Participation – a Tutor Manifesto

What do you understand by ‘inclusion’ in the context of Higher Education? Perhaps you think of wheelchair-accessible classrooms, or support materials for those with visual or hearing impairments. Perhaps the word ‘inclusion’ reminds you of initiatives to bring in more students from working class communities, or the encouragement of mature student applications. Maybe you think of race or gender. Maybe you think it could relate to mental health support. All of these are important areas in which universities have worked hard to become more inclusive and supportive.

But how do you think ‘inclusion’ applies to the shy student who is desperately afraid of giving a presentation? How can we help the student who suffers from anxiety and can’t contribute to the group discussion without triggering a panic attack? How do we support the autistic student who can’t interact easily on a joint project? What do we do to look after the student who uses silence to hide the ‘wrong’ accent, or the overseas student new to the country who fears social embarrassment, or the introvert who dreads the word ‘icebreaker’?

Yes, that’s right. We make them participate. We attach grades to their participation, so that they can’t dodge it if they want their degree. We pick on them in class and demand answers; we make them stand up and show their distress in front of their peers; we yoke them to other students in collaborative projects and grade them on their group performance; we record how often they comment in a tutorial or in a forum, and shame or punish them if they do not ‘contribute’ enough to meet our minimum standards. And we do all of that because it’s obviously good for them. Quietly reading a book and thinking about it is surely only ‘surface’ learning; listening without speaking makes you a lazy lurker; reluctance to present work publicly shows a lack of key skills for employment. Learning today must be active: there is no room in our engaging and innovative programmes for passive learners.

This is what the ‘student engagement’ movement teaches us. It puts ‘student-centred learning’ at the heart of university teaching: but since student-centred learning can only be measured when student ‘engagement’ is visible to the teacher, students must become performers. Those who don’t, or those who can’t, are labelled deviant and a drain on the ‘learning community’, and are punished for it in both obvious and subtle ways. There are few ‘inclusion’ initiatives to help students who do not fit into today’s participatory university culture.

I don’t agree with this – and a growing number of education theorists are beginning to take the same view. So this is my manifesto, as an Open University tutor.


If you choose to come to my tutorials:

  • you will not be made to speak in front of the whole group

  • you will not be forced to work collaboratively with others

  • you will not be rushed, questioned or put on the spot

  • you will not be shamed for non-participation.


I respect your right to learn in the way that suits you. No pressure. No judgement.

Cora Beth Knowles




3 thoughts on “Participation – a Tutor Manifesto

  1. I’ll spare everyone my reflex-rant reply and see if I can manage an article in response instead. Steal yourself, Cora Beth – you’ll likely guess what I’m thinking! 😂


    1. That’s true – and it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to do it! But now I’m starting a research project on what it means to be a non-social learner – so I’ll be fighting the good fight more publicly from now on!


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