Let’s Get Rid of Class Participation Grades

by / 3 Comments / 1898 View / January 6, 2015

In some college classes today, class participation can count for anything between 10 to 20 per cent of the final grade. Two out of my four classes in the fall semester had class participation grades. Generally, class participation takes into account how often students contribute to class discussions and answer questions. However, class participation should be more than just speaking in class. When students are obligated to speak because of a grade, the initial goal of sharing ideas with fellow students is not achieved.

Class participation grades are introduced with the good intention of encouraging students to voice their ideas. Most of us have experienced that awkward moment in class when the professor asks a question and everyone sits there in silence hoping someone else will answer, and if students have the incentive of receiving a better grade if they speak up in this situation, class discussions are likely to surface. Class discussions and student participation are important because college education shouldn’t be bound by textbooks and professors’ lectures, but rather should also encompass learning from peers and listening to a spectrum of opinions and ideas.

Despite the positive benefits that can come through sharing and listening in a class, having class participation grades are not efficient in initiating meaningful discussions. Students undeniably will speak more in class if their grade is affected by how frequently they speak, but it is also likely that students who have nothing to contribute to a discussion will feel the pressure to do so in order to meet the participation requirement. If you have taken a class where class participation counts, you know that there are always people who speak for the sake of speaking. They might repeat what someone else has already said with slightly different wording or they move the discussion into an unrelated tangent.

My own experience reaffirms this. One of my classes that had a participation grade was in a subject that was completely foreign to me. I was going into this class with no relevant background and I was there to simply learn something in a new field. For me, my enjoyment of that class was greatly impeded by the constant awareness that in each class I needed to speak at least once. If I found the readings for a particular week to be difficult and dense, I would struggle to formulate some analysis to share. Meanwhile, there were students who would present details they found to be particularly interesting and then further develop ideas from the readings, which in turn gave me insight on the content. Students who actually have worthwhile things to say contribute to improving the quality of the class, whereas everyone raising their hand in an attempt to get a good participation grade does not.

If professors want students to be engaged in the class, they should redefine class participation to include ways of participating that will be beneficial to all students. For students who may not be comfortable speaking in class, they can go to office hours or attend events relevant to the class.  Speaking in class is not the only way for students to participate in a meaningful manner. Having a participation grade certainly does guarantee class discussion, but class discussion is not the most important focus in creating an enriching academic environment. The more important focus should be creating a learning environment where students can choose to share and listen. If professors are passionate and the class itself is fascinating, naturally students will be more inclined to speak and engage in discussion. A participation grade only coerces students to speak for the sake of a grade.

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  • Kate

    Completely agree! Although I do sincerely value classroom discussions(especially between students that are taking the course because they have an genuine interest in it), I think grading based on participation can sometimes go awry.

    I took a class this past semester about greek/roman mythology for fun(it was an intro class at an institution in the same League as the authors) and I expected it to be a class that was completely for beginners. Turns out, every one of my classmates(total of 17) except for me and one other student was already completely familiar with the topic/books that we were reading.

    The books included The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aenid, The Bacchae, and like others and the students in the class would always say stuff like “When I read this in high-school….” or “When I read this in middle-school….” or casual statements like “I didn’t have to buy any of the books because I already had them since they were required reading in my high school.”

    While everyone in the class was already familiar with the characters, plots, key concepts ect ect, I was stilll struggling to grasp onto the main concepts and understand the book’s complicated phrasing. The first time I asked a question in class, during the second week, was for clarification on what a certain subject(that everyone else was talking about) actually was. I was met with cold/weird stares and the professor telling me something alone the lines of “What do you mean you don’t understand what XYZ thing is?!? This is common knowledge!”

    Needless to say, my fight to participate enough so that I would get the participation points for my grade gave me a ricidulous amount of anxiety and made me dread going to class.

    I would have liked the class a lot more if instead of the participation grade being based off of one’s “ability to correctly interpret and analyze” and “make nuanced and original conclusions” so that we could “share them with the class”…that it was based off of a person’s willingness to know/learn/better understand.

    On another note, the three people who spoke the most in this “intro” class were so familiar with greek/roman mythology that they would do things like relate the concepts to other greek mythology books(that we hadn’t even talked about in class) or giving spoilers as to what happens in the end of the books because they assumed everyone had already read the books(prior to the intro class).

  • Emily

    I completely disagree. If a student feels so uncomfortable with the material that they cannot participate in class, they should be regularly seeking out the professor for help. If you didn’t understand a reading, ask a question! Participation grades are so important because discussion is so important. The problem with a class where participation is a burden is not the nature of participation itself, but the nature of the class or the student.

    Almost all universities seek diversity in their student bodies. Why? To bring diversity to discussions. If a subject is foreign to you, great! Speak up, voice what you didn’t understand. Bring your own unique background to the table. If every student is not participating, the discussion is losing value.

    If being pushed out of your comfort zone to speak in class is the worst thing that happens to you in college, you’ve probably had the best college experience of anyone. Learning to speak up and articulate your opinion clearly is one of the best lessons you can learn. Participation grades not only benefit professors dreading silence, but they benefit you and your peers.

    • Kate

      Your comment completely overlooks the dynamics classroom interaction. I don’t know what university you attend, but at the current one I attend, about half of the professors are almost completely inaccessible.

      Regarding my comment below, when I asked for clarification during the second week of class I was met with the professor basically asking me with incredulity “What do you mean you don’t know? This is common knowledge!” When I sought the professor out in office hours, that professor was equally unhelpful, curt, short, and condescending. This is my third year in college now, and I’ve had a great deal of extremely unhelpful and curt professors. To say that it is simply as easy as “seeking the professor out for help” shows a potentially completely myopic/limited experience with both being a college student and having to deal with professors that are too highfalutin or busy with their research to help.

      And you say “If every student is not participating, the discussion is losing value”… have you ever tried having everyone speak in a lecture hall class? Or been in a class where there are people who speak who think they know about everything but they really dont? Or with students who don’t give a shit? If everyone’s raising their hand to get a word in edge wise, you can very often end up with scattered conversations as students who don’t have a good grasp on the topic raise their hand, get called on, and then change the topic to the 5 page snippet that they did actually understand and read.