We all know faculty who do; often we do so ourselves. But overall, how many faculty grade participation? Would you guess a majority? What reasons justify our decisions to grade or not to grade participation? Those questions help get at our assumptions about participation, and then we can use survey research data like that collected by Susan Rogers to see how our beliefs relate to the facts. Specifically Rogers wanted to find out: (1) what percentage of instructors explicitly mention participation on the course syllabus, (2) what percentage of instructors explicitly grade participation, (3) what are the characteristics of courses in which participation is graded, and (4) what underlying attitudes instructors have about grading participation. (p. 12)
To answer those questions, she designed a survey, administered it, and collected data from 352 faculty at a large northeastern university. Faculty respondents had a range of teaching experience, although the majority were early-career teachers. The cohort included faculty in business, education, fine arts, liberal arts and humanities, math and sciences, social sciences, and communications and media.
The majority of these respondents, 82 percent, indicated that they did explicitly mention participation in the syllabus. And 62 percent said that participation was part of the students' grade. These results indicate that a group of faculty consider participation important but do not grade it. Those in this group strongly agreed with statements such as “A grade on participation is really just a grade on the student's personality,” “Grading participation disadvantages certain types of students and unfairly penalizes them,” “If I learned of a fair and reliable way to grade participation, I would make use of it in my classroom,” and “Participation should not be considered [a valid criterion] for a student's grade.” (p. 22) Comments responding to open-ended queries elaborated the view that forcing students to talk is counterproductive. If they do talk, their contributions are superficial and made to get points, not because they have something that adds to class discussion.
Analysis of the survey data also indicated that the grading of participation was not related to the level of the course or whether the course enrolled more or fewer than 25 students (data was not used from instructors teaching more than 50 students in a course). But the survey data did confirm that instructors in math and science courses are less likely to grade participation than are those teaching in other disciplines.
In contrast to those respondents who indicated that classroom participation was important, there was another group who expressed attitudes generally opposed to participation. They strongly agreed with statements such as “I generally prefer when students do not speak in class,” “I do not see much value in encouraging participation,” “I feel that students' participation actually gets in the way of learning,” “Student participation is likely to foster misconceptions among other students,” and “Too much student participation makes me personally uncomfortable.” (p. 22) And finally there was a group the researcher described as “pro participation.” Respondents in this group believed that participation was essential to learning. They strongly agreed with items describing the value of explaining something to others, that participation is relevant to how students will work when they are professionals, and that participation promotes learning and develops communication skills.
Descriptive research doesn't say what should be done, but it does help establish what is being done, and that allows us to put some perspective on what we do. It's also research that raises lots of questions about our assumptions and beliefs. It causes us to confront what we think, consider alternatives, and thoughtfully find our way to a role for participation consistent with our learning objectives for students.
Rogers, S. L. (2012). Calling the question: Do college instructors actually grade participation? College Teaching, 61 (1), 11-22.