July 7th, 2011

How Much Should Class Participation Count toward the Final Grade?

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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.