Five Reasons to Stop Giving “Participation Grades”

1. How the hell are you calculating this anyway? I know some instructors who try to record the frequency and quality of student comments, but that in and of itself seems like it might hamper discussion in addition to being a serious pain in the ass. In almost any other circumstances, participation grades become subjective to the point of uselessness.

2. It punishes the wrong students. This should come as no surprise, but some students are really uncomfortable speaking in class. Some of these are also your best students, the ones that sit silently during discussion but do the reading and write brilliant papers. The reasons why they don’t speak up may be complex and way beyond your pay grade. They may have histories of abuse or of being publicly humiliated and silenced by authority figures. They may have had horrific experiences in high school that make them terrified of speaking up in front of their peers. There are also just basic privilege and discrimination issues at work, such as the fact that boys are still much more likely than girls to speak up in class, and non-white students are less likely to speak up than white students. You may also have second language speakers in your class, who do not feel confident enough in their speaking abilities, especially given the annoyance often directed at them by fellow students and instructors. You may also have students with disabilities or students who represent a minority political or religious viewpoint or students whose personal issues are too close to the class material or whatever. We in the West (especially the U.S.) live in a society where extroversion is privileged, a society that gives people multiple reasons to feel the need to keep their mouths shut and often then turns around and punishes them for being “passive.” We shouldn’t be exacerbating that problem in the classroom.

You may think that you are encouraging these kids to grow and mature and better advocate for themselves by grading participation, but let’s be clear:  that process is not going to be completed in three months time.  If you are a very, very good instructor and also a little bit lucky, you may get a “breakthrough moment,” where a previously terrified student suddenly lights up.  But those moments do not signify the reversal of ingrained behavioral patterns.  It will take many, many positive experiences with speaking up to overcome a history of trauma.

3. You are opening yourself up to grade challenges. I came a across a pretty good article on grade grubbing on The Washington Post website. It’s written by a journalism professor who encountered numerous grade challenges her first semester teaching at American University. Here is one of her examples:

I wasn’t so firm with my other challenger. She tracked me down by phone while I was still in my office. She wanted to know why she’d received a B-plus. Basically, it was because she’d barely said a word in class, so the B-plus was subjective. She harangued me until, I’m ashamed to admit, I agreed to change her grade to an A-minus. At the time, I thought, “Geez, if it means that much to you, I’ll change it.” She thanked me profusely, encouraging me to have a happy holiday.

She admits to committing the rookie mistake of giving in to a grade grubber. These things get around. If students know that an instructor has changed a grade in the past, it’s all over. But the other glaring issue here–which she doesn’t really address–is the damned participation grade. Here’s the thing, students know that the participation grade is kind of bullshit, so it’s the first thing they’ll challenge if they don’t like their final grade. Then you’re left arguing about the vague impressions you had of their overall participation across the semester without much to back you up. It’s a recipe for ruining your vacation.

4. It’s too vague to be much of an incentive. Let me repeat: students know this grade is kind of bullshit. The savviest of them know that if the worst happens, they’ll be able to argue the grade up at the end of the semester. But that will usually happen only at the end of term, because they will have forgotten this component even exists as soon as the syllabus disappears into the black hole of their dorm room.

5.  Whatever a participation grade is designed to measure, there are better ways to do it.  Are you trying to:

See if students have read the assignment? Give a quiz.  Scheduled quiz, pop quiz, whatever.  Make it easy, just something to keep everyone on their toes.  I usually give a daily quiz until about midterm, then I only do it if I suspect people aren’t reading. Another technique I like is assigning an informal reading journal or a daily blog, something you can briefly check–either weekly or at set points during the term–to see if people have actually engaged with the reading.

Encourage discussion? Again, participation grades don’t actually work (see #4).  There are about 4,000 more effective ways to encourage participation.  There are entire books written on it, actually.  But here are my suggestions.

  • Create a safe space: Like I said, trauma (and do not discount the trauma that students are capable of inflicting on one another, even at very young ages) and discrimination are often factors in preventing students from piping up.  You can counter this (but again, do not expect life-altering, paradigm shattering transformations in a few short months) by providing a safe space in your classroom.  But this goes beyond simply saying “this is a safe space” or “we like diversity” or “we are tolerant of diverse perspectives.”  It means that you may have to champion minority opinions–even if they are not your own–and prevent group think from developing.  It means that you will have to recognize the subtle signs of someone who has something to say but isn’t loud or assertive enough to wedge their comment in.  It means shutting down any discriminatory bullshit and occasionally asking (politely, of course) some loudmouths to just listen for a while.
  • Resist the temptation to break awkward silences: I fall victim to this one a lot.  Every once in a while, it’s as if the entire class colludes in halting discussion by just staying quiet.  Resist the temptation to lecture at that point.  Don’t answer your own questions.  Just let things hang.  This is torture for everybody, and eventually some one will crack.
  • Use journals or blogs as a jumping off point: This is not only a great way to get some people to talk, it can be an effective way of making quieter students more comfortable speaking up.  Saying something like, “Audria’s post today was so insightful, and I just wanted her to summarize her point for us” not only gives that student something to say, it lets her know that she is likely to be well received, that her input already has approval from the instructor.  Since I give a writing assignment in which students are asked to analyze cultural artifacts outside of class, I will sometimes also say, “Brett is writing a paper on X and is kind of an expert on this, so maybe he can explain.”  Sometimes appealing to other areas of interest or expertise can also help:  “Jillian is a film major” or “Brett is the editor of the campus newspaper.”

So, could we just not do these any more?

25 thoughts on “Five Reasons to Stop Giving “Participation Grades”

  1. As a student, I completely agree. Another point is that a participation grade ruins it for those of us who actually enjoy participating. I love school because it gives me an opportunity to hold discussions with others. When there is a participation grade, some students purposely look for ways to make the grade, which often leads to comments that have very little to do with the discussion, and would not be spoken otherwise. Students become more concerned with saying anything that comes to their heads in an attempt to get the grade, rather then to think about the subject. It can really water down what could be a fantastic conversation otherwise…

  2. I could not agree more. We got rid of these at our school a couple of years ago but there was a lot of resistance. What a lot of people want to do is correct behavior by punishing them academically. At the end of the day we chose to give the students what they earned based on the learning outcomes of the curriculum and correct behavior using other methods.

  3. This article and the responses made many good points, but I respectfully disagree with a few things.

    1. I teach ESL and participation is essential to success in our classes. A student simply cannot demonstrate competence without speaking during class discussions. It is certainly possible that quiet students can have very high skills. However, skills that are never demonstrated “don’t count.” Kind of like the “tree falls in the forest” idea, if a student has the skills inside their head but never demonstrates them in a way that can be seen by someone else, have they really learned the skill?

    2. I don’t feel that using participation as part of the grade is a “punishment.” It is simply a criterion or goal that is important to the class. If “attendance and timeliness” is counted in the final grade, is that punishing students who are not “morning people?” Is counting off for spelling errors punishing bad spellers? Losing points because you have not accomplished a goal is not punishment; it is assessment of skills.

    Certainly, participation is vague and subjective. Maybe a solution to this is for the teacher to begin the class by starting a discussion of what “participation goals” are appropriate. The students can talk about why participation is needed, how to be respectful and encourage participation, and what the teacher should consider when they determine the participation grade. This would make the grading system more transparent and could also allow students to share their perspectives about how hard/easy/too easy it is to participate.

    I don’t think participation should be a huge part of the grade, but neither should it be removed completely.

  4. While I agree that for some classes, participation can be a bullshit grade (depending on how it is used), it is essential in a foreign language. As a teacher of both Latin and Spanish, it is vital to language acquisition to participate.

    You say that it is a subjective grade, but it is easily made objective. I have a points system in my classroom whereby each time a student participates (regardless of whether the answer they give is right or wrong), they receive a point (a puntem in Latin and a punto in Spanish). They must receive 3 per day (or 15 per week). I do account for test days, etc, but at the end of the quarter, they must have gotten a certain number of points (I count up the days that weren’t test or quiz grades and make that the number I use). It’s both measurable and objective.

    1. You know, I totally see your point! And the point of Molly, who commented before you. In a foreign language classroom in which conversational proficiency is one of the goals, I can see how that kind of participation is essential, and your way of measuring it seems entirely valid.

      I am, of course, speaking from my experience as both a student and instructor in a variety of humanities departments in which “participation” has been this amorphous, never-really-spoken-of thing on the syllabus that for me–as a student who spoke up a lot–generally meant “easy A,” but for others meant “thing I’m being punished with even though the standards for this part of the assessment were never clearly defined.” That has been my experience in every undergraduate and graduate seminar I’ve ever enrolled in, and I have often heard it cited by students as a frustrations and instructors as a major source of grade complaints. Again, the department I currently teach in straight-up forbids us from including a participation grade on our syllabi for precisely these reasons.

      But I think you both have ideas here for implementing something like that effectively. I have done something similar to a points system when I feel that discussion has been lagging. I distribute poker chips as a counter, and every time someone makes a comment, they throw one of their chips onto the table. Once they’ve used them all, they need to just sit and listen, but they also get a cookie or something.

      But furthermore, outside of the learning a foreign language context, I think that participation as a curricular standard or educational goal is poorly defined and reflects the degree to which MANY (not all) humanities departments refuse to really talk about pedagogy. In my experience, discussion is a means to learning something, not really an end in itself. I’m not teaching a “how to talk about literature at a cocktail party” class so much as I am using conversation/discussion as a way to get them actively thinking and analyzing and beginning to put words to that analysis. Whereas in, say, your Spanish classroom, the ability to conduct a conversation in Spanish is ostensibly one of the curricular goals, being able to hold forth about Mark Twain is not really the point.

  5. It really just depends on the class. In a language class, obviously it is important, though I think there are better ways to go about it.

    But as a history major, it’s obnoxious when there is a grade for participation, even if it has a system of grading. I personally learn best when I’m speaking out loud, and when someone is joining in on a discussion they don’t particularly care about simply for a grade…it ruins it for me. I’d say offer the discussion time for those of us who want and need to participate, but don’t force it upon those students who don’t want to.

    I think sometimes people need to remember that there are different ways of learning. You may assume that a class discussion is a way to help motivate people, but it’s not always the case. For those kids who participate, that is their learning style and they deserve to have that time. But for those who can pick up a topic simply by listening or reading…you are really doing more harm then good by making them feel as if they have to think of something to say out loud when they really should be absorbing the information by listening rather then talking through it.

  6. Thanks for this post. It’s well-argued enough to make me reconsider participation grades for my classes next year. I’ve incorporated grades for participation for all the years I’ve been a university teacher (20+), often including a requirement that students assess their own participation and how it has affected their learning and that of others, but I think #5 above gets to the real reasons I grade participation. I already incorporate blogging into most classes, and find it to be an excellent springboard for discussion as well as a decent means of determining who is doing the reading.


    P.S. I just discovered your blog this morning, and am reading through unsystematically. It’s awesome.

  7. Have you read Heejung S. Kim’s 2002 article “We Talk, Therefore We Thing? A Cultural Analysis of the Effect of Talking on Thinking” (in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 83, No. 4)?

    “Cultural assumptions are often manifested in processes of socialization. For example, how people raise and teach their children is influenced by the cultural ideals of how a child should be. indeed, the cultural differences found in interactions and practices regarding the act of talking are largely consistent with cultural differences in the assumptions about talking and thinking.

    “According to Caudill and Weinstein (1969), Japanese middle-class mothers speak much less frequently to their young children than do their American counterparts. Moreover, Chinese preschool teachers see quietness as a means of control, rather than passivity, and appreciate silence more than American teachers….” (829).

    It seems incredible that we should be teaching second-language students without knowing this information.

    1. Jo, I will definitely grab that article. Thank you so much for the recommendation.

      I have heard mention of the cultural differences–particularly between Western European/U.S. American and East Asian–in attitudes toward verbal expression and their possible implications for pedagogy, but it’s all been anecdotal.

  8. I completely agree with you.

    I’d never give participation grades (and I teach a modern language) if I had a choice.

    Usually I’m constrained by department requirements. Academic freedom is not a guarantee in all academic jobs!

  9. Thanks for this. I was recently side-swiped by a participation grade pushing me out of A territory and into B territory. This was inspite of the fact I helped the instructor pass out assignments, run errands, and kept students accountable. I guess I just wouldn’t cave when they would not do their work (i.e. I wouldn’t help them if they were being lazy). The professor never gave us a rubric and my final grade shocked me. I feel this is unfair and I am challenging it.

  10. I also have to respectfully disagree. First, it is easy enough to build in non-verbal ways to participate, particularly through workshops and drafting. Very easy. That is how you respect and count for those who have great reasons to not speak in class. Also, if you are worried about learning styles, quizzes are not a great alternative, as they, too, value certain kinds of learning styles. Finally, our courses are not lecture courses, and being there in engaged ways is part of what counts toward the grade–not really that much more vague or fuzzy than much of the way we grade other aspects of communication, really. You avoid grade complaints by understanding and articulating what you are looking for, and people who are not clear on that themselves get the most complaints.

  11. What if you grade participation as “showing up for class” and “having the text we are working with” and “meeting deadlines for assignments?”. This is what I do and I never really get grade challenges.

  12. The problem is, how far do we take it? I personally have a phobia of examinations. Not just nerves – I become physically ill in the days beforehand. Yes, yes, perhaps a career in academia wasn’t the best of choices 😉 This is, oddly enough, due to some of the same issues you mentioned with public speaking (a history of abuse, both physical and emotional, linked directly to grades).

    So should we get rid of exams? No, of course not. I also don’t think they should be worth more than 25% of a course grade. The same thing holds with participation grades. By no means should it dominate the course but arguably, removing them entirely harms the students who learn well through discussion and enjoy it. I would not have managed my undergrad as well as I did without participation pulling me up from poorer exam grades because I loved that element.

    I’ll agree it can be somewhat subjective – but so can essay grading. Perhaps if the students are updated on their participation grade on a regular basis that will take away the argument at the end of the year.

    We cannot simply do away with one aspect of courses simply because some people are uncomfortable with it and objective grading is very hard to achieve (in the Humanities) anyway…

  13. 5% of a class is “participation” for me, and I freely admit it’s mostly so I can push someone up over the 80% to pass (I teach adults in a government training, not academic, institution). Once I have used it to push someone down because they were consistently rude to the others in the class. But it’s a different environment, I think – as an introvert-student I hated having to say something that didn’t need saying just so I was “participating”

  14. I am an ESL teacher and I feel a participation grade is completely neccassary.
    1. It holds stduents accountable for their behavior in class (speaking spanish to their friends during class)
    2. It forces them to practice English outside of the oral exams
    3. Yes, it can punich the shyer students, but half of my participation grade is good behavior (listeing respectfully to others for example)
    4. With SOME classes with VERY shy stduents I give them the option of particpating in our current event discussions via e-mail/twitter. They are still reading/writing in English so that helps some
    5. Finally I give my students a self assessment (in a way) this allows them to guess thier grade and gives me space to give them feedback on how to improve, making it seem a lot less arbitrary.

  15. I am currently taking an online accounting class at a local community college. The instructor demands participation by requiring students to post questions about the online homework problems. The issue? You have to be the FIRST student to post a question about a particular problem. Often, the homework has only 4 problems, albeit some have multiple parts. Still, how can it be mathematically possible in a class of 30 students, for each student to be the first to post a unique question? Even if there are 4 problems with 4 parts each, that is still only 16 possible questions. That’s not even taking into account that students tend to miss the same problems on homework, I’m in the dangerous situation of publicly (via online discussion board) questioning the validity of her participation policy. Sure, students need to have the opportunity to ask questions about the material, but *forcing* students to do so just so you can assign a participation grade? Obnoxious.

  16. Another factor not discussed is the idea that people PAY to go to college to learn from the teacher. Essentially, students are enrolled in order to learn something they didn’t know, or absorb information. A student with a background in the subject can have very good discussions, a student with little prior knowledge cannot go from experience. Let’s be real, more classroom participation is based on previous work experience, not what is read in the book. We all know that some people seem to only be in the class to talk about their job. Hahaha. In all seriousness, class participation does not indicate successful learning.

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