Assessing participation

One example of how to give grades for participation.

One of the most difficult tasks as a teacher is to actually assess how much people have learned, along with give them a grade – a single number or letter (depending on where you are) that supposedly tells you all about how much they have learnt.

Ultimately, what assessment makes sense depends on your learning goals. But still it is sometimes useful to have a couple of methods at hand for when you might need them.

Today I want to talk about a pet peeve of mine: Assessing participation. I don’t think this is necessarily a useful measure at all, but I’ve taught courses where it was a required part of the final grade.

I’ve been through all the classical ways of assessing participation. Giving a grade for participation from memory (even if you take notes right after class) opens you up to all kinds of problems. Your memory might not be as good as you thougt it was. Some people say more memorable stuff than others, or in a more memorable way. Some people are just louder and more foreward than others. No matter how objective you are (or attempt to be) – you always end up with complaints and there is just no way to convince people (including yourself) that the grades you end up giving are fair.

An alternative approach.

So what could you do instead? One method I have read about somewhere (but cannot find the original paper any more! But similar ideas are described in Maryellen Weimer’s article “Is it time to rethink how we grade participation“) is to set a number of “good” comments or questions that students should ask per day or week. Say, if a student asks 3 good questions or makes 3 good comments, this translates to a very good grade (or a maximum number of bonus points, depending on your system). 2 comments or questions still give a good grade (or some bonus points), 1 or less are worth less. But here is the deal: Students keep track of what they say and write it down after they’ve said it. At the end of the lesson, the day, the week or whatever period you chose, the hand you a list of their three very best questions or comments. So people who said more than three things are required to limit themselves to what they think were their three best remarks.

The very clear advantage is that

  • you are now looking for quality over quantity (depending on the class size, you will need to adjust the number of comments / questions you ideally want per person). This means people who always talk but don’t really say anything might not stop, but at least they aren’t encouraged to talk even more since they will have to find a certain number of substantial contributions to write down in the end rather than make sure they have the most air time.
  • you don’t have to rely on your memory alone. Sure, when you read the comments and questions you will still need to recall whether that was actually said during class or made up afterwards, but at least you have a written document to jog your memory.
  • you have written documentation of what they contributed, so if someone wants to argue about the quality of their remarks, you can do that based on what they wrote down rather than what they think they might have meant when they said something that they recall differently from you.
  • you can choose to (and then, of course, announce!) to let people also include other contributions on their lists, like very good questions they asked you in private, or emailed you about. Or extra projects they did on the side.

I guess in the end we need to remember that the main motive for grading participation is to enhance student engagement with the course content. And the more different ways we give them to engage – and receive credit for it – the more they are actually going to do it. Plus maybe they are already doing it and we just never knew?

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