Participation Grades

Participation Grades

James McGrath has brought up the question of whether participation grades are worthwhile or should be eliminated:

I’ve tried to use participation grades and I’m thinking the time has come to ditch them and simply leave it up to the student to learn as they learn best. Students are different, and learn differently.

I conditionally agree, but I will also continue to use participation grades in my own courses. Contradictory, you say? Well, not exactly. For one, I do not take attendance in my courses; my philosophy on class attendance is that if a student can get a high grade in my class by doing the assignments without ever attending class, why should I waste his/her time forcing attendance? And if I’m a good enough lecturer and have interesting enough classes, students will want to come of their own accord. (This is reflective of my own reasoning my first couple years in undergrad, where I didn’t always go to class, but I did regularly attend one particular Hebrew Bible course, even though I already knew I could get an A in that class without going, simply because the lecturer was outstanding.) I’ve also noticed that different students learn differently. I learn by dialogue as much as anything else, but some students don’t learn that way, preferring to sit back and quietly soak everything in. I don’t want to punish these students simply because they’re quiet.

That said, I continue to have a “participation” grade in the mix as a “fudge factor.” That is, the participation grade gives me just a little leeway to be able to bump a student’s grade slightly depending on how that student has positively or negatively affected the class by his/her attendance/nonattendance and participation. I include it either as a small portion of the grade (in which case the default is full credit, with only troublemaking or obviously problematic students receiving less) or as an extra-credit portion where I can bump a student’s grade up if I feel that student deserves the slight bump (e.g. some students are bad test-takers; some students improve dramatically over the course of the class). One other sort of positive participation grade application is the use of “pluses,” where the prof keeps a little record of outstanding comments or interaction by students (“pluses”), which add up to a little extra credit tacked onto the final grade (say, ten “pluses” equal one point added to the final grade), a system much like ESPN’s “Around the Horn.”

Any sort of participation grade beyond this seems counterproductive to me, as things like required discussion board posts, etc. are (in my experience) nearly entirely worthless. Forced discussion (especially the kind that counts online posts as a measure of participation) is rarely anything but a busy-work hassle. The goal should be to stimulate natural discussion (online or on-site), not force students to produce something just because they know they need to talk or post to get some participation points. If they don’t want to pipe up, we should find other ways of assessing their knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. When participation grades are used as ways of “making the students talk,” (“we have ways of making you talk”), it is usually reflective of lazy or ineffective pedagogy; rather, classroom discussion and participation should be the result of a the creation of a safe, creative space in which students are inspired to participate, not coerced via grade concerns. For that matter, I think students’ and educators’ concerns with grades often get in the way of learning, but that’s a subject for another post altogether.

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