on people they haven’t heard from in the latter half of the term, so that those individuals can “make up” their lackluster participation grade. If I’ve established myself early on, I won’t get “penalized” for not contributing as much in the back half of the term.
2. Know Your Strengths. There is one person in my section who literally has included numbers in every single comment he/she has made this year. While that may not work out well in Leading Organizations (a course that doesn’t emphasize quantitative skills), this person knows his/her strength, and plays to that strength. For me, I try to avoid the low-hanging fruit in most classes. If you get a comment or two in early in a class, chances are you may not get called on again. Marketing is a perfect example – a course that involves a mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, both of which offer opportunities for substantive contributions. I separate substantive from generic comments – classes are filled with both. In marketing, I usually wait until the heavy analysis comes in towards the tail end of class before jumping in – at this point, I’m able to make legit comments. Because this might otherwise sound a little selfish, I’ll also point out that this is where I add the most value to class, so my strategy for participation also aligns with moving the class forward.
3. The Cold Call Factor. If you don’t participate much in class, the Cold Call has got to hang over your head like a steel blade. If you establish yourself as a quality contributor in class (emphasis on quality), you’re just not going to get Cold Called by most professors. Like it or not, that’s a fact. For others, when you do get Cold Called, your chances of looking bad increase significantly. Even individuals that are extremely good in a single subject are going to be stumped at times during class. The difference is, if you’re a quality contributor, no one else is going to know the times you’re stumped because you’re won’t get Cold Called.
4. First Ten Minutes. If I’m not feeling good about a case, I get a comment into class early. Take that average comment and move on. Volunteering to answer an advanced question in a case you’re not comfortable in does no one any good: you look bad for failing to comprehend the material, and you waste everyone else’s time.
5. Fastest Gun in the West. Some cases, on the other hand, are easier and involve a lot of “right” answers. In this instance, a lot of people come armed to class with a monologue to address a few questions in the case. When softball (usually open-ended) questions come up in class the next day, you’ve got to be quick if you definitely want to contribute in class. Many people make the mistake of thinking about framing their answer for a minute or two, then throwing up the hand. By this point, 20 hands are in the air. Being the first to answer a softball question, even if you’re talking off-the-cuff, is the way to go.
6. Know when enough is enough. There is a pretty low tolerance for class members that consistently raise their hands too much. In fact, it’s something I think about all the time to make sure I’m not hogging airtime in subjects I’m comfortable in. Professors will usually self-mediate, but constantly having your hand up is not cool. Exceptions of course arise for someone that brings an exceptional level of education to a subject (i.e., for a case on the merger between Adidas and Reebok (fictional example), you should contribute a lot if you advised on the merger as an investment banking analyst).
7. Ask Intelligent Questions. Asking for clarification is a great way to show you’re actively engaged in class discussion. In difficult subjects, this is also a low-risk way to get into the conversation. It should be noted, however, that there is a ceiling to the value of contribution you can bring by just asking a question. Lastly, I’ll note that asking rhetorical questions designed to make you sound smart is one of the worst things you can do in class.