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How to grade student participation?

September 15, 2010 7 comments

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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