October 23rd, 2013

Grading Participation: An Alternative to Talking for Points


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.

Is grading participation an effective way for students to discover how and why classroom interaction promotes learning? I’ve been considering alternatives, including this one: “Participation, as in what you contribute verbally, is not graded in this course, but your writing about participation is.”

With this approach, students would write a series of short papers (I’m thinking 1-2 pages) which aim to make them more aware of classroom interaction generally and their contribution to it specifically. They would write the papers in response to the following prompts.

My Participation Skills – Do you participate? Why? Why not? What do you do when you participate? Ask questions? Answer questions? Only answer when you know the right answer? Make comments? What participation skills would you like to develop? How might you go about working on these skills? At the end of the course, how will you know if your skills in this area have improved?

Observing Participation – For the next two weeks observe participation as it occurs in this class. What do students do when they participate? How does the teacher respond? How well are students listening to each other? What’s the most interesting student comment or question you heard during this observation period? How could participation be improved in this class? What could you do to improve the interaction in this classroom?

Or, for two weeks observe participation in your other courses. How does participation there compare with what’s happening in this course? Be specific—write about behaviors. What are students doing? What is the teacher doing? If there are differences between courses, what are they and to what would you attribute these differences?

The Role of Participation in Learning – Write about any or all of these participation policy questions and, using your answer(s), conclude with a paragraph that discusses the role of participation in learning.

  • Should students have the right to remain silent in a course if they can learn the content without talking about it?
  • Should teachers call on students if they haven’t volunteered? Explain why.
  • If participation is graded, does that motivate students to answer questions and make comments? Does it motivate verbal contributions for the right reasons?
  • If participation is graded, how much should it count?
  • Do students learn things from the comments and questions of other students? Could they learn more than they do? How?
  • What kind of feedback from the teacher and classmates would help improve your contributions in class?
  • The ability to answer questions when called on and to speak up in a group are important skills, how do these skills factor into your future career plans?

My Participation Skills Revisited – Reread your three participation papers and then answer these prompts. Compare your participation skills now with your description of them written at the beginning of the course. Has your thinking about the role of participation in learning changed? What needs to happen now for you to take your participation skills to the next level?

Faculty, I know you are probably thinking, “That’s a lot of papers to grade.” But I think the learning benefit here comes from writing these papers, not from teacher feedback. The objective is to hone observational skills, encourage reflection, and get students engaged in some serious self-reflection. I’d assess these papers with a rubric that mostly looks at whether the student took the task seriously. I’d limit written feedback to one pithy question raised by what the student has written. Some of the feedback will likely apply to many students and that can be delivered in class or online. In either venue, you could use it to encourage discussion about interaction in the class (or online discussion board). And certainly you can modify the assignment structure to better fit your needs—shorter papers, fewer papers, etc.

Do you think the learning potential of student interaction is lost or compromised when we fuel students’ contributions by giving them points? An assignment option like this doesn’t totally change that dynamic—there’s still a grade involved—but it does offer students a different perspective.

  • Nancy Fire

    This is an excellent idea! Self regulated learning at work! Thanks

    • dawn

      wonderfully spoken in the context of a learner,i would love more teachers to think in this respect. you are ahead of your time.

  • Jeff Sommers

    I think there are three groups of students in most of my classes: those who will participate whether it earns them credit or not, those who will not participate (much) whether it earns them credit or not, and those who will participate if nudged. By "counting" participation in some systematized fashion toward the course grade, I've found that I can "nudge" that middle group. The most frequent reason I'm given by students who do not speak up much in class is "I learn better by listening." However, in student-centered classrooms of the sort I work hard to implement, it's up to the students to contribute. If everyone were to decide that they learn better by listening, the only voice left will be mine. These assignments seem useful to me, but not in lieu of actually contributing. There are opportunities in class when we work in groups or in pairs, other opportunities in class when students volunteer to read materials off the projection screen, some days in class where we do a "class circle" (going around the room and giving everyone an opportunity to speak or read from their homework) in addition to full-scale class discussions. I only ask that I hear from each student at least once to earn participation credit for the class meeting. There are plenty of opportunities to learn by listening while still being heard as well.

  • Akilah

    I like the reflection component of this exercise.

    I have my class set up so that students have to participate–lots of small group work. So in that sense, I grade participation as attendance. By students coming to class, I pretty much force them to work together, which means they're participating on some level even if they don't speak up.

    I also use an app to randomly call on students (after they've shared in small groups). Students are much more likely to participate in whole group discussions if they've tried out their responses in smaller groups.

  • Amanda Le Rougetel

    An excellent approach that encourages reflection and critical thinking. More and more, I am incorporating reflection assignments into my courses and discovering this written work is some of my students' most interesting and worthwhile writing: It gives me data AND it forces the student to articulate their own learning about a specific topic – something that, too frequently, they do not get a chance to do as they are kept so busy just doing doing doing assignments to deadline,

  • Blane

    Is there a specific grade level at which point you would suggest using this method? How much would you suggest making the paper worth in relation to the rest of the class grading?

  • Richard

    While it's always good to be open about your goals and to encourage students to reflect on theirs, these exercises may be of more interest to you than to your students. I'd encourage instead having students prepare in advance so they have something to contribute: a one-page response paper, a posting to a discussion list, an email to the instructor. Quiet students often will write cogently about a topic that they would not speak up about voluntarily; posting a few paragraphs lets you say, "Susie, you wrote something very interesting about this…" And for restraining the eager and nudging the silent, there's always "Let's hear from someone who hasn't spoken yet."

    If you do assign reflections, I'd encourage focusing on content rather than just process: which was the most thoughtful contribution today? Which contribution was most responsive to something that was said earlier? Then the students would be writing about the content of the course, although in the context of process.

  • Richard

    As a student I have always wondered how a participation grade is given anyway. What is the criteria the professor is using to grade my participation? Especially in the larger classes how does the teacher even remember who is contributing to the conversation? I like these proposed ideas and I think they will work well, and more to the point, they will get the students to ask "Why am I participating" instead of just "did I contribute enough to get a passing grade."

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  • DC1

    I can only speak as a student, but I believe that usually the makeup of the group dictates my group interaction, communication, and overall "participation." I have found that when I am in group of older students, it is much easier for me (I am 30yo) to stay focused, know what is expected, and find group assistance with anything. I can ask for a task or see something and usually it is offered up to me without and odd social misunderstandings-whatever. I cannot explain it, but I literally learn faster and can stay focused when the teacher is talking, not so much otherwise. This may be why I find photography and film fun.

    Too much to say and not enough vocabulary inside me to say it "best," but I am according to one of my professors an "INTJ," and I like to sit and think through a problem before making any decisions, while others tend to just want to "get it done" so that is another dynamic I constantly deal with.

    My main concern now that I have changed from in-class courses to online (for group assignments) is that when there is no clear assigning of work portions (you do this, he does that, I do this…) I feel stressed as the crap-shoot begins. Will we begin our assignment by the weekend? Will someone take over the group and dictate that I will be creating the powerpoint I know I will probably do terribly? Is someone going to be sick until day 6 of the week, and then come in with a bunch of questions and nonsense? The biggest issue I consistantly have with group assignments is delegation of the work, who does what. That almost never happens, any the majority of the groups I have been in have this problem. I feel like we are all locked in a small room together, someone turns out the lights, and throws in a hand-grenade…

  • Prof Martinez

    I certainly like to encourage reflection but I find it more useful as Richard commented, that the reflection be dominated by content and not process. After all, that is the goal of the participation. The methods that I have found most effective are grading participation for attempting to answer, insightful comments or honest questions. "If you cannot answer me, ask me a question," I tell my students. For my most introverted, there is the opportunity to submit questions by email or on paper after class. I respond to those questions on the same paper or in class. I make a point of noting the student question that inspired any in class lecture notes. Love to see the quieter students straighten up in their chairs and beam when I do this.Extra credit is given for special class contributions which includes correcting me- respectfully of course!.

    I have also had small group discussions on problem sets (I teach math) and chosen spokespersons from each group to describe the input from the group. I ask if all group members' points were correctly represented before moving on to the next small group. If I find dominating personalities taking over the small groups, I change the mix -quiet folks with quiet folks. Dominant types usually can fend for themselves in any group.

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