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?