An Argument for Grading Participation

grading participation

Many of us have visions of a classroom full of bright-eyed students scribbling notes, nodding thoughtfully, and laughing at our jokes. The reality of the college classroom experience can be quite different, and student engagement sometimes feels like a difficult prize to earn.

One approach to encouraging participation is to assign a specific point value to each student’s contribution. I do this immediately after the class has concluded so it’s still fresh in my mind. Although this approach works best in smaller classes (I use it in classes of 20-25 students), with clear and specific guidelines, we can shape student engagement and make everyone more invested in the classroom experience.

Here’s one example of a participation grading rubric:

Does Not Meet Expectations
1 – The student is rude, disruptive, distracting; does not have the book
2 – The student is physically present but mentally elsewhere; doesn’t contribute to conversation; has the book but is not taking notes; playing with cell phone
Meets Minimum Expectations
3 – The student is present and has the book; is taking notes and paying attention; contributes at least once to class discussion; or participates through hand raising, taking notes, doing written assignments
Exceeds Expectations
4 – The student arrives prepared for class; participates multiple times in class discussion; is responsive to participation and engaged in contributions and comments made by others; contributions are thoughtful and provoke additional comments from others; does not dominate conversation; listens carefully and responds thoughtfully to comments made by others.

Prepared, present, and proactive
I’ve found that graded participation only works if it is consistent and transparent, and students understand the rationale. I emphasize to students that no matter their major or future career paths, speaking with confidence in front of a group of their peers is perhaps the most useful skill they can develop in college. I explain that it’s normal to feel nervous, but that our classroom is the perfect place to take chances and hone their improvisational speaking skills.

When I first mentioned this graded method to my colleagues, it was the bookkeeping part of it that put people off. In my experience, however, it’s a habit that is surprisingly easy to cultivate. Further, because I ask students to raise their hands, I can help ensure everyone gets a chance to contribute. As an added benefit, I learn their names early in the semester. Assigning a numerical score to each student immediately after class is not onerous, and it doesn’t have to take place every day either. As long as it’s done with enough frequency that students expect they’re being graded, you’ll realize the benefits.

Occasionally a student will inquire why they were assigned a particular score, and I simply refer them to the guidelines in the syllabus, or I ask, “What do you think you could have done to earn a higher score?” Having a clear rubric avoids issues of subjectivity, particularly because the quality of comments or questions is only being evaluated to distinguish between a 3 and a 4; otherwise it’s simply an issue of saying something being better than saying nothing at all.

I initially had concerns that this system would penalize students who are shy, naturally quiet or introverted, or who have been culturally conditioned not to speak up in a group discussion. I’ve found ways to mediate these concerns by allowing written responses—writing a one-minute paper as a form of participation, having students e-mail discussion questions ahead of class; using an online discussion forum as an additional place for participation; or doing in-class writing assignments that are included in the participation grade. I also allow students to notify me if they have a hard time volunteering, but would be willing to respond if called on, and I allow students to pass if I call on them and they can’t or don’t want to answer the question (though this may affect their score for the day).

Assigning grades for participation has increased student involvement in class discussions and reminds them (and me) that they are learning more than course content from any given class. They are also learning how to function in an academic and professional environment that requires them to be prepared, present, and proactive. They are practicing how to interact in a community, how to speak with colleagues, and how to ask thoughtful questions. Whether or not my students revisit the poems or novels we discuss, they will all continue to draw from and practice the speaking skills that they have honed during the semester. A participation grade rewards them for that important work.

Brooke Taylor is an associate professor of English literature at Lindenwood University in Belleville, Ill.

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