Is this line in your Syllabus: “Class Participation = 10%”?

17 Apr Diagram: concept by Karl Smith; drawing by Lila Smith.

With a month, or less, left in the semester, have you considered how you will assign these points?  Are these the points you use to reward the diligent students?  Are these points that you will draw on in making decisions about borderline. Just how are you going to allot those points?  As we approach end of the semester grading, here are a few considerations that can guide decision-making at this timely moment:

Why grade participation?

As Martha Maznevski states, “We know that active involvement in learning increases what is remembered, how well it is assimilated, and how the learning is used in new situations.”  We grade participation because we want students to be active and therefore learn more. So, if we grade it, they’ll do it, right?  Sometimes.  It’s worth reconsidering whether it’s truly participation we want or engagement (Weimer, 2014).  This can also lend itself to a change from a quantity perspective to one of quality. Have the learners in your class become – individually, overall generally – more adept in talking about course concepts? Across the semester would you say that you’ve been observing discussion and interpersonal behaviours that signal participation?

What are we expecting?

For many of our students, class participation simply equals raising your hand to answer or ask a question.  For extroverts or students who are confident in their comprehension of the content, this may not be much of a problem.  But for some students, those who may be dealing with “language barriers, cultural differences, shyness, public speaking anxieties, and socioeconomic factors that may diminish our students’ sense of their own value in contributing” (Miller, 2009) the thought of speaking up in front of the class may be terrifying.  Here are some observable  classroom participation behaviours to consider :

  • Preparation for class.  Quality participation often depends on coming to class prepared. Do comments and questions demonstrate that the student has done the required work for class? Do students further annotate their class preparation notes based on comments they are hearing to record ideas that are taking shape for them during class? Are they coming to office hours to test out ideas, ask questions that will move them forward, or seek out additional resources?  This, too, is participation.
  • Characteristics of Participation.  Are students contributing during class sessions in a constructive manner? Or are they speaking for the sake of those participation points?  Do they listen to others?  (And have you – on your own or with your students – set out characteristics of constructive communication that can serve as guides for participation, and for grading of participation?)
  • Small Group Activities.  These informal learning activities are much less risky activities for those students who may be uncomfortably speaking in front of the entire class.  Joni Dunlap, in her blog, suggests a designated listener activity in which one student is tasked with listening and summarizing the group discussion.
  • Writing as Participation.  Are your students demonstrating engagement through participation in online forums, minute papers, or clicker response questions? That student who responds enthusiastically, insightfully to a writing prompt is participating, as is the student who posts a single wise synthesizing remark or clarifying question in an online forum.

Might we clarify expectations
– and involve students?

There’s no way around it – there will always be an element of subjectivity when grading participation.  Maznevski suggests framing class participation as behavioral indicators, for example “Demonstrates good preparation: knows case or reading facts well, has thought through implications of them” in order to be clear about objectivity – and objectives.

And, as the semester end nears, it’s not too late to provide students with feedback on their participation grade.  Give them the opportunity to improve or modify their participation in these last weeks:  Ask them to reflect on what they’ve learned from their own participation, and what they’ve learned as well as appreciated in other students’ contributions through participation.   You could also invite students to grade themselves; ask them to assign either a letter grade or a point value, then provide a short response pointing to specific course interactions that justify their decision.  And finally, there are rubrics. They can be as detailed as this class participation rubric from Winthrop University, and this one from Claudia Stanny at the University of West Florida from University of West Florida, or more streamlined, as in this one from Carnegie Mellon, which incorporates quality of comments and listening skills with frequency of participation.  While it may be too late in the term to share a rubric with students, it may be exactly the right time to check out the rubrics as we consider the basis for those participation grades we will soon add to our calculations of final course grades.


Resources

“Is It Time to Rethink How We Grade Participation?” Maryellen Weimer
http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/time-rethink-grade-participation/

“The ‘Participation’ Grade.” Thomas R. Guskey, Jay McTighe, Ken O’Connor
http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol10/1007-guskey.aspx

“Grading Class Participation.” Martha L. Maznevski
http://cte.virginia.edu/resources/grading-class-participation-2/

“Should Class Participation Be Graded?” Bonnie Miller
https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/november-2009/should-class-participation-be-graded

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