Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Replacing participation points with preparation points?

We've talked a lot about participation and points for participation on this blog in the past (see herehereherehere, and here).

I had an idea come out of nowhere today when I was driving home. I'm not sure if I've read it somewhere before (Teaching Philosophy, maybe?) or not. I can't imagine it's original, but it's very simple: replace "participation" points with "preparation" points in my syllabus. Four distinct advantages came immediately to mind:

  1. It distinguishes nicely between "good" and "bad" types of participation in the classroom. Idle banter doesn't show preparation, so it doesn't count. Socially adept students don't get points just for joining the discussion.
  2. It's a bit more of an incentive for actually preparing by doing the reading than just rewarding participation. And really, the whole point of rewarding participation in the first place was to encourage preparation. In fact, it might be worth ramping up participation points to 15 or 20 percent of points available in the class if the incentive turns out to work well enough.
  3. Students who are shy or uncomfortable talking in class can prove preparation in other ways: one-on-one, perhaps. Conversations with me in office hours would count for preparation. One could even count students who show you notes over the reading (imagine: people might take notes on the reading to get points!). 
  4. You don't have to prove preparation in every class -- just like you wouldn't have to participate in every class -- in order to get preparation points. But if it looks like someone hasn't done the reading for quite some time, his or her grade would suffer.

So this sounds like a great change to make. What does everyone else think? Are there downsides to this I'm  not thinking of?


  1. I've always counted office hours visits as a substitute, and specified that the participation needed to be well-informed. But the students who are very nervous about speaking up in class are also hesitant to show up to office hours. Also, as I mentioned on another thread, I tried getting rid of any rewarding for participation, and noticed zero difference in the number of people who show up to class, participate in the discussion, or the quality of the discussion.

    I've had some success with frequent quizzes (very simple true false or multiple choice). Another thing that has been surprisingly effective is I assign questions to answer on each reading due before the lecture on the reading. They are designed to keep the kids focused on what the philosopher is trying to do (e.g., "What objection is Thomson's seed people example supposed to address?"). I request an answer of 1-5 sentences. I've been surprised at their ability to focus on the reading, they don't take long to grade, and the quality of discussion has gone way up.

    For whatever reason, I don't think students find the grade in participation very motivating. They have a much harder time not handing in work than in not participating in class.

  2. I agree that preparation points have all of the advantages you've noted, but the big question for me is how you implement this. How, exactly, might you measure preparation—especially in students who are too shy to speak up in class anyway?

    One thing I've done this semester, which measures preparation, is give Monte Carlo quizzes about the readings.

  3. I like the idea, but if you could give some other concrete examples, that would be helpful.

    In the Honors course I teach every fall, we require the students to do "Daily Assignments," which are usually 1-2 page papers related to the reading for that day. They are told that the point is to prepare them for class discussion. This is a 6 credit course that meets every day, and the students are highly motivated. In a different class like Introduction to Philosophy, I think this workload would be too demanding.

    So I'm keen to figure out ways to emphasize preparation over participation, but apart from your suggestions and the Monte Carlo quiz, I'm unsure how to go about it. Thoughts?

  4. Thanks to everyone for the comments so far. In my haste to get the post up, I think more ideas went through my head than I was able to get into the post. So to answer David first, the idea would be that for a good number of students, they will demonstrate they've prepared by engaging in meaningful participation. So the preparation grade for them will be the same as a participation grade: good if their participation is informed and bad if their participation demonstrates ignorance of the reading and assignments. But for students who elect not to participate in class, they could gain the points in other ways, such as showing me notes they took on the reading, asking one-on-one questions about the reading, or coming to office hours for conversations. Nothing that would necessarily have to be graded or turned in (though turning in notes on the reading could be a way of gaining points). In fact, one of my goals here would be to get the benefits of quizzes (prepared students) without actually having to grade quizzes or short papers.

    I've never felt comfortable assigning more than, say, 10% of points in a course to participation. But since preparation is more intimately tied to learning, I'm thinking that one could double that -- in my courses that would be equivalent to the points assigned to an exam.

    The details of what would demonstrate good preparation would need to be spelled out, but I'm not sure that would be very hard: showing knowledge of the reading, critical engagement with ideas in the course, etc. All things that would inform good participation. My guess is that you might be able to do this and good participation and discussions would come about for free, so to speak.

    To speak to Elizabeth's points, I think we're on the same page. I've never felt comfortable ignoring students' contributions in office hours, but I've also never felt comfortable rewarding such contributions as "participation", since the rest of the class doesn't directly benefit. So the goal here would be to give points to what I'm actually trying to encourage in my courses: reading and engaging with the material and using that preparation in class discussions or elsewhere in one's academic life. I'll have to try it out, but since there is a way in which they could gain preparation points by turning things in, preparation points might be more motivational than participation points.

  5. I'm not used to grading for participation at all, but I don't really see the motivation for this. It seems the problem arises only if students think that their participation grade depends on quantity, rather than quality, of their participation.

    You clearly don't think that ("the preparation grade for them will be the same as a participation grade: good if their participation is informed and bad if their participation demonstrates ignorance of the reading and assignments"), so why not simply make this clear(er) to them? You can still call it a participation grade, without rewarding "idle banter".

    So it seems that the difference between participation and preparation comes down entirely to your point 3: students who have clearly done preparation work, but are shy to speak in class. I'm not sure why these students should get marks for having prepared, on top of the extra marks that preparation will hopefully give them in their exams/coursework. But probably I'm missing something...

  6. I'm teaching a history of ideas style class in the Fall and have decided to do something similar. I am requiring the students to keep reading notes with Evernote (http://www.evernote.com/). They will share their notebooks with me, so that I can look in on what they are writing. Of course, I won't have time to grade every students' notes--but I can at least do some overview to make sure they are reading and responding to the reading prior to class.

  7. @Ben I think that in an ideal world students would participate, prepare, and do well on exams. But for whatever reason they tend to sacrifice preparation (which diminishes the amount they end up learning). There are a number of ways of trying to make sure this doesn't happen: quizzes, short essays, assessing quality participation, and so on. Summative exams tend not to be a good way of encouraging week-by-week preparation. They come too late to be corrective.

    To a certain degree, this is just re-framing the type of good work we're all trying to capture using participation points. But instead of emphasizing participation and shoe-horning judgments about students' preparation into a participation grade or making a lot more grading for oneself, I'm suggesting an emphasis on preparation. And I think then one might get good participation as a side-effect.

  8. @David Morrow (and others who use Monte Carlo quizzes):

    This may be a silly question, but how do you deal with variable point totals? I usually have a set number of quizzes, and so I know what the total will be. If quizzes were left up to chance, I don't know how I'd settle that--do you have other assignments toward the end of the term or scheduled quizzes to make up any difference that is remaining?

  9. @occasionalist:

    I set the Monte Carlo quizzes, taken collectively, to be a fixed percentage of the final course grade. So, the quizzes, taken together, might be 10% of the course grade, papers 60% of the course grade, and exams 30% (or whatever). That way, it doesn't matter how many quizzes there are.

    I take it from your question that you assign a point value to each assignment and calculate the final course grade by dividing the number of points earned by the number of points available. You could easily combine the two approaches by setting aside a specific number of points that can/will be earned through Monte Carlo quizzes.

    I should note that due to a statistically highly improbable run of ungraded quizzes this semester, my class and I agreed that I would automatically collect and grade the quizzes for each of the remaining days. Otherwise, that portion of their grade would have been determined by far too few quizzes.


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