How to Grade Students’ Class Participation

ceramic hands

It’s that time of the semester: when a professor’s fancy turns to grading. You can see exactly how much attention is being paid to this subject by taking a glance at Twitter. Today, however, I want to talk about grading one particular thing: participation. Most syllabi that I have looked at in the last 10 years include a student’s participation in the final grade of the class. What’s more, participation often makes up a significant portion of a student’s grade in humanities classes, where I teach. My experience suggests that it’s standard to have participation count for 10% of the final grade, but it’s not unusual for upper-level seminars to put that percentage at 15% or 20%.

For those who are just at the beginning of their careers, grading of any stripe can be quite fraught with fears about whether one is doing it wrong or not. Even those who are a bit more advanced in their careers occasionally express anxiety over and dissatisfaction with the process, as Duke’s Cathy Davidson expressed last summer. (Inside Higher Ed posted a follow-up piece on Davidson’s crowdsourced grading experiment just this week.) But grading participation is perhaps one of the stickiest of the grading wickets. After all, there’s not an object (a paper, test, class project) that you are evaluating. Instead, you are assessing a student’s performance in a relatively nebulous activity that stretches across an entire semester. In the interest of making visible some of the assumed knowledge of academia (a core ProfHacker activity), I thought it could be useful to discuss why and how one academic–myself–grades participation.

Why grade participation?

I’ll acknowledge that student participation in class might not be important in every single field. (And if it isn’t in yours, please let us hear about it in the comments.) But in my primary fields of literature and writing, I think that it is imperative. As is the case in all disciplines, class is not just about knowledge acquisition but is instead about learning a process. For my classes, this process is learning how to closely read literature, interpret it, make an argument–written or spoken–about the text in question. To my mind, one learns to do this by doing it yourself and watching others (classmates and the instructor) and getting feedback. In other words, if I’m grading the analytical papers you write for my class it makes just as much sense to me that I should be grading your in-class efforts at analysis.

I also try to let students know why I’m grading their participation. (Actually, I try to tell them why I’m giving them any assignment with the hope that contextualizing the learning process will encourage that learning to take place.) This involves talking through the points I make in the previous paragraph on the first day of class and driving that home with provisions in the syllabus. For what it’s worth, here’s the participation policy for the 400-level, senior seminar I taught for this semester:

This is a class based on collaborative discourse. As such, being prepared to participate in discussions is a course requirement. This entails having read, annotated, and thought about the complete assignment carefully before class starts. Furthermore, you must bring your copy of the text to class every day. Since we will be engaged in closely examining the texts we read and the language that they use, if you don’t have your text then you aren’t prepared for class, even if you have read the assignment. Naturally, this admonition applies to the texts that you will find online.

More broadly speaking: Ask questions. Be curious. You are more than welcome to have a different interpretation of a text than a classmate or me; just be sure to share your perspective in a productive and supportive manner. Since the course will be conducted as a seminar-and not a series of lectures-the substance of our class meetings will primarily consist of your responses to the course texts (such as general questions, impressionistic responses, or interpretations of particular passages) and, secondarily, my engagement with your responses. Your thoughts and questions will provide the starting point for our discussions. Your active participation will be consequently factored into your final grade for the course. If you’re reluctant to speak up, please talk to me and we’ll figure out a way for you to participate.

To be completely honest, another reason to grade students’ participation is so that they will come prepared to class and ready to play along. Teaching is hard no matter what you do, but experience shows me that it’s a lot more difficult to do when students aren’t ready to respond or interact. Grading their participation is a stick to the carrot of learning that helps the students stay engaged.

How I grade participation

I imagine that there are as many ways to grade participation as there are professors who assign it in their classes. Some may prefer to keep track of who speaks and how often one speaks in class. That process doesn’t work for me nor do I feel that it is a valuable use of my time. Furthermore, I don’t want students to feel like they need to compete with one another to get the most things said. Instead, I grade students’ participation across the whole semester. The grade represents my overall assessment of their participation in the class. If they are actively participating every day, they get a perfect score. While active participation is easiest to measure by those students who speak in class and contribute to discussions, I also consider those who are clearly following the conversation and being thoughtful about it. If you don’t regularly participate in class, your score drops. Those who never participate in class but have perfect attendance will end up with a score around 60-70%.

I’ll admit that this process can be fuzzy at best, and it always seemed so to me when I was a student. As such, I started something new this fall by grading students not only at the semester’s close but also during midterms. At that point, I give the students the grade that they would earn if the class were to end at that point. Once I’ve made them available to the students in the campus’s LMS (Blackboard, in my case) for a week, I erase the grades. I do not keep them, and they do not have any bearing on the grades at the end of the semester. Instead, they serve to give the students an indication of where they are at and allow them to make a course correction (pun intended) before the semester closes. If they don’t like what they see, they can choose to become more active in the class. I find that giving the students a sense of where they’re at helps relieve anxiety about what tends to be a fuzzy procedure across many classes. And I also find, as Erin observed previously when writing about encouraging student participation, that offering such a “reality check” tends to get more students involved in the class.

At the end of the semester, I make it a point to grade participation before I grade the final projects for my class and again make these grades available to students. I feel very strongly about these last two points. As I see it, if I make participation a significant part of a student’s grade, she should be able to see what score she has actually earned. Moreover, if I’ve made participation a significant part of her grade, I also believe that it should not only serve as something that bumps a student up or down if she is right on the borderline. If I enter participation very last, my own tendency is to try to goose the numbers so that students end up where I “think” they should end up. Grading participation before I finish grading other assignments allows me to avoid this problem.

A Final Twist: Crowdsourcing the Grade

In most of my classes, I use a modified version of Jason’s wiki notes assignment (you should also see Jason’s two ProfHacker posts on wikis in the classroom, here and here). I’ve said before that theft makes for good pedagogy, and I stand by it. One of the modifications that I’ve made to the assignment is to allow students to grade how well the members of their group–including themselves–participate in creating the class notes. Since students tend to dislike group work in part because each of them feels like he does all the work and all of his group member slack off, I’ve found that letting them evaluate their own participation in the project alleviates this anxiety. Building on that, I’m wondering whether I can apply the model to grading overall class participation in the future: combining their views of themselves and of classmates (?) with my own. If you do something similar to this, I’d be interested in hearing what approach you take.

Do you grade students based on participation? What method do you use? To what extent does participation contribute to student assessment in your field?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user johnny.hunter.]

Return to Top