Assessing Participation

Many of us list a category called “class participation” in the grading systems on our syllabi. In this era of carefully articulated SLOs and grading rubrics, that heading might be code for “I need to protect a little subjectivity in determining final grades.”  It’s natural to want to put a finger on the scale to help the student who made the extra effort to revise the assignment she botched that week when her grandmother died (it happens!), or to reign in the student who has accumulated a thousand extra credit points but only phones in the regular assignments.  If the touch is light enough, I would defend that practice.  But fairness and good pedagogy oblige us to think about what we really mean by class participation, and how we measure it.

Not surprisingly, there are rubrics available; check out this one from a recent post at The Scholarly Teacher. But you can develop your own system for assessing student participation pretty simply, once you think though what types of involvement are really important to student learning in your course.  Coming to class regularly? Smiling and nodding during lecture? Connecting reading with issues raised in class? Engaging others’ ideas? Once you inventory what you really want students to do (and why), you can develop a simple three- or-four-point scale that can be multiplied to reflect the appropriate weight in your grading scheme.  Maybe regular attendance and not being disruptive gets you a one, while a four requires evidence of preparation, regular contributions, and demonstrated listening skills.

And thinking about how to assess participation might prompt us to think about how to enhanceparticipation. For instance, must participation be verbal? Cultural and personality traits can make jumping into a lively class discussion extremely difficult for some students, who might nonetheless be completely intellectually engaged and have good ideas to contribute. Frequent mid-class quick-writes or anonymous index card responses—which you can read selections from or have them swap and respond to—can offer quiet students an opportunity to engage the material and each other without saying a word. (For easy assessment, you can collect any of these that you have asked them to put names on, stick them in a folder, and then simply count them at the end of the semester as one measure of participation. Very helpful for grading class participation when you haven’t learned all 85 names.)

However you measure student participation, it’s good practice to let them in on it.  Share the rubric or set of criteria you’ll be using, and explain why it matters.


*Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.