Grading class participation

Following on recent discussions with a couple of people about how we grade participation, I thought I would post my approach, because I get the (possibly inaccurate) impression that it is a little idiosyncratic, and in hopes that it may spark some discussion about others’ approaches and philosophy to participation.

I emphasize participation heavily in my courses and always have, whether teaching first-year writing or a literature survey or a graduate course. I normally weight it at about 20% of the total, as one of the various ways that I incentivize student participation. Since participation both matters significantly to student performance in my courses and is the most nebulous of the various elements that I grade, I have always sought to grade it as objectively as possible. In the interests of not relying purely (or even somewhat) on my feel for a student’s participation, and because I like playing with numbers (yes, I know!), I came up with a system that makes the process much more mechanical and, in my estimation, significantly more efficient than relying simply on my sense of what a student deserves. Here’s how it works:

In each class meeting, students get participation points as follows:

-2 for being absent

0 for being present but not participating in the discussion

1 for speaking up and saying something relevant on one or two occasions

2 for speaking up and saying something relevant on three or more occasions

That scale is the center of my approach. I sometimes move the points up or down based on circumstances (e.g. a student who speaks up a lot but is disruptive and interrupts other speakers may get a 1 instead of a 2) and, on rare occasions, students may get a 3 for doing exceptional work, but it is primarily a -2 to 2 score per student per class meeting. I use the same thing even when it is not a discussion-oriented class on some days. For example, a day when students are peer-editing will earn them 2 each.

Every week or two, I update the running total of the students’ points. When it comes to working out their letter grades, I look at the totals that the students have and assign grades based on a scale running from 0 to the highest total in the class (since what counts as good participation in a quiet class might be mediocre participation in a very talkative class). I simply divide the totals into four equal segments (each a fourth of the max total currently) and assign an A, B, C, or D accordingly (anyone with less than a 0 gets an F). To illustrate:

Suppose the maximum score that any student has is 23. So I have a range of 0-23. I divide that into four segments, which gives me 0-5, 6-11, 12-17 and 18-23. Then anyone in the 0-5 range gets a D, 6-11 gets a C, 12-17 gets a B, and 18-23 gets an A. I do increments too, based on where someone is in the range, so, for example, someone with a 16 (high in the 12-17 range) would be a B+.

And there you have it. The system actually seems more complicated than it is when written out this way, since the fact that it relies on simple crunching of (not very large) numbers makes it easy to handle. In practice, it gives me a very accurate sense of student participation and prevents any chance of subjective responses to, for example, a student who talked a lot in the latter half of the semester or someone who had no absences and regular, if unexceptional, participation. I invariably find that it provides a clear picture and effective representation of student performance over the course of a semester.

As a last point, let me note that I always, from the time I return the first graded paper to students, update the participation grade on Canvas (and, earlier, Blackboard) and continue doing so every couple of weeks. That is easy to do with the above system, serves to keep students aware of their performance, and shows them how participation slides up or down with time (and effort). It contributes heavily, in my estimation, to the volume of student participation and engagement in my classes.

Any questions? And what is your take on grading participation (in theory and/or practice)?


2 thoughts on “Grading class participation

  1. I stopped doing a participation grade because the very nature of how I run my class means everyone who’s present participates (lots of individual and small group assignments/discussions). However, my department has a strict attendance policy, and I do take off points for students being tardy, which definitely impacts students’ grades. I also give extra credit for perfect attendance and for never being late to class

  2. A colleague of mine hands out index cards where students rate their own participation (was there a time I wanted to speak up but didn’t? Did I share an idea or raise a question?) and then he gives points for the cards. He finds that this increases students’ awareness of their own participation and actually makes them participate more. I also feel that more group work, where students can test out ideas and questions, as the above poster noted, leads to more active participation. Finally, there is significant research on why students stay silent in class, which is misleading in that they are actively listening and responding, but may not speak up for various reasons. These could include because they are not native speakers and are not sure how to frame a question or thought in English (not to mention different education cultures where students are not expected to speak up in class), because they are not yet prepared to take the intellectual and social risk (there are professors out there who shame students who don’t answer correctly or ask “stupid” questions – this trains them not to share ideas they are unsure of), or because we haven’t provided enough opportunity for all students to have a say. For me, I rely on my sense of the student and what their work reveals about their effort and thought, and provide lots of opportunities for everyone to get a say through various small group and discussion leader exercises.

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