October 8th, 2014

Is It Time to Rethink How We Grade Participation?


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.

She decided to try a different approach. “I realized what I really care about is getting students engaged with the content. So, I started thinking of different ways students could demonstrate course engagement: coming to class, completing assigned homework, actively participating in group work, making use of office hours, getting tutoring at the learning center, joining online discussions, offering quality comments in class, offering written comments (submitted to the teacher with the option of remaining anonymous), submitting questions electronically. I decided not to grade participation but to reward engagement.”

Here is how she does it. Students earn extra-credit engagement tickets, awarded at the discretion of the instructor. Students can use these tickets to replace a missed homework assignment or to add a point to a major exam or assignment. “Thus far, tickets have been awarded for a student question that provoked good discussion and a few for excellent questions emailed to me. One day, students who came to class with copies of their completed homework got tickets (since assignments are submitted electronically many students forget or do not appreciate the importance of bringing it to class). Occasionally students receive a ticket for putting problems on the board. There was also an announced quiz on concepts that needed to be memorized; a perfect score earned a ticket.”

I like the strategy. It’s an interesting way to broaden our views about what it means to participate in a course. We tend to think about participation rather broadly, but define it pretty narrowly: asking or answering questions and making comments. That definition favors those who speak, giving those who listen little or no credit. It’s easier to count comments than to assess something like listening, which can be easily faked. But participation is pointless if nobody is listening. Perhaps our almost universal endorsement of participation as commenting in class is an assumption that merits revisiting. I wonder if engagement might not be a better way to describe what we’re after.

The way we grade participation also tends to favor quantity over quality. We’ve been here before in the blog. It’s hard to facilitate a discussion at the same time you’re keeping track of who’s saying what and it’s almost impossible if you must make a tick mark every time a person talks. So, we trust our memories and for most of us it’s easier to remember those who talk a lot, but more difficult to remember who made that pithy remark.

How did we get started grading participation in the first place? Mostly, we saw it as a way to get students involved, add variety and interest to the class, and develop important communication skills. Okay, but how did that morph into the thinking that if we don’t grade it we won’t get it? That’s another assumption that merits a second look, perhaps some testing. Lolita writes, “Given the number of office visits, written and electronic communications about course concepts, more students are demonstrating engagement with this new system than have in previous courses. I’m less clear as to how the system is effecting oral participation. However, it’s still happening even though my new approach doesn’t emphasize it.”

I’m not sure I’d use engagement points in an upper division major or capstone course. By that time, one would hope students have learned that connecting with course content, teachers and fellow students expedites learning. But for beginning students, it seems like a good way to reinforce those behaviors that advance learning. I also like how engagement tends to open up the definition of participation, making it possible for more students to contribute in more ways and not just to their own learning but to the learning efforts of others.

  • Jeff Sommers

    Yes, I think participation should be rethought. I count it and plan to continue. I expect to hear from every student in every class–at least once. And once is enough to get a "checkmark" for the day. I show excerpted writing on the screen–volunteer readers get class participation credit. I ask people to read a sentence from their homework journals and call on them. We have certain days where we do a class circle and go around the room giving everyone a chance to speak (or pass). We do paired work and group work that earn a day's credit.
    Why? Because if the students don't speak up, the course turns into a lecture class. Many of the students–and I mostly teach first-year students–have been drilled into silence in high school. But that's "the old you" I tell them in class. What's the point of coming to college and leaving just the same way you were when you got here.

    The various extra credit options used by Professor Paff sound fine–I use a concept called Self-Designed Points (presented at The Teaching Professor Conference last spring). Here's a short video explanation: http://www.screencast.com/t/65JwWtPx

    • Laura S

      Jeff, I enjoyed watching your little video presentation. I have experimented with required "student options" (15% of the student's grade based on a "mix and match" selection from a list of options I provide). I found that many of the students could not or just did not make the decision on what to do and thus many did not do any or enough "options" and ended up short on their points toward their final grade. Perhaps calling it "options" was a bad choice of words, as it made it sound as if it was "optional" work that they did not have to do.

      • Jeff Sommers

        I originally called them "initiative points." Then a student suggested I call them "flex points" (a working student who compared the idea to flex hours at an office). About six weeks into the semester, we discuss the SDP in class, reaffirming that they are not extra credit points and that skipping then entirely will prevent anyone for earning better than a B.

        But I have had students tell me to just add a bunch of required homework assignments because the responsibility is more than they desire.

        Oh well.

        • Laura S

          Thanks for sharing your students' response to this. More recently I experimented with allowing students to select how much various requirements would be worth. An exam that I would normally value at 10% the student might opt to do for 5% – 20% and make up the difference on other assignments. So a poor test taker might take just 5% for an exam but take participation at 15% instead of 10%. Another student who is more quiet and reflective might choose to take just 5% for participation but 15% instead of 10% for journaling. They were also given the option to do a self-directed assignment in place of lower percents on other required work. This system was introduced the first week of class and students were to select their percents by week 2. After that, if they did not select otherwise, they got the default of the percents I determine for the assignments. There was a min and max % for each assignment and they could not opt out of any given required assignment – just take more or less credit for it vs the default. Once we were into the semester (and they saw what was involved or how they were doing on assignments), they could not change their selections. This system seemed to run pretty smoothly. I did find that most students stuck with the default percents for most assignments. Students do seem lazy about their school work – it seems easier for them if you just tell them what you want them to do and don't give them too many decisions they have to make. But, hey, that's life, isn't it? We have to make decisions all the time. You'd think students would prefer to have choices and options. But I guess it just makes things more complicated for them than they want it to be, even if they then complain about the work we ask them to do. The only real issue a student had with this system was the one who missed the first two weeks of class. He had not read the syllabus where it discussed this and had not handed back his choice of options. At the end of the semester he said it was not "fair" that he did not get the chance to select alternative percents. That's what you get when you miss the first two weeks of class and do not read or even ask for clarification on what is in the syllabus.

  • Alfredo Holguín

    Participation not only needs to be rethought from the teacher's perspective but from the perspective of the student. Not trying to be expressed only in the classroom, not face to face or on the forums, in chat rooms, on social networks, on mobile phones or by any means available but must create an emotional connection support, which is what whichever occurs first, the student may feel that someone cares about what you do and who value what you do and shows.

    “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

    ? Maya Angelou


    La participación no solo debe ser repensada desde la perspectiva del profesor sino desde la perspectiva del estudiante. No solamente intentar que se exprese en la clase, presencial o no presencial, en los foros, en los chats, en las redes sociales, en los teléfonos móviles o por cualquier medio disponible sino que debemos crear una conexión emocional de soporte, que sea lo primero que ocurra, que el estudiante pueda sentir que a alguien le interesa lo que hace y que valoran lo que hace y muestra.

    "He aprendido que la gente olvidará lo que dijiste, la gente olvidará lo que hiciste, pero las personas nunca olvidarán cómo los hiciste sentir."

    – Maya Angelou

    • Jossie de Varona

      Totally agree with you…..that's why it is so important to engage students in the class, no matter if it is face to face or on line. Everything they do is important and they should know.

  • I learned that students do not do work unless rewarded with marks after reading this book a few years ago:

    Rebekah Nathan. 2006. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. Penguin. ISBN 0143037471 or 9780143037477. http://books.google.ca/books/about/My_Freshman_Ye

    It is still worth reading. Basically her experience showed that students lives are over-full and fragmented in terms of their academics, job(s), and personal life and thus only do what is absolutely necessary. My analysis here is somewhat crude and superficial but is basically what her investigation showed: students are running around trying to put out the fires as they flare up.

    Good grief that is depressing to read now that I have written it.

  • Beth Oldfield

    For all my college classes, I award what I call Commitment Points which takes into account four areas: preparedness, attendance, participation and respect (with each area clearly defined). At the end of the semester, the student fills out the form, awarding him/herself points in the four areas (that total to 100 points). I then fill out the same form for each student. I average my point total with the each student's point total. This gives the students some ownership and allows the "non-participating" types to still earn points. And, it is very easy and eliminates the need to "keep track" of points, etc. Also, these four areas our what I expect a decent employer would demand of his/her employees, so I see it as preparation for the workplace!

    • Laura S

      I like that idea of the student doing self-assessment with regard to participation/commitment. I have done that before but did not think to average my perception with theirs to determine their grade. I may just use that idea myself. Thanks.

    • Kathryn McNulty

      Would you be willing to share your delineated definitions of your Commitment areas? I would love to try this but am curious how, exactly, you have clearly broken down what constitutes good vs mediocre preparedness, attendance, participation, and respect. I don't think I ever stick with what they mean in my own head let alone enforcing it with students. I feel I'm more of a slide rule based on extenuating situations they come up with. Can I put my email in here? auntiewell1960@gmail.com

  • Akilah

    I cut participation grades out of my course, simply because I set my classes up so that students HAVE to participate by nature of being in class.

    I do penalize students for excessive lateness and the department has an attendance policy, so I have ways to mark students off who are not participating because they aren't there.

    • Laura S

      I used to grade attendance but then realized that many students can be there in body only. Head down and napping should not really count as "attending". Now I grade participation (in various ways). Naturally, as you note, if they are absent they cannot participate so attendance is automatically covered by participation. I started using end-of-class journaling (CATs) to determine what might be called "active attendance" – mentally if not orally participating in what is going on. I also find that small group discussion gets more active participation than whole class discussion where typically only a few students actually speak. In whole class discussion, the silent ones can get credit if they do personal reflective journaling on what they are hearing from others. So, students can participate orally and/or in writing. Either way involved thinking and that's what really matters – right?

  • Mary

    A participation policy can help students with the transition from high school to college. In first year writing classes, I use engagement points based on attendance, being up-to-date with assignments, in-class activities, and seeking help. Students openly discuss the policy in class and like getting rewards more than penalties.The points are easy for me to assess and record every 2 weeks. Attendance has improved since I began using these points. Plus, I observe that students who always turn in their work and come to class tend to participate more; perhaps they feel more confident in themselves. For all students, and particularly for males in a writing class, understanding and acting on the expectations (e.g., they are here to learn) is a big step.

    • Laura S

      "Engagement points" – I like that idea too!

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  • russellahunt

    I remain convinced, by the work of Edward Deci and the overwhelming bibliography in Alfie Kohn's _Punished by Rewards_, that these rewards are counterproductive, especially as regards promoting authentic engagement.

  • David Keindel

    I think rewarding for "participation" is an artificial gain, although well intended, it satisfies the need of the teacher (to feel students are engaged) rather than having students participate because they want to. Like so many, I actively search for ways to improve the exchange and feel truly gratified when the class went so well, usually because the students were actively involved in debate and permitted to express their ideas, concerns or responses.
    I teach level 1 and level 3 courses. Each week I assign something to be submitted electronically, and I provide a template with clear expectations, and a format for them to enter their response. These are due midnight before the next class. This allows me to review the submissions before class so I get an overview (and comfort) with the depth of work. I do not mark them yet.
    In class, they are expected to expand on the assignment. Once they have "participated" in class, only then do I open the electronic submission, and assign the grade, because doing the pre class assignment was only half the work, the other half was attending class and engaging in the debate or discussion.

  • Bill Goffe

    On students not responding to participation points, I saw an interesting article awhile back that in general they don't respond to grades. See "Grades as incentives," Grant and Green, Empirical Economics, June 2013, Volume 44, Issue 3, pp 1563-1592. It seems to be that this is a pretty important result to those of us who teach.

    On grading participation, I'm really partial to "Team-Based Learning" as engagement is a core principle of this teaching method. It is most widely used in the health sciences (i.e. medical, nursing, and pharmacy schools) where learning is paramount and evaluated by external authorities (i.e. licensing boards). There are numerous papers that show it leads to more learning. Perhaps just a important, I find it is blast to teach using it. This flipped classroom method has been refined over the years and is used in many disciplines. See http://www.teambasedlearning.org/ for material (including great videos of it in action) while http://www.teambasedlearning.org/refs/ describes the literature behind it.

  • Kent

    For the sake of the students and their authentic learning of any particular subject, can we concentrate our assessment on learning objectives and/or content? I have a really difficult time believing that in these days of modern learning and teaching that a student's behaviour is rewarded with points that have no official transference to what is actually being taught. Participation is indeed a behaviour and a choice made by all students that shouldn't have any place in raising or lowering and evaluation. These processes give the extroverted learner an unfair advantage while placing the introvert at a distinct disadvantage. Learning styles should not have points attached!

    • Susan

      Participation per se should not be a choice; it should be expected & required. We let people opt out and we lay claim to extroverts being more participatory than others. Everyone should be gently pushed out of their comfort zone. Learning style excuses for non-participation is just that an excuse. Learning styles need to have points attached because you can participate in your preferred style to meet the learning outcome. The participation leads to the learning outcome and the learning out come leads to the participation. I want my students to be productive and push themselves out of the box. They must participate to do so. I give them options, but if they want to be classroom teachers they will not put themselves passively on the sidelines.

  • ATM

    Engagement tickets seem a bit like treating the symptom and ignoring the disease. If students are not engaged, rethink the presentation of the content. Sometimes the content is dry but necessary. I know this all too well as a mathematician. In that case, we can promise an interesting payoff in return for a little suffering now.

  • Loltia Paff

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I'd like to add a bit of context. I'm familiar with Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards and I agree with his observations and recommendations. But the purpose of the tickets is to formally recognize there are different ways of demonstrating engagement, not just oral participation. It's my hope that students who might never visit a faculty's office, might realize it's a worthwhile effort. The tickets are really a minor reward. Candy and silly trinkets and "extra" credit are powerfully, and sometimes irrationally motivating for students. I'm trying to gain some insights about the how and why.

    Students still need to demonstrate learning through exams and papers and projects. However, if a student misses a homework assignment, but follows up with a visit to the learning center, that's an acceptable tradeoff in my view. More important than the points is the classroom climate that has been established by specifically listing non-verbal engagement behaviors. Students are used to seeing oral participation on the syllabus. They are surprised when a long list of other learning behaviors is not only listed and recommended, but rewarded with a colorful ticket.

    Students are developing study groups more independently, they are emailing me interesting questions, sharing ideas about how to prepare for exams, or slipping me notes about personal connections they made with the day's content. No one has ever asked for a ticket. They are genuinely pleased and smile when I make a point of acknowledging what they've done. These are powerful affirmations despite their small course value.

    I surveyed students at the start of the term and will follow up with them at the end. I'm also tracking all the details about how the tickets are being earned, by whom, and when and for what purpose they are redeemed. Casual review of the timing between receiving a ticket and redeeming has revealed insights about my students which surprise and baffle me. But, if the data suggest this was not an effective approach, I'll rethink the policy as I did after I studied my data about graded oral participation.

    Thanks again for the helpful comments. If you are attending the Teaching Professor Technology Conference in Denver this weekend, I'll be there! Feel free to email or tweet me if you'd like to extend this dialogue. (Email: LAP21@psu.edu or 1313lolita on twitter)

    • Laura S

      Lotitta, how long have you been using these "tickets"? Seems like you might be doing your own study/analysis and maybe could write this up for publication in a formal teaching journal.

      • Lolita Paff

        Yes! I will be writing about this. It's the first semester I'm testing the ticket incentive, but I'll have a sample of over 100, so the results should be meaningful.

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