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How to grade student participation?

September 15, 2010

Student participation in and outside class is wonderful. How do teachers make it happen? Persuasion alone does not do it. “If it’s not graded, it does not count” is the mantra on which teachers and students alike fully agree. Carving out a percentage slice of the final grade and calling it “participation” does not do it either. Who’s measuring it? Based on what criteria? When and how does it happen? How is it observed and by whom? If a measuring stick is waved at students every class, how genuinely do they participate? As a social science colleague and friend put it, “welcome to the hard questions of what others call soft sciences!”

So the question boils down to “to grade or not to grade.” I’ve been of the principle that beliefs, attitudes, and personally held values are not quite grade-able. And not in the scope of my expertise. Therefore, I have been tweaking the syllabus and course requirements (what students are asked to do) with the hope that even if I don’t measure participation the lack of it is clearly affecting learning outcomes measured by other activities, such as doing assignments, working in teams, or presenting projects. I haven’t seen, however, a real improvement in student engagement with the course material and with peers for the purpose of learning.

The decision to quantify participation this semester is based on several observations.

  1. Most of my students use self-evaluation and self-reflection responsibly to share with me beliefs and experiences they had with doing assigned work (that’s graded).
  2. Most of my students find pair programming very useful.
  3. Some of my students make important contributions to the mailing list.
  4. A few students volunteer important questions and answers in class.
  5. A few students come prepared every single class: solid grasp of the reading assignment and high quality homework assignment submitted on time.

These observations have helped me craft the following strategy to assess student participation:

  • Students use a rubric to evaluate their partner’s collaboration and include that score in the the self-evaluation that accompanies their assignment submissions.
  • Students are asked to contribute at least two posts to the mailing list: asking an important question and formulating an important answer.
  • I am very explicit about instances of student participation I see in class. For example, “Laura, this is a complete and correct answer, and an important one. Your participation counts!”. Or, “Chris, this is a very important question. In a couple of weeks we’ll revisit it, because we’ll have the knowledge and skills to tackle it. Your participation counts!”
  • I am very explicit about instances of student participation outside class (that is, traffic on the mailing list). For example, “Aaron, this is the most influential post made this week. Your participation counts!”

Data from these various sources is then converted into a weekly score I attach to each student’s self-evaluation when I validate how they score the quality of their work and the collaboration with their partner.

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  1. September 16, 2010 at 2:13 am

    I’m definitely bookmarking this post for later on when I start teaching and have to figure out participation grading for my own classes. Thanks for writing this up, Mihaela – I like the formulation of “2 posts to the mailing list” – it’s a minimum bar that any participating student will be able to hit, and most students (I hope) would use that as a “oh, I could do more of that specific task” when looking for more ways to engage and go beyond it.

  2. September 17, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    I’m not sure Mihaela… I don’t think all learners do think “If it’s not graded, it does not count”. Doesn’t that attitude come down to whether people are there because they’re keen to learn, or to get a grade (or more likely some mixture of both)?

    I hear your struggle – it sounds like you gave a lot of thought to ensuring that participation was implicitly encouraged by your coursework. But personally, I wonder whether requiring people to post or ask a question or give an answer can reduce the likely hood of real engagement. I don’t have an answer, but I am convinced that that if we can somehow model learning on the email list ourselves and nurture a learning/questioning culture, encouraging people (as you do beautifully above) it would be more beneficial. Depending on the amount of contact you have with your classes, nurturing a class culture can be incredibly difficult.

  3. September 17, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Michael, you are perfectly right: not all learners think that “if it’s not graded, it does not count.” I have been and continue to be skeptical about many meta-learning techniques, especially when they are rigidly framed by the instructor. I am also kind of an idealist, in the sense that “there are no bad students, only bad teachers” (which goes along the lines you advocate for). On the other hand, those people who go to college because they are keen to learn are also those who either need very little help from their teachers to figure out effective learning, or are genuinely interested in asking for help and learning how to learn anyway. The others (and this is an issue of divide and how difficult it is to ‘live’ inclusiveness vs. ‘talk about it’) are those whose attitudes, life experiences, or cultural backgrounds have probably little in common with ours.

    We certainly mean good when we think we inspire, or communicate high expectations and are there to help every step along the way with prompt feedback, engaging activities, or personal attention. However, to change behaviors is more than that. Certain interventions, apparently contrived, might stir a difference. That’s the question I’m contemplating now. The hope is that teachers can turn a behavior like “I’m in school because I need the degree” into “I’m in school because I need to know and know well”.

    • September 18, 2010 at 2:50 am

      Mihaela Sabin :
      I am also kind of an idealist, in the sense that “there are no bad students, only bad teachers” (which goes along the lines you advocate for).

      Hrm, I think an idealists would say the responsibility lies on both sides? (not sure?) That is, it shouldn’t be up to the facilitator to put on a constant stream of entertainment like a feed-box leading through the activities, but at the same time, it sounds like you’d also agree that as facilitators we should not expect learners to get involved if they don’t have a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to do so. I just find it hard (personally) to choose the interventions that will be internalised.

      Mihaela Sabin :

      On the other hand, those people who go to college because they are keen to learn are also those who either need very little help from their teachers to figure out effective learning, or are genuinely interested in asking for help and learning how to learn anyway. The others (and this is an issue of divide and how difficult it is to ‘live’ inclusiveness vs. ‘talk about it’) are those whose attitudes, life experiences, or cultural backgrounds have probably little in common with ours.

      Yep – I totally agree, and struggled with that same issue when I was facilitating a college (not university) course.

      Mihaela Sabin :
      We certainly mean good when we think we inspire, or communicate high expectations and are there to help every step along the way with prompt feedback, engaging activities, or personal attention. However, to change behaviors is more than that. Certain interventions, apparently contrived, might stir a difference. That’s the question I’m contemplating now. The hope is that teachers can turn a behavior like “I’m in school because I need the degree” into “I’m in school because I need to know and know well”.

      Yep, and a great question to contemplate – I’m looking forward to reading more. I’m just personally not sure that forcing email/blog interactions helps stir a difference (I’ve tried but the result from those who wouldn’t normally post has usually been, well, very forced and unauthentic). I’m all for encouraging it, even with contrived extrinsic motivation, but not sure about forcing it.

      Hrm. What if they had the option of getting involved in real email discussions/support, or taking part in a separate completely contrived email group where you do role-playing. That might motivate some to get involved in real discussions (much more interesting), while still enabling others to learn about involvement. An extra 1hr Friday afternoon tutorial per week required for those who are currently doing the contrived email group to discuss the role-played interactions, while those who are involving themselves in the real get an early mark 😉

  4. dansabin
    June 22, 2011 at 12:27 am

    I know this is an old post, but i agree. More importantly though students that struggle won’t ask questions in class. When students that aren’t struggling ask questions it helps the less confident students get a second chance to understand something they missed. Commending participation will keep the better students participating (and focused) while helping the other students. Also in general questions help draw attention to links between topics, which is critical in learning new things. I think you’re definitely on the right track.

    • June 22, 2011 at 5:48 am

      Blog readership should be a good incentive to reconsider my blogging habits. Thanks!

  1. September 15, 2010 at 7:00 pm
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