Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What "participation" means

Hi, folks,

With the posting of course grades at the end of a term comes the opportunity to have conversations with some students about things that they might have overlooked earlier in the semester. Recently, Chris, Adam, and (somewhat) I were talking about one such example: the meaning of "class participation".

I'll stick to discussing my own experiences. Invariably, at least one student will express surprise at a low participation grade by pointing out, "But I attended every class meeting!" or "But I talked a lot!". In the syllabus, during the first weeks' class meetings, and occasionally throughout the semester, I emphasize that those behaviors are neither necessary nor sufficient for good participation (or for a good participation grade). Instead, I emphasize and evaluate other things as part of my conception of (constructive) participation.

For instance: do your comments demonstrate that you've done at least some of that day's readings? Do your comments build on others' comments in some (respectful) way? Do you sometimes refrain from commenting, knowing that sometimes, being a good participant in a discussion means letting other people talk? If you're too shy or anxious to talk during class, then do you use other means -- such as the class's discussion forum online -- to raise comments and questions that demonstrate your engagement with the readings/concepts?

Key to my participation assessments is a brief conversation with each student about their participation, at least two or three times during the semester. (Surprisingly, that doesn't always forestall the "but I talked a lot!" complaint at the course's end. Even more surprising is that I'm surprised.)

How do you assess/grade students' participation, if you do? How do you define "participation" in the first place?


  1. This is great Vance. I don't talk to my students much about this and perhaps I ought to.

    May I ask: why is participation important in your classes? What pedagogical goals does it serve, or is it something you want to promote in and of itself. Are you explicit with your students about why participation is a good?

  2. Vance, I was inspired by your February post on optional attendance to try out, for this quarter at least, not grading on the basis of attendance or participation at all. Part of the reason is that grading attendance and participation in the ways that matter seems very subjective and difficult to implement: I agree with your approach that participation shouldn't be evaluated in a number-toting kind of way, that quality matters much more than quantity, and that participation that furthers the course's learning objectives is what should be rewarded. But I frankly have too many students to keep track of that in a way that would be fair and accurate. And just for my intro courses alone, 2-3 discussions with each student per term would mean 160-240 discussions!

    My other motivation is this: We evaluate students on the mastery they demonstrate — what they ultimately know and can do. But we also evaluate them on tasks we assign in order to develop that mastery. But there needs to be a lower limit for the latter. In other words, attendance and participation are means to mastery, and I'd prefer students not be evaluated on the performance of minimally necessary means. To use a sports metaphor, what matters is performance on game day, not how well you practice. So I've come to conclude that just as I wouldn't reward students for reading, I shouldn't reward students for attendance and participation. These are instrumental preconditions for learning, not demonstrations of learning.

    Though as I write that, I'm less convinced of its wisdom...

  3. I, too, stopped grading for participation, except when I teach an online class. It seemed too subjective, and unfair to naturally shy kids. I see no difference in how many people actually talk in class when I give credit for participation and when I don't. This tended to confirm an idea that I had that I was rewarding a personality trait, and one that was not particularly predictive of how much one learns.

    Instead, I now give weekly (announced) quizzes, which does a much better job in insuring attendance.

    When I did grade for participation, though, I used to emphasize that one aspect I was looking for was to see that students set themselves challenges (and met them).

  4. I usually make participation worth 10% of the grade for a course (with alternative options for the very shy), but I'm tempted to make it worth as much as 30%. So I'm interested to see the opposition here to counting participation at all when grading.

    The main reason I see for grading participation is that it is work. Students who are passive in class (or literally absent) are being lazy in just the kind of way that students who don't write a paper are. Students who are actively involved, on the other hand, are not only being virtuous, they are also potentially showing a) that they have read the assigned material, b) how well they have read it, c) that they have thought about it, d) how well they have thought about it, and e) how well they can do philosophy (whether in relation to assigned reading or not). In other words, doing philosophy in class is just as much doing philosophy as writing a paper is. So why not grade it? I can see that it might be hard to remember who contributed and how well, but I don't see that grading spoken work is any more subjective than grading written work. (Of course you have to have a class that is small enough for students to be able to participate and for the professor to be able to remember who said what.)

    Other advantages: I think students learn more when they are actively involved in the class, I think grading participation encourages students to come to class prepared, and I think there is something to be said for rewarding students who make a class better by asking good questions, making good points, and generally engaging with the issues raised in class.

    Mostly, though, I think that philosophy is an activity and that students should be graded on how well they show they can engage in this activity. Some demonstrate this best in writing, some in discussion. Why not grade both?

    That sounds like a rhetorical question, but I'm genuinely interested in answers people might have.

  5. This is what's in my syllabus. I stole it from a colleague.
    "Classroom participation is an important part of learning philosophy. Philosophy is not really something one can carry on as a dialogue with oneself: it is a social endeavour that requires testing your ideas against those of others. Obviously, attendance is a prerequisite of participation. Although your attendance won’t be graded, then, your contribution to our discussions will be. In my experience, serious – as opposed to merely irritating – participation is actually the best way for you to explore issues and work through whatever difficulties you might be facing."

  6. Hi, Becko,

    I'm very explicit about why participation is important to the goals (or I guess these days they're called "learning outcomes") of my courses. Most of those reasons are expressed in the second half of DR's comment and in Anonymous 12:02PM's comment.
    (Constructive) participation helps the students learn better and feel more engaged with the class. But also, as Anonymous's colleague says, there is or can be an important social and conversational dimension of philosophical reflection. One of my course goals is to help students improve their abilities to engage in philosophical reflection in a variety of contexts, including solitary and collaborative.

    Michael and Elizabeth, I definitely agree with your point that rewarding people merely for showing up is silly. Likewise (and this is what led to the conversation with Chris and Adam), rewarding merely for talking is silly. Talking IS "minimally necessary" for constructive conversation, but I am trying to teach (and to assess) the ability to engage in particular kinds/ways of talking.


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