Welcome new readers!

The "New to the blog? Start here" page will give you an overview of the blog and point you to some posts you might be interested in. You can also subscribe to receive future posts via RSS, Facebook or Twitter using the links on the right-hand side of the page, or via email by entering your address in the box. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Do you give credit for participation?


This morning's Dilbert was perfectly timed as I was in the middle of trying to figure out the grade weights for my fall Econ for Teachers class and as usual, having a huge mental debate over how much weight to give 'participation'. A couple of Teaching Professor posts this summer hit on the same issue so it's already been at the back of my brain. In my data analysis course, participation is rolled into the team grades and that takes care of it; I've found that students have a strong tendency to 'punish' their peers for low participation by giving them low peer evaluation scores. But with the Econ for Teachers class, I do a lot of formative-type assessments that I'm not going to "grade" for content (e.g., student reactions to readings where I ask them to relate the reading to something in their own experience), so I have to decide how much credit to give students simply for completion. I want students to take those assignments seriously and the economist in me believes in incentives but at the same time, I don't want students to be doing things just for the points; ideally, I want them to be intrinsically motivated. To a certain extent, I think that carefully crafted assignments can go a long way with that - the intrinsic motivation comes when students see the purpose of what I'm asking them to do. But I don't feel like I can just ask them to do it and not give them any points at all (though really, why not?).

And then there's participation in the form of class discussion - how in the world does anyone ever assess credit for that? I don't usually try; I just rely on well-formed questions (which can often mean silence, when the questions aren't as well-formed as I had thought!). Again, groupwork helps; even if classes where I don't do formal teams, I try to have students talk in small groups when I really want them to discuss something. Given my class sizes, full-class discussion is simply never going to fully involve everyone. But should I give students credit for trying? For showing up? Shouldn't that be a basic expectation for all students? That is, why give points for doing what is expected (participating in your own education)? I'm guessing I'll still be asking these questions for years...


  1. My attitude about participation has changed over many years. I began with the usual 10%-20% participation weight, measured with a point system for speaking or questioning. As you likely know, that's a costly use of time and energy for the instructor. This evolved into a long explanation justifying my own subjective judgement of their participation. Next was a switch to the term "engagement" and a long explanation of what that meant, followed by a use of rubric at midterm and final week.

    Regardless of how I framed things, I never did this very well in practice. It always was subjective - and I don't object to that. But I'd use participation to make things not so bad for students who probably deserved lower grades. I couldn't follow through on my promises in large part because I lacked the data or the reference points for differentiating students (classes of 20-35 or so) or for scoring anyone particularly low.

    Fortunately, frustrations with participation peaked just as I had adjusted most of my teaching to something more active and more problem-solving. In the past five years or so, participation just hasn't been a big issue because it is hard for students not to be at least mildly engaged in the class as it is designed. That doesn't mean I'm wonderful; it means students will mostly respond really well when things are set up to allow them to be engaged in practical, relevant ways.

    Now, when I hear colleagues discussing complex participation grade schemes, it seems alien to me.

  2. Great question. My approach to this has changed over time, too. In my last course, I didn't assign any points for in-class participation. Instead, I told students that their in-class participation was simply expected.

    I did, however, assign points for out-of-class participation (responding on the course blog to pre-class reading questions, sharing links via the class Delicious feed, and so on). When students aren't in class, they have a lot of things on their plates, and they often have to make tough decisions about how to spend their time. If they have the choice between an assignment for my course that doesn't "count" and an assignment for another course that does, they'll go after the points. So I feel like I need to "reward" students for spending time on my course when they're out of my sight.

    I don't know what this says about the "Academically Adrift" finding that students are spending far less time outside of class studying than they did 10 or 20 years ago. Do I want my students to be intrinsically motivated to spend two or three hours outside of class studying for every one hour in class? Sure, but I think that's a bit of a pipe dream. I'll put some points on the line and hopefully get the same behavior.


Comments that contribute to the discussion are always welcome! Please note that spammy comments whose only purpose seems to be to direct traffic to a commercial site will be deleted.