Hot seats: it’s time to put out the fire


Jeremy Kaufman

Hot seats encourage unnecessary stress and contribute to Whitman’s already unrivaled competitive atmosphere.

By Norah Rothman

One student’s name has been changed for anonymity.

“And the seventh and final person in the hot seat is … Norah!” 

My eyes widened with panic, and I suddenly couldn’t catch my breath. I had spent hours the previous night poring over the assigned text, yet the thought of the discussion ahead of me regarding the material still felt overwhelming.

I joined six of my classmates at the front of the classroom, feeling the pressure of my 30 peers’ eyes on us. When my teacher asked us the first discussion question, I formulated my answer in my head; but unable to articulate my response in front of everyone, I fumbled my words like a football player.

Eventually, I interrupted my way into the conversation, doing my best to push away some of my anxiety, knowing that my borderline grade depended on my ability to contribute to the conversation. When the bell rang, and the discussion finally ended, all I could do was take a breath as I walked back to my seat, my face still red and my hands still shaking.  

I earned my participation points, but at what cost? Was it worth suffering through my anxiety surrounding public speaking just to get my desired grade? 

For years, many social studies teachers have burdened students with graded discussions dubbed “hot seats.” During each hot seat, five to eight students are selected randomly by the teacher at the beginning of class to discuss a text and answer questions in front of the rest of the class. Students who don’t have the “honor” of being part of the hot seat are, in my experience, often annoyed that they wasted hours preparing only to sit in the audience. 

Teachers should replace hot seats with group discussions on readings that involve the entire class sharing their knowledge to reduce individual students’ stress over whether teachers may single them out. This change would also allow for more enriching educational experiences and foster a less competitive academic environment.

Many teachers hold hot seats as an attempt to encourage students to spend more time analyzing the course material. However, answering questions on the spot in front of an entire class inflicts pressure on students to varying degrees based on their comfort with public speaking. 

“On the day of the hot seat, I’m really nervous,” sophomore James said. “Everyone is always praying that somehow, someway they won’t get picked, but you never know, and that’s the worst aspect of it.”

For students struggling with social anxiety, the stress of hot seats can be exceptionally hefty. One in three teens between the ages of 13 and 18 struggle with social anxiety disorder, a fear of social interaction, or public embarrassment. Students in the hot seat are already under immense pressure to answer on-the-spot questions under a microscope, and the stress becomes all the worse for students with social anxiety.

Hot seats also contribute to Whitman’s already unrivaled competitive atmosphere. Intent on achieving their participation points, students tend to race to get their ideas across before someone steals one of their main talking points. Because of this, students often interrupt each other while trying to earn their participation points. This phenomenon completely contradicts the goal of hot seats — to engage students in meaningful class discussions — since students end up talking at each other rather than talking with each other. 

On the other hand, discussions similar to symposiums would put equal pressure on everyone to contribute, allowing more students to feel comfortable collaborating and bouncing ideas off each other. With a symposium-like method of assessment, teachers would assign students in small groups different texts to read and would then ask students to analyze them for the rest of the class. This way, it would become less of a race to say something original — in contrast to hot seats — and more of a team effort to develop nuanced takeaways on the designated reading. 

“There are a ton of people in my classes who are smart and have strong opinions, but they are not successful when put on the spot,” sophomore Scarlet Mann said. “It just doesn’t seem fair to me that we are graded on how many times we contribute when many people completely understand the reading but struggle to speak up in class.”

Hot seats are a “one size fits all” method of testing that puts kids who aren’t skilled at public speaking at a disadvantage when trying to secure a good grade, even if they’re well-versed in the readings. The discussions’ small group format also neglects students who aren’t participating. Those in the audience don’t have opportunities to share their own takes on hot seat readings, despite potentially having spent significant time examining the texts.

“Having opportunities where the whole class can participate is a better idea than having a hot seat,” Mann said. “The topics we learn about are interesting, so students will be engaged if you don’t make them just sit and listen to five people talk for the entire class.”

Many educators, like social studies teacher Gregory Herbert, implement hot seats to allow students to showcase their knowledge while feeling engaged.

“Hot seats measure the student’s ability to analyze information and think critically about the content and make connections to things that they’ve studied prior,” Herbert said. “And they are a skill that a lot of students could find useful.”

However, hot seats don’t provide an opportunity for all students to practice these skills since they are often dominated by extroverted students. Students who feel uncomfortable making arguments in front of the entire class are often left out. I frequently notice that my shyer classmates have trouble contributing to discussions. They often need encouragement from their peers or for the teacher to ask a question directed at them to earn their participation points. 

While there’s nothing wrong with pushing students out of their comfort zones, there are ways to do so that don’t unfairly stress out well-prepared students who don’t enjoy public speaking. It’s the teachers’ job to help students learn. Eliminating hot seats — a morale-destroying method of assessment — is a key step toward helping students grow into confident adults who love learning for the sake of learning.