Why I don’t use “participation” points


Do you think giving students “participation” points is a good idea? I don’t.

I’ve been promising for over two years that I’d be writing about why class credit for participation is a Bad Idea. So here’s the post!

People put “participation” points* in the syllabus for a variety of reasons. In my experience, professors count 5-10% of the total grade towards “participation,” and sometimes more. It seems that a student’s level of “participation” can make the difference of a whole letter grade, by making an otherwise-B into a C if a student gets a poor participation score, or can lift a B into an A if they get full credit for participation. In most of the syllabi I’ve reviewed, these participation points are rarely calculated quantitatively. A student could go into the final exam without having any idea what their participation grade is. That seems wonky, doesn’t it?

Nonetheless, participation grades are very popular, and I think the majority of professors in the US include them on their syllabus. (Which puts me out on a limb by saying how I don’t like ’em, I realize.)

I’ll try to summarize what I think are the arguments in favor of participation points, and rebut them.

Rationale A: Participating in class is an important part of student learning, so giving course credit for participation is appropriate because it is an part of the learning process.

I agree that we want to make sure that students do things that help them learn. And I also agree that discussion of the course content enhances learning. This is so important to me that I design my classes so that students have an opportunity to discuss with one another about course material on a regular basis. Because discussion is a big part of learning, I don’t require the student to take the initiative in class on an ad hoc basis, instead I make it part of most lessons.

If we are serious enough about engagement and discussion to make it a percentage of the grade, then we should be serious enough about it to make sure that all students benefit from it.

I also am concerned about inequities and what students perceive to be a source of unfairness. When participation in discussion in class is associated with a grade and is voluntary, then we are placing greater demands on some students over others. It’s very well known that men dominate discussion in the college classroom, and this places a higher bar for women to earn a the same grade. Moreover, this creates a greater burden on more introverted students, who feel that they have less opportunity to participate in class. There are a variety of ways to have discussion in the whole class without having to require students to raise hands to join in a discussion.

Rationale B: Participation points are a way to reward students who attend regularly.

If you want to give points for attendance, then why not just give points for attendance? If you don’t want to track attendance formally, but then assign points on the basis of personal recollections, do you really think this is an unbiased and fair way to allocate points? Do students who you notice to attend/participate on an inadequately frequent basis the only ones to lose points? If so, then what about the ones you didn’t notice?

Rationale C: Participation points allow professors to give credit to students who are particularly engaged in the class or to those whose grades aren’t a measure of their real performance.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard other professors tell me how they use participation points as a fudge factor when assigning grades. Some explain that, at the end of the semester, they can tell an “A student” from a “B student” by gestalt, as an expert in the field they can tell how sophisticated a student understand the course material. They say “A students” just stand out in their performance, and if their grades are on the cusp, then they deserve the bump. Likewise, I’ve heard how participation points can make sure that a student who supposedly puts in a passing performance receives a passing grade. It’s possible for a student to get very high scores and turn everything for full credit, despite missing a bunch of class, who might not deserve full points for participating.

I think those reasons are total BS. You know how you can tell that a student is an “A student” or a “passing student?” They’ve earned enough points to get the grade that they deserve. Professors are not oracles that can accurately assess how much students have learned or how much they are personally invested in the class. That’s why we give tests and grade assignments. Participation points should not be used to shift around scores on a spreadsheet to make sure students get the grades that you intuitively think they should be earning. Frankly, I know a lot of people who use them this way. This kind of practice is precisely the thing that students have in mind when they accuse professors of being arbitrary and unfair. I can’t disagree with them.

If we use participation points to tweak a student’s grade to one that we think is more fair or appropriate, then what we are doing is undermining the validity of all of the other grades that we’ve been assigning the rest of the semester. This approach biases our grades in favor of the students who we know more personally, over those who haven’t been schmoozing the professor.

If your quantitative grades, without participation points, are not capable of capturing student performance in the class, then a holistic fudge factor isn’t the fix, because this just makes the grades even less representative of what happened in class! Instead, if the grade at the end of the semester doesn’t represent the grade the student deserves, then we need to figure out what we did wrong in developing and grading exams and assignments throughout the semester, and fix those problems.

Is there another rationale for “participation” points that I’m missing? 

I’m not the only one who knows that “participation points” are a qualitative cheeseball way for professors to alter a student’s grade. Students recognize this is unfair and struggle with a way to discuss it with their professors. Here are some “5 reasons to stop giving ‘participation grades‘.” And also there’s a discussion on reddit that covers similar ground. And a manifesto entitled, “Down with participation grades.” “Participation points prove unfair.”

A lot of people who I know, and respect, use participation points. I don’t really discuss this issue, it just doesn’t come up and as the metaphor goes there are much larger fish that I typically need to fry. I just don’t see a good reason for participation points, and if any of you wish to share your own perspective in the comments, you’re fully welcome. (I have been avoiding commenting on comments unless I’m responding to a specific query.)


*By “participation points,” I’m referring to a subjective measure that holistically evaluates a student’s level of engagement in the class. I also consider a quantitative measure of the number of times a student is voluntarily involved in classroom discussion to be another kind of “participation” points.




11 thoughts on “Why I don’t use “participation” points

  1. Agree 100%!!!

    As a TA, I’ve been told to assign participation marks for tutorials, and found it very frustrating to be tasked with making such a subjective and inevitably unfair assessment of students. I ended up either just using attendance (if students showed up, they got full participation marks) or assigning specific tasks for participation marks (for example, if we did some sort of pencil & paper activity in class, students/groups of students needed to write their names on it and hand it in or show it to me in order to get the participation mark for that class – kind of silly, but the instructor really wanted me to assess participation…)

  2. I agree, and stopped using participation points years ago, with one exception: they survive in a tropical field course I co-teach. Here they capture things like who washed the dishes, schlepped the field gear, and generally made the course a better experience (learning and otherwise) for everyone. I have a squishy general feeling I can defend them better in this context than in a lecture course, but I recognize its squishiness.

    Another reason I don’t like participation points (and attendance points even less) is that I think they treat students as something short of adults. I would like them to attend and participate because they they’ve taken charge of their own learning and are doing the things that will make them successful – I don’t want to bribe them into doing those things. I realize it’s naive to think that all students will in fact behave this way, and I’ve become interested in what interventions we have that produce such “professional learners”. Couple of blog posts planned on this – but without any real answers… :-)

  3. I saw a talk recently in which the lecturer described using participation points in a large class. She randomized the students’ names and called on a few of them a day to answer specific questions, awarding points for correct answers. That strikes me as a defensible use of participation to encourage coming to class prepared; everybody got an equal opportunity to earn the points.

    I’m considering adopting that method next semester to alter the dynamic of a few eager students answering my questions before the rest have had a chance to think. It might be nice to have a method for fairly calling on all individuals to even out the participation.

  4. I assign what I call “participation points” based on scored in-class activities/questions (I previously used i-clickers; this semester I’ve tried Socrative instead). These are typically “think-pair-share” format, and meant to help reinforce ideas and promote critical thought and discussion. So, I don’t think this is what you’re talking about, but this post has made me wonder if I should change what I call this graded item… I didn’t realize that students may view this as unfair or biased because of their previous associations with the term “participation points.”

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  5. I agree with your post, and thank you for writing it. As an introvert, I always struggled with participation points during undergrad, unless they were based on attendance (either outright or through the use of clicker questions) or on small group activities (like the ones mentioned at the end of Catherine Scott’s comment). In a larger class where participation was based on the number of times you raise your hand, I would basically write off that portion of the course grade at the start of the semester. It was always a frustrating experience because, even though I would try, there was never really a way that I would comment as much as the more extroverted members of the class, and so would rarely get full points.

    Now, as I am pursuing a PhD, I find myself in Catherine’s position where I need to be assigning participation points because they are a part of the classes that I TA. Because of my own aversion to them from my personal experience, I often follow the same sorts of methods as Catherine does, where they are essentially attendance points more than anything else.

  6. I agree with all of the points you made, especially given the specific definition of “participation points” you provided, which is probably the most frequent use of the term. However, I would like to answer your question raised toward the end: “Is there another rationale for “participation” points that I’m missing? ”

    Participating in a community of learning can be an obligation that the professor defines upfront as a means to advance each student’s education. The obvious requirement of such a policy is to make certain the grade is not decided as a “fudge factor” and that the points are transparently and objectively assigned. However, as Katy mentioned above, using “participation points” in think-pair-share work, providing critical feedback through oral or written means, and other activities that could go under a broader participation umbrella and be beneficial to each student.

  7. I don’t give participation points OR attendance points for all of the reasons you listed above, plus one additional reason (and particular pet peeve of mine): I avoid doing anything that sets me as the dictator of the class handing out points left and right thereby juvenilizing the class. I truly believe by the time they reach college, their education is their choice. I can help them make good decisions, but I can’t make those decisions for them. I do, however, keep track of attendance and participation particularly in the first few exams periods. Then when I give them their exam grades, I tell them the distribution of grades for students who are participating and engaged in class, verses those who haven’t. On my first exam this quarter, there was an 8% difference in the median grade in students who had missed one day of class. I tell them it is their choice what grade they get, and that participating in class helps them to understand the material better. Generally, I get great attendance and participation this way, and way less potentially unfair “fudging ” of grades.

  8. I teach an computational lab course that follows an “open-ended” model where the students are responsible to solving problems without discrete instructions. As I repeatedly tell them, the goal is for them to wrestle with the material and therefore learn the concepts more deeply than they would in a “cookbook”-style exercise. To encourage this, I do assign substantial “participation marks” as an explicit buffer against them foregoing the “wrestling” process and trying to get a “right” answer without understanding how they got there. I am very explicit that these marks are theirs to lose, and that they are only lost if students disengage, e.g., put minimal effort into completing the assignments, either in or out of class. (Mostly in class, this being a “lab”, but students are explicitly welcome to make alternative arrangements.) I also give them many opportunities to view these marks throughout the semester. Like the comment above, I also have noticed that the students who disengage quickly become out of sync and lost and that participation marks seem to help with cohesiveness. Although it is still early using this model, feedback from the students is that they appreciate being rewarded directly for the work that they put in and not for reaching some magical “right” answer. They also appreciate how these marks compensate for the difficulty of the material, and so are less daunted to leap into the unknown.

  9. I happened to stumble on this site in biology class. We use newtech a.ka ECHO. In newtech there’s a category based upon how much you try.

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