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.
I’ve always said no, effort shouldn’t count. When students pleaded, “but I worked so hard,” or “I studied so long,” I would respond with the clichéd quip about people with brain tumors not wanting surgeons who try hard. Besides if students try hard, if they do their assignments, come to class, take notes, ask questions, and study on more nights than the one before the exam, that effort will pay off. They will learn the material, and their grades will reflect that learning.
Many instructors will argue that student participation in class is important. But what’s the difference between participation and engagement? What does good participation or engagement look like? How can you recognize it? And how can you tell if a student is not engaged?
Is there a way to motivate and improve student participation without grading it? I raise the question because I think grading contributions gets students talking for points, not talking to make points. Verbal students make sure they say something, but often without listening to or connecting with the comments of others.
I was looking at participation policies in a collection of syllabi this week. I wouldn’t give most of them high marks—lots of vague descriptions that don’t functionally define participation and then prescribe instructor assessment at the end of course with little or no mention of criteria. But I’ve voiced my concerns about participation policies previously, so I won’t do again here. Instead, what I would like to share with you is a policy that’s impressive in its specificity and in the intriguing idea it contains.