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In every course I’ve taught so far, I’ve reserved a few points in the rubric — 5 to 10% or so — for “in-class participation.” At this point, this is mostly just a habit. In early courses I designed, I included such points because every course I’d ever seen had done so, and this is one of those things — like the section on academic integrity or on-campus resources — that I keep copying and pasting into my new syllabi. The way I actually assess participation, too, has become somewhat rote: if students show up, they get a point. If they speak up, they get another point. And if they are especially engaged, I give them a perfect 3/3 for the day.

This semester, however, I decided to re-think participation and break some of these old habits. Here, I’ll detail some of my reasons for doing so, and the changes I’m going to make. Later in the semester, I’ll revisit this topic and tell you how the experiment went.

Why Assess “Participation”?

I think most instructors assign participation points for something like the following reasons: (1) to encourage students to show up, (2) to encourage students to contribute and engage when they do show up, and (3) because they rightly think some portion of the points in a course should come from frequent, low-stakes assignments or activities, so that student grades don’t come down to one or two, stressfully high-stakes assignments.

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

I doubt that many students need a couple of points dangled in front of them just to get out of bed and head to the classroom, and I doubt that those who really do need the extra encouragement will find the 2 or 3 points usually assigned for participating sufficient. It’s part of my teaching philosophy that assessment should tie in to my learning goals for the semester, and while being physically present in the classroom is technically a prerequisite for accomplishing those goals, it’s not clear to me that it’s an appropriate object of assessment. (Compare: breathing at regular intervals is a necessary condition for accomplishing any of my learning goals, but I’m not assigning points for that…)

I’ve also often found that participation points tend to be assigned in a pretty opaque way, since an instructor often doesn’t evaluate and record every student’s contribution on the spot. Even when a rubric is distributed ahead of time (or in the syllabus), grading participation often feels pointless or random as I sort through fragmented memories of the class period or rely on an intuitive sense of who‘s doing well in class. I often just give students more credit if they’ve established a pattern of contributing well, rather than if they actually meet the criteria set out in the rubric. And none of this seems fair or helpful.

Finally, I think it’s admirable — even advisable — to assign a number of low-stakes assignments throughout the semester, and I think it’s right that student grades shouldn’t come down to one or two major assignments, but why not make these lower-stakes assignments something that will directly contribute to the learning goals, like a weekly short reflection journal entry on course materials, or a post in a class discussion board?

For all these reasons, I’m rethinking how I grade “participation” in my classes.

An Overview of the Changes I’m Going to Make

Here are some of the changes I’m going to try out:

  • As I lesson plan, I think about small tasks or activities I could have students perform that would actually contribute to their accomplishing a concrete learning goal for that day. Sometimes, these are brief “entrance” or “exit” tickets, like a short quiz, concept map, or a question addressed to me regarding that day’s content. I then assign a point or two for their thorough completion of these activities, or I ask them to self-assess.
  • Sometimes, I’ll assess (or have them self-assess) more in-depth group activities, and just use that as the “participation grade” for that particular day. In-class time is rarely the same from day to day, so I find that this approach makes much more sense than using a generic rubric based on an idealized or abstract “discussion / lecture contribution” model.

Participation grades won’t always be the same from day to day — they might have the chance to earn 2 points one day, and 5 the next — but this doesn’t strike me as particularly problematic. They’ll always know where the points are coming from, and there will be enough of them throughout the semester to provide plenty of low-stakes opportunities to earn points.

The best part of the new model is that these are points that are being assigned to assess actual participation, in actual activities, during the class period, so it feels like I’m finally actually grading participation in a meaningful way. I hope that this model leads to more concrete and communicative participation assessment that is less biased and more attuned to my learning goals. I’ll follow up later in the semester and let you know how it goes!

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