Date of this Version
Bosch, Brandon. "Treating Participation as an Assignment." Teaching/Learning Matters, 48 (1), Spring 2019. Newsletter for the American Sociological Association Section on Teaching and Learning.
Participation is a funny thing. Some of us grade it obliquely, bumping up the final grades for students that were truly exceptional at it. Some of us explicitly state on the syllabus how important it is for students to come to class “ready and willing to participate,” but only allocate 10% of the overall grade to this supposedly valued activity. But perhaps the most common thing that we do as instructors with participation is this: despite the fact that participation is one of the most commonly “submitted” activities in a class, very few instructors treat participation like an actual assignment. Treating participation as a non-assignment has several important consequences. First, it means that instructors recuse themselves of the responsibilities associated with assignments. Most educators would be ashamed to provide feedback on an assignment several months after the fact. However, many students may go an entire semester without receiving any grades or useful feedback on their participation. Second, since participation is not viewed as an assignment, we often do not give it any rubric. Consequently, students (and instructors) can be left in the dark on what successful participation actually looks like. It is entirely possible for no one to know exactly how a student is doing on participation until the final grades are submitted. Now, many of us probably provide in-class feedback on participation to our students. By using terms like “excellent,” “exceptional,” “good, but I need a bit more,” and “I’m not sure I remember that part from the reading,” we can give fairly straightforward feedback. However, few of us probably jot down how many times we told a particular student “great comment.” Instead, we likely wait until the end of the semester to determine the participation grade. Although we might tell ourselves that we need an entire semester to correctly gauge the “real” participation grade, the basic limits of human memory prevent us from really evaluating the entire semester. Instead, we are evaluating what we can recall of student performance. In other words, we probably rely on the most dramatic, emotional examples of student behavior (both positive and negative) as well as what happened in the last several weeks of the semester. Naturally, this approach is subject to being gamed by students, who know that a strong performance in the last month of class is probably worth more than the same performance in the first month of class. Fortunately, there are a few simple ways to avoid some of the aforementioned problems.