Is it time to rethink how we grade participation?



My colleague, Lolita Paff, has been exploring student attitudes and beliefs about participation. Most of her beginning economics and accounting students describe themselves as “limited” or “non-participants.” They say they don’t participate because they don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers or they learn better by listening. At this point, she has gathered some rather compelling data that grading isn’t motivating her students to participate more. “I had been pretty strongly in the if-you-grade-it-they-will-do-it camp. The evidence surprised me and made me rethink grading participation,” she writes.

She decided to try a different approach. “I realized what I really care about is getting students engaged with the content. So, I started thinking of different ways students could demonstrate course engagement: coming to class, completing assigned homework, actively participating in group work, making use of office hours, getting tutoring at the learning center, joining online discussions, offering quality comments in class, offering written comments (submitted to the teacher with the option of remaining anonymous), submitting questions electronically. I decided not to grade participation but to reward engagement.”

Here is how she does it. Students earn extra-credit engagement tickets, awarded at the discretion of the instructor. Students can use these tickets to replace a missed homework assignment or to add a point to a major exam or assignment. “Thus far, tickets have been awarded for a student question that provoked good discussion and a few for excellent questions emailed to me. One day, students who came to class with copies of their completed homework got tickets (since assignments are submitted electronically many students forget or do not appreciate the importance of bringing it to class). Occasionally students receive a ticket for putting problems on the board. There was also an announced quiz on concepts that needed to be memorized; a perfect score earned a ticket.”

I like the strategy. It’s an interesting way to broaden our views about what it means to participate in a course. We tend to think about participation rather broadly, but define it pretty narrowly: asking or answering questions and making comments. That definition favors those who speak, giving those who listen little or no credit. It’s easier to count comments than to assess something like listening, which can be easily faked. But participation is pointless if nobody is listening. Perhaps our almost universal endorsement of participation as commenting in class is an assumption that merits revisiting. I wonder if engagement might not be a better way to describe what we’re after.

The way we grade participation also tends to favor quantity over quality. We’ve been here before in the blog. It’s hard to facilitate a discussion at the same time you’re keeping track of who’s saying what and it’s almost impossible if you must make a tick mark every time a person talks. So, we trust our memories and for most of us it’s easier to remember those who talk a lot, but more difficult to remember who made that pithy remark.

How did we get started grading participation in the first place? Mostly, we saw it as a way to get students involved, add variety and interest to the class, and develop important communication skills. Okay, but how did that morph into the thinking that if we don’t grade it we won’t get it? That’s another assumption that merits a second look, perhaps some testing. Lolita writes, “Given the number of office visits, written and electronic communications about course concepts, more students are demonstrating engagement with this new system than have in previous courses. I’m less clear as to how the system is effecting oral participation. However, it’s still happening even though my new approach doesn’t emphasize it.”

I’m not sure I’d use engagement points in an upper division major or capstone course. By that time, one would hope students have learned that connecting with course content, teachers and fellow students expedites learning. But for beginning students, it seems like a good way to reinforce those behaviors that advance learning. I also like how engagement tends to open up the definition of participation, making it possible for more students to contribute in more ways and not just to their own learning but to the learning efforts of others.