In our teaching roles as graduate students, we often are called on to assess students’ participation in classroom activities like discussion; often, this evaluation assumes the form of assigning an actual grade to such effort.

As I look back on my graduate school career (yes, I successfully defended my dissertation last month!), one constant stands out, at least in terms of the many courses I’ve taught and the discussion sections I’ve led: “Grading participation” is a tricky but necessary business.

CC-licensed photo by flick user stina jonsson









Currently, I regard “participation” as engagement in discussion but also preparedness and classroom etiquette. Grading participation  is difficult because it is a subjective practice-to a certain degree. Moreover, and compounding this fact, is that students perceive the grading of participation to be influenced almost entirely by the instructor’s whims, tastes, and unevenly-applied standards. As a result, some students view the participation or discussion component of their final grade as a way into negotiating a higher course grade at the end of the semester. To make matters worse, we as grad students may be particularly susceptible to grade-negotiation. Many of us are or are perceived to be young and inexperienced, and we often lack institutional clout, and thus, through little fault of our own,we tend to invite grade-haggling.

Certainly, students are entitled to ask questions about their assignment or course grades. If some such requests come across as “grade grubbing,” we can teach students how to ask the right questions about their performance, and most importantly, how to also frame those questions in order to discern the steps they could take to improve in the future. However, participation grades, particularly if they are assigned once at the end of the semester, don’t lend themselves to the kind of discussion that is productive and appropriate.

Lately, my own challenge with grading participation has been how to accurately assess the quiet student: the one who rarely, if ever, participates in discussion, but who nevertheless faithfully attends class and appears to be on the ball, based on his or her test and essay scores. What is more, how does this student compare with the chatty student? That is, the one who is adept in thinking on his or her feet during class discussion but whose subsequent test and essay scores indicate that he or she hasn’t been keeping up with the readings, lectures, etc.?

Despite its challenges, grading participation is necessary, and in some teaching situations, it is required.  I say “necessary,” because I think grading participation is useful to the student. We’re training students to enter the workforce, and we’re also helping them to become more informed citizens of their community (and beyond). To be successful (and personally fulfilled) in these endeavors, students need to practice interacting with one another in a context that is at once intellectual, professional, and social. Face-to-face interaction (even via Skype) improves oral speaking skills. Discussion in traditional classrooms and online spaces promotes civility as well as off-the-cuff, impromptu thinking. Grading or otherwise assessing students in these areas provides them with constructive feedback about their strengths and weaknesses.

I’ve experimented quite a bit with how I evaluate participation, but I’m eager to hear from GradHacker readers about their own strategies for assessing a student’s engagement in class and/or discussion. Please share your thoughts or tips below.



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7 Responses to The Tricky Business of Grading Participation

  1. Chris says:

    Having been the quiet student in undergrad, I often empathize with them. I’ve only done one discussion section, but I found that I got to know my students decently well enough to know how they learn and participate. For my quiet students, I expect that they at least jump in there a bit (just like I expect the chatty students to step back occasionally). I also gave my students other options to participate – written responses, blackboard discussions, as well I definitely took into consideration any e-mail or office hours contact they had with me. Oh and my general rule about participation is that I do not let it bring down their average – it can only help.

  2. Amy Rubens says:

    Chris — Great point about expectations for chatty and quiet students. We expect both to do what is unfamiliar, and chattier students sometimes need practice in knowing when to step back. (Side note: At the same time, I’ve found that some of those students are reacting to a problematic stall discussion: they recognize the silence and know that it needs to be addressed. I applaud students who step up in this way!)

    I disagree that participation should only help a student’s average. Perhaps this depends on the class, however. In the classes I teach, participation in discussion and group/individual in-class activities is a driving force of the class. I grade participation holistically and in concrete ways so that students are evaluated from a number of angles (that is, more accurately and fairly). If such a grade lowers a student’s average, that burden is on the student, not the instructor.

    • Bill says:

      Amy- You say you grade participation in concrete ways. I would be interested in what ways and also, do you have a rubric for this?
      I have lumped my participation grade into the overall class preparation part of my grading; this way it does not effect their GPA as much as a separate grade would.

      • Amy Rubens says:

        Hi Bill – Thanks for your comment. When I teach literature courses, I grade participation (which includes preparedness, punctuality, etc.) holistically at the end of the semester. In some literature courses I’ve taught (and many of those also have functioned as advanced writing courses for upper-classmen), I’ve *also* graded participation using a *separate* category that I call “in-class work,” which includes quizzes and brief writing assignments or exercises. I grade this material on a check system, where a check is worth a full 5/5 points. A check-plus-reserved for exceptional responses-gets 6/5 points. I often use these activities to begin class, follow-up on group work, or to conclude class; in other words, in-class work has an important use value and isn’t simply a means to one end (i.e., grading engagement). I also try to comment on this work, and in this way, I can give students additional feedback about their work before major assignments (again, for me, mostly essays). While I think that participation should impact a student’s grade (at least in the kind of courses I teach), the in-class work category gives quieter or less-sure students an opportunity to even things out.

  3. Lois says:

    In the first iteration of the online class I teach, I gave a discussion grade at the end, but found that several students, those who had missed several weeks of participation, were surprised at their low overall grade for the course. (My discussions count for 25% of the class grade).

    When I taught the class again this spring, I decided to grade each discussion weekly. I give four points for each discussion: one for their initiating post by the due date; one point for each of the two required responses to others; and one point for the quality of their writing and replying on different days. By grading weekly, the students get regular feedback about their discussions and how to improve. Therefore, no surprises and no grade haggling.

    • Amy Rubens says:

      Lois – You are spot-on with your observation about the relationship between “haggling” and feedback intervals. In the past, I’ve emailed individual students in the the first few weeks of the semester to give an informal appraisal of their participation level. This is added work, particularly if you are responsible for a lot of sections. Next fall, when I begin my full-time position, I’d like to make an effort to connect with students in this way, but I’ll have to brainstorm ways to make such communication efficient!

  4. Carissa says:

    Participation for me is part being there, part participation and part allowing others to participate.

    Just having good manners (not texting, not taking long bathroom breaks, showing up, not speaking in Spanish [because the course is an ESL class – edited by moderator]) is about 65% of their participation grade.

    The other 35% is participating in class (or via e-mail/my office).

    Students are not flying blind I give them a self assessment halfway throught from there I can respond to their comments and concerns and let them know what they can do to improve (if needed)

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