Grading Participation

Canva graphic of a student participating (Photo: Maddie Qualls The Puma Prensa)

by Maddie Qualls, editor

“I completely agree. To add on to what she said, I think…”

This is a phrase that I’ve heard many times in the classroom. When you need to get participation credit for a Socratic seminar, you hope that one of your peers says something remotely connected to the script you came up with for the class discussion. And for verbal contribution in a class, you sit there stressing and hoping that the teacher asks a question that you feel like you can answer while building up the courage to actually raise your hand. 

Grading on participation encourages formulaic discussions and rehearsed answers, makes class particularly difficult for students who struggle with public speaking and is susceptible to bias and inaccuracy. It’s time to put an end to it.

I’m more worried about participating than trying to understand the material.

Oli Parlato

In some classes, participation makes up a category of your grade, usually being worth between 10 and 20 percent of it. This is especially common in language courses. In other classes, it is graded through discussions, Socratic seminars and speeches. Maria Carrillo High School English teacher Trisha Terrell stated that she does not make participation its own category because “people are functioning on different levels.” 

French teacher Stephanie Richards used to have a participation category, but she stated, “It evolved for me. Right now, [participation is] more integrated into various assignments as opposed to being a category.” She had multiple reasons for making this shift: She likes to try new things with her teaching and grading, but she also noted that “there are so many absences. I feel I’m experiencing a whole new way of teaching, so it’s hard to grade on in-class participation.” Furthermore, she added, “[grading on participation] is somewhat subjective.”

It is subjective. And because of this, I don’t think that there is any way to accurately gauge participation throughout a whole semester. First, there is no way to eliminate bias in grading of participation. Even if that bias is subconscious, it can have an affect on whom teachers decide to call. Second, unless teachers mark down every comment that students make throughout the semester, it would be practically impossible to precisely measure and remember how much students participated. Memory is not reliable and is also subject to bias. “It’s increasingly difficult to give empirical data or evidence for participation,” said Richards. 

Maria Carrillo senior Oli Parlato said, “I feel like [grading on participation] is subjective. Some students could be too scared to talk but could be learning or paying attention just as much.” She added, “There is confusion about how it is graded. If [teachers grade on participation], they should make it clear what they are grading on,” such as talking or contributing. Maria Carrillo sophomore Kira Moe stated that grading on participation “can be good to try to engage students, but it should not be as much of a big part of your grade because having it be so much of the grade is stressful.”

Grading on participation creates a tense environment, in which students feel obligated to meet their contribution quota for the class or discussion. “I’m more worried about participating than trying to understand the material,” Parlato said. Similarly, Moe described that when talking in front of the class, “I am scared of messing up but don’t want my grade to suffer.” Public speaking is particularly difficult for introverted students and students with anxiety, so it’s not fair to grade on participation when students have different comfort levels with speaking in front of the class. I believe that eliminating grading on participation would allow students to learn in a less stressful manner and would give them the freedom to contribute verbally when they truly want to.

Parlato said teachers should stop grading on participation because “for students who struggle with talking, it can make it much harder to show up to class.”

Students should feel comfortable at school, and grading on participation can take that away, so it should be drastically deemphasized or cut out completely.

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