July 7th, 2011

How Much Should Class Participation Count toward the Final Grade?


Two faculty researchers assembled a large collection of syllabi from introductory courses in their field and then analyzed them to see how much active learning it looked like the teacher would be including in those classes. It’s a really neat research design which I explain in the next issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. They also looked how much participation and in-class discussion counted in the total grade calculation and that’s what I want to write about in this post.

One of the first things the faculty researchers noted was that participation and discussion were regularly combined with other aspects of student behavior—things like attendance, punctuality, meeting deadlines, quiz scores and following assignment instructions. The researchers used the word “mundane” to differentiate these behaviors from participation. Would you agree? I’m not sure I would, but I was more concerned with another collection of personal characteristics included in the participation grade calculation—things like initiative, involvement, collaborativeness, intellectual growth and impact on the class. I’m wondering how in the world those characteristics are measured objectively, and if students ever get any feedback on how well or poorly they might be demonstrating their intellectual growth, etc.

A full 77% of the syllabi in this collection included some sort of active learning calculation in the final course grade. Over half combined it with some collection of items like those listed above. On average, this active learning component counted for under 13% of the total course grade—compared with almost 63% for exams and almost 22% for research papers or essays.

Is 13% of the grade enough for participating along with some other activities (possibly related but not always)? I’ve never given much thought to the percentage, how we determine it, what the amount conveys to students, whether participation should be bundled with other activities, or whether 13% or any other amount is enough.

As long as I can remember, participation hasn’t counted for much in the final course grade. In this study, there were examples of syllabi where it only counted for 1%. I wonder what an amount like 5% or even 13% conveys to students? It would be interesting to ask, but it seems pretty obvious that demonstrating your knowledge through discussion is not nearly as important as showing what you know on tests and papers. Is that as it should be?

If a student regularly comes to class prepared, offers comments about the reading, asks questions about the homework problems and otherwise contributes positively to what’s happening in class, how much should that be worth? Gosh, it’s worth a whole lot to me as a teacher in terms of moving the discussion forward and giving me a sense of how well something is understood, but then that’s not what grades should measure. And yet that kind of participation also really helps the rest of the class, especially when the student asks a question about something that has a lot of other students confused. In addition, student explanations, examples, and observation are often easier for other students to understand, and that kind of exemplary contribution does not occur without time devoted to preparing for class.

More often it seems, when it comes to class participation we are dealing with those nonparticipators—that big silent majority who breaks eye contact the moment we look in their direction and otherwise communicates that they really and truly do not want to participate. When being a contributor to class counts for such a token amount of your grade, there really isn’t much harm if you don’t. But would a larger amount have any affect on these students? Would it increase the quantity and quality of what they contribute?

Finally, there’s the issue of motivating students to participate with a grade. The practice encourages the making of points to get points. It does not teach students the value of in-class discussion or their responsibility as members of a learning community. Interesting isn’t it, how we can regularly use a classroom practice without really having thought a lot about its implications. Or, am I the only one who hasn’t done this intellectual homework?

Reference: Archer, C. C. and Miller, M. K. (2011). Prioritizing active learning: An exploration of gateway courses in political science. PS, Political Science and Politics, April, 429-434.

  • jacqueline m dias

    Maryellen, this is a very timely article. Here in Pakistan on the other side of the globe we grapple with the same issue. What percent of the grade constitutes class participation. In most courses the maximum class participation that is allowed is 10%. But the bigger question is then do the students participate just to get the 10% or do they realize that they have to participate in order for learning to take place. often just to get the grade i have observed students preplan who will ask and participate and in which class so every student does not come prepared for every class.

    As educators we have to teach our students they each have a responsibility to participate not just for the sake of participation but to engage in a larger discourse of intellectual thought and deliberation.

    Like you i too find myself grappling with what constitutes class participation and discussion.

    Jacqueline Maria Dias, Pakistan

  • Jane Bennett

    This is a great subject and has made me rethink my grading categories and weights, which is a good thing. Even though we all would like students to participate due to their engagement with the curriculum, increasing the value of participation may be what is needed to get them over that hurdle of volunteering to speak aloud in class in front of their peers and professors. I am a fairly new assistant professor and would love to hear about active participation strategies that others use to engage their students. One I'm going to try in the fall is: Divide class into groups of around five. Each group creates three open-ended discussion questions over the previous reading/assignment, etc. One group trades questions with another group and discuss what they have time for in the allotted time. The professor then asks the class, "Did any group have a particular question that sparked interest, heated discussion, passionate arguments, etc.?" Then that group shares the question with the large group and the whole class discusses it. I did this in a doctoral level course and found it very engaging for all! It gives students the opportunity to guide the discussion on what they found interesting or questionable.

  • Lin Braun

    I, too, enjoyed this article. I am a fairly new assistant professor and agree that class participation is very important. In the past I have grouped class participation with homework/classwork/participation into one category and counted it 25% of final grade. For class participation I give a "plus" (90) for great participation and insight, a "minus" (80) for good participation and a "zero" for little or no participation. At the end of the semester I can go over these and give an "average" participation grade. These are usually based on group assignments; they discuss then share their results, etc. with the class. Everyone must take several turns as "reporters" during the semester. Over time, the students who are less likely to speak out gain confidence within their groups and begin to contribue in whole class discussions. I discovered most students want to do well and participate, but some don't have the confidence. Group work and a class participation grade also encourages them to be better prepared, reading their assignments before class.

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  • Whether to assign a grade for participation has been a perennial struggle for me too. A couple of years ago, I started asking students to evaluate their own engagement with a rubric that highlighted the most important characteristics of engaged learning in my course. This seemed to work well as a means of reminding students about the behaviors and strategies that successful language learners employ (I teach Spanish), but not all students took the self-evaluation seriously, and I assigned too little weight to the participation grade (5%) for it to matter. Since then, I have not assigned any portion of the course grade to "participation" — mostly because I don't articulate a course goal that directly relates to student engagement. I would guess that in most courses (in any discipline) instructors don't articulate course goals that refer directly to how students learn to be good students. Participation, preparation and demonstrating enthusiasm for the subject matter are usually implied goals. If one of my stated course goals was something like "Students will improve their ability to engage the subject matter and one another" or (more facetiously) "Students will improve their ability to come to class", then I would assign a significant portion of the course grade to participation in order to measure progress toward the goal. But since my course goals are not directly related to student participation behaviors, I can't justify assigning any of the course grade to participation. And, as Maryellen suggests, the token 5% participation grade designed to serve as a warning to the quiet or disengaged students is simply not effective.

    I agree with many of the other comments here about using alternative means to both promote and ensure student engagement. Creating interactive assignments, asking students to work in teams to solve problems, doing peer evaluation — all of these are more effective at stimulating participation without having to isolate participation artificially for the purpose of grading. And such activities help focus students on the main learning objectives of the course.

  • Tom Worthington

    Maryellen Weimer asked:

    > Is 13% of the grade enough for participating …

    Yes. I have used 20% and that works fine. Recently I increased it to 24%, to make the maths easier (2% per week for a 12 week course = 24%).

    > … how much should that be worth? …

    It is compulsory for the courses I design: The student has to participate, or they fail the course, regardless of how well they do in the rest of the assessment.

    > … we are dealing with those nonparticipators …

    Not a problem: Students either get the message in the first few weeks that participation is required, or they withdraw and do a course which does not make them do work every week.

    > … It does not teach students the value of in-class discussion …

    Providing a few marks is a way to get the "formative assessment" the educational theorists talk about to actually work. Most students stop worrying so much about the marks after the first few weeks and genuinely join in the discussion. I don't normally take part in the discussion: I just ask some questions at the start of the week and leave it to the students to discuss the topic. We all learn a lot, as a result.

    The way to keep the students interested is to show interest yourself: I send each student an individual report every week with comments on their contributions (along with a mark). I also then provide some positive comments to the group. For traditionalists this could be called a "tutorial", although I use an online forum in a learning management system.

    ps: If t sounds like a lot of work, that is what I spend most of my time doing during the course because it is important (I don't waste everyone's time by giving lectures): http://www.tomw.net.au/technology/it/graduate_edu

  • eddoc

    Great article it seems we as educators are all on the same page-class participation is important. In my syllabus it is stated that class participation is expected, that is it. No threats, no points tied to the expectation. The subject is cut and dry-expected. Overall I do not have a class participation issue the students are constantly engaged and take ownership in their learning. Class participation-it makes a difference for everyone the students as well as the instructor.

  • Kimani

    I am currently a student in a large class for which class participation is graded. I have no issues with participation however, from a student perspective i believe the methods currently used will result in subjective vs objective grading, which can make a difference in the students overall grade at the end of the class. (Which could affect othe things)

    to be continued…

  • Kimani

    To elaborate more on my point, consider a class of 30 students, which goes for 1hour 20 minutes. The teacher is trying to engage participation and typically ask questions here and there to get feedback and input from students. if a student has input to provide and is not called upon, then he/she will not be recognized or credited for participating.
    also, if the student has input to provide and the professor calls on someone else with the same opinion, then the student will not be recognized or creditted for participating. At point in the discussion it becomes pointless for the student to even voice an opinion and consequently can be very discouraging for the student, however, more importantly, the student will not receive an objective grade for class participation, instead, a subjective grade based on what the teacher perceived of the student.

    This style of grading class participation is one dimensional and is solely based on the number of times a student is called on to provide input, which ofcourse can be skewed based on personal biases.

  • Jennifer

    You are referring to live classes but what are thoughts on participation for online classes? I am an online student and have no issues with required participation by the students, but what about teacher participation? Shouldn't there be requirements for how much the online teacher interacts in online discussions? Without active participation from the teacher, the students are essentially enrolled in a self-study course and shouldn't be charged anywhere near the same amount as a live class.

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  • Carissa

    I fully admit that I use the participation grade as a classroom management tool. If you are in my class on time, leave occassionally and don't create problems you'll have about a 65%. If you have spoken voluntarily in class at least once it is probably a 70%. The deal is that students need to be accountable for their actions and this is where I can do it.

    However, I also allow students to be fully aware of where their grade is ocming from and why. I pass out a self assessment (http://eslcarissa.blogspot.com/2012/06/self-evaluation-for-participation.html) and ask students to fill it out and return it to me with what they think their grade is and comments (if they have any). This allows me to respond and let them know where they stand and how they can improve.

  • Lily

    I guess I pretty much stand alone when I do not believe a person should be graded on their participation in class. There is something inherently wrong with telling extroverts they are more valuable and deserving of higher grades, and punishing introverts for their intrinsic quiet nature. I have a student who excels in all areas of classwork and shows their interest in the subject by the quality of work they put in every day. I have to ask him for answers, (he doesn't offer), and his answers are always valuable to the class discussion. I have extroverted students who always are involved and have hands up most of the class, but it doesn't always result in furthering discussion in a meaningful way. I won't punish a student simply for being who they are. There are plenty of extroverts available to fill any gaps in discussion.

    • Robin

      I think if you're going to count participation as a significant part of the grade, you are probably using active learning techniques designed to engage all students. You can't do this with just having students answer questions you pose during a lecture, if this is what you're suggesting… I