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