Should Grading Participation Be a Thing of the Past?

Grading participation is common in classrooms around the country, whether students are in the second grade or taking college courses. Participating in class has long been considered necessary in order for teachers to gauge how well the student understands the material. Engagement can’t always be judged from how many times each student raises their hand, however. In fact, some teachers now argue against grading participation, saying that it penalizes introverted students. Today we will take a look at each side of the argument, and we’re going to let actual teachers do the talking.

Brooke Taylor is an associate professor of English literature in llinois and a staunch supporter of grading participation. Taylor states that her approach to encouraging participation is to assign a numerical value to each student’s contribution according to a rubric. She assigns these values immediately after each class to ensure it’s fresh in her mind. Although Taylor admits this approach works best in smaller classes, she believes that with clear and specific guidelines, teachers can shape student engagement and make everyone more invested in the classroom experience.

Here’s an example of a participation grading rubric Taylor might use:

1: rude, disruptive, distracting; does not have required materials
2: physically present but mentally elsewhere; does not contribute to conversation; playing with cell phone; fails to take notes
3: present with required materials; taking notes and paying attention; contributes at least once to class discussion, or participates through hand raising/written assignments
4: arrives prepared for class; participates multiple times in class discussion; responsive to participation and engaged in contributions made by others; contributions are thoughtful and provoke additional comments from others

Taylor states that in her experience, grading participation only works if it is consistent and transparent, and if students understand the rationale behind it. She emphasizes to her students that no matter their major or future career paths, speaking with confidence in front of a group of their peers is perhaps the most useful skill they can develop in college. She explains that it’s normal to feel nervous, but that her classroom is the perfect place to take chances and hone their improvisational speaking skills.

Although Taylor initially had concerns that grading participation would penalize students who are shy, she offers written responses as an alternative form of participation. She also allows students to notify her if they have a hard time volunteering, but would be willing to respond if called on. Overall, Taylor asserts that assigning grades for participation has increased student involvement in her class discussions and reminds students they are learning how to function in an academic and professional environment that requires them to be prepared, present, and proactive.

Now let’s take a look at the opposite perspective. Emily Klein is a professor of teacher education in New Jersey, and she and her colleague Meg Riordan have been forgoing grading participation for years. Klein teaches other teachers how to teach, and she begins each unit on assessment by saying, “Stop counting participation as part of a student’s grade.” Instead, Klein’s method relies on standards-based grading, and separating academic achievement from the habits that support it (such as participation, effort, or timeliness).

Klein suggests that teachers stop counting class participation as part of a student’s grade—a move that not only increases transparency about actual learning, but also acknowledges introverted students. What for many expressive students provides a boost, for introverted students creates a barrier. The quiet learner who finds traditional classroom discussion challenging may be penalized by a teacher who interprets introversion as disinterest or silence as confusion about the content. Additionally, introverted or quiet learners may have various reasons why they don’t participate as actively as their more extroverted counterparts. Some quiet learners include students from cultures that do not expect them to challenge their teachers’ ideas, speak without prompting, or debate with peers. Other students might simply value listening and thinking as much as participating in discussions.

Klein also points put that when class participation becomes mixed into one grade with academic achievement, overall academic grades no longer communicate what we believe they should communicate: evidence of learning. Instead, participation becomes a motivator for a portion of expressive, extroverted students and a roadblock for less verbally communicative, but no less knowledgeable or interested, learners. The solution Klein proposes in order to honor all learners is standards-based grading, in which the academic grade reflects what students have learned about the content, what students know and understand about a topic, and what students are able to demonstrate about skills or knowledge through multiple assessments.

What do you think about grading participation in the classroom? Let us know in the comments.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *