Author: Susan D’Agostino
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Students who enroll in William Altman’s psychology classes at the State University of New York’s Broome Community College sometimes find themselves hooked up to an electroencephalograph—a device that measures electrical activity of the brain—while driving simulated cars either with or without texting. Others in the class participate by monitoring the device’s output or the number of accidents or driving errors both for drivers who text and those who refrain.
“You don’t get the excitement of students driving at 75 miles an hour into a parked fire truck if they’re not in the room,” Altman said. At the end of every class, Altman asks students to reflect in writing about what they learned or what confused them that day. Those who are present and submit the reflection receive participation credit that, over the semester, typically constitutes “a couple percent” of their course grade—an amount Altman deems negligible but effective. That is, students generally comply, as “most of them can’t do math and getting any points is good.”
“I’m not going to tell a student they have to show up,” Altman said. “I’m just going to say, ‘Here are the consequences or benefits of showing up or not showing up. You get to decide.’”
But nearly three years into the pandemic, many faculty members have begun to question long-accepted notions of whether participation in live class activities—and the attendance it often requires—should count in a grade at all. Many instructors now teach both in person and online, which has made some aware that students may succeed in accomplishing learning goals without showing up.
Some, with heightened awareness of student struggles, see participation barriers that are not evenly distributed across student populations. In response, they have dropped policies that award points for participation. At the same time, they still value engagement, which is why many are experimenting with alternative incentives to participate. This incentivize-but-don’t-grade-participation effort is a delicate matter—and strikes at the core, in both good and bad ways, of what drives many professors.
On one hand, they are innovating to support success for all students. On the other, some are reckoning with realizations that their earlier grading policies may have been biased.
“When we changed to online, students who had been in my classroom, but from whom I’d never heard anything, were suddenly some of the most engaged in my Zoom classes,” said Liz Norell, associate professor of political science at Chattanooga State Community College, adding that she no longer grades class participation. Norell now recalls that she had been reluctant to speak in class as an undergraduate at George Washington University, given that she was from a “really small town” in Arkansas.
“I feel terrible for the 15 years of teaching that I did before the pandemic when I was unintentionally, but almost certainly, doing harm to students.”
A (Very) Short History of Participation
For a long time, “participation” in college classrooms was synonymous with “speaking in class.” Some students were moved to participate by an intrinsic desire to engage. Others were motivated by a line on a syllabus indicating that participation counted in their grade. Either way, those who made a habit of raising their hands and speaking when called on earned points—sometimes described as “free” points, because studying and tests, and learning, for that matter, were never part of this piece of the grade calculation equation.
“Participation,” of course, can mean more than simply “speaking in class.” Small group activities like Altman’s electroencephalograph experiment, polls facilitated by technology tools, peer review, in-class writing reflections and collaborative annotation all count.
Students who participate in class achieve better academic results than their peers who do not participate, according to numerous peer-reviewed studies. For this reason, many instructors incentivize participation by rewarding it with good grades. At the same time, faculty members must consider whether participation is vital to achieving a course’s learning goals.
“It’s really tough to learn how to do phlebotomy if you haven’t got some vein to stick something into,” Altman said. “In those cases, it should be part of the grade, but it should not be just showing up. It should be something that you do.”
But there’s the rub. Faculty members seeking to disentangle attendance, participation and grading often find themselves asking fundamental questions about what constitutes learning. Subsequently, many are now asking important questions about which students are centered in the classroom.
“Do we incentivize participation?” Laurel Bastian, faculty consultant at the University of Oregon, asked, adding that the answer should be affirmative, given research indicating that it boosts student achievement. “But that’s a different question than ‘Should we grade participation?’”
Barriers to Participation
After some professors’ aha moment regarding student engagement during the early pandemic shift to emergency remote teaching, many began thinking more deeply about class participation barriers.
Students from historically marginalized backgrounds, those from underresourced schools and those who are first-generation college students may be unaware of unwritten class-participation rules. Such rules may include when or how to join a discussion, what merits comment, and how to manage disagreement or debate. Even some who understand the rules may have trouble complying. For example, some neurodivergent students may lack an ability to gauge whether they have spoken too much or too little, according to Bastian.
“The way we have historically thought of participation—as you participate by speaking in class—may be inherently ableist,” she said.
Still other students, including those who know how to and want to participate, may face barriers to being in a physical classroom.
“Some students who are single parents have very unstable schedules … Or perhaps they can’t afford the transportation to get to class on a regular basis. It’s not because they’re lazy,” Robert Talbert, professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, said. “It’s not fair to put attendance on the same level as actual assessments of learning.”
Others speculate that some personalities have an advantage over others.
Participation points “really only benefit the people who are naturally extroverted or confident in group settings,” Norell said.
Faculty members seeking to deepen their understanding of participation barriers sometimes ask students for insight. That is, instead of guessing, they survey their students about past participation experiences, Bastian said. That way, they gain actionable insight from their enrolled students, including those with lived experiences in which their voices have not been valued.
Students have asked for opportunities to contribute to collaborative online documents either in place of or in addition to in-person discussions. Others have requested that instructors post discussion questions before class. That way, they may prepare in advance, which ameliorates real or perceived judgment from their peers or instructor.
Removing participation points from the grading equation while still providing incentives for participation is a delicate matter. Those instructors who are innovating their policies and practices in real time appear focused on progress, not perfection.
Grading Practices in Flux
Binary notions of participation—“the student spoke in class” or “the student did not speak in class”—rely, in part, on attendance, a category for which many faculty resist awarding points.
“My main problem with attendance as a formal part of grading is it’s not valid data about what students have learned,” Talbert said. “It’s at best a proxy for engagement with the class, but there are other, better ways to measure engagement or a student’s [learning].”
Talbert warns that when participation is tied to attendance, faculty may be complicit in introducing “false positives” in their grade books. That is, a student who underperforms on true assessments of learning outcomes may compensate with attendance points. Meanwhile, another student with poorer attendance but better results on learning assessments may earn the same grade, despite a higher level of mastery of the course content.
“An employer should not have to look at a transcript and figure out what the student might or might not have learned, or sit there wondering, ‘How much of this is attendance?’” Talbert said.
Talbert still takes attendance, but not for grading purposes. Rather, when he notices that a student has missed a few classes in a row, he reaches out to the student to ask how they are.
“Every time this has happened, something legitimate has been going on in the student’s life that prevents them from coming to class,” Talbert said, adding that he connects students facing attendance barriers with resources, such as one who recently returned from medical leave after having attempted self-harm. “Students have incredibly complex lives we don’t even know about … Let’s just cool it with attendance as a grade.”
Norell’s decision no longer to grade class participation was born, in part, from reflecting on the goals her in-person and online political science classes share, including helping students understand the U.S. political landscape and where they fit into it, how and why to engage with the government, and how to engage in a civil conversation with those holding different views.
“If online students can get the learning in a fully asynchronous course, then … to be equitable, [in-person students] should be able to demonstrate that they’ve met the learning outcomes in ways that don’t require them to sit in a seat in my classroom,” Norell said. She understands that some students enrolled in face-to-face classes may decide midsemester that attending class is not critical to their learning.
Not every faculty member agrees.
“If you don’t need the student to come in, then why did you design a class where the student needs to come in?” Altman asked. “And if you’ve designed a class where the student does not need to come in, why are you there?” When one of his students is unable to be present, he arranges a remote option.
Though Altman awards points for participation, he seeks to ensure that the activity is authentic. When students arrive in his class, he asks them to respond in writing to a short prompt, such as, “It doesn’t matter what people think. What matters is why.”
“The idea is to get them away from … thinking about lunch or the fight they had with their friend or what they’re going to do later,” Altman said. “This gets them on track for what we want to talk about that day.” At the end of class, he asks them to reflect in writing about what they learned or what confused them in the day’s class. Students respond on the same paper across multiple classes—stapling on extra pages as needed—and Altman responds to their responses. The conversational give-and-take spread over months resembles a pen pal correspondence, Altman said.
But even those faculty who opt out of adding participation as a line item on the grading section of their syllabi, including Norell, find ways to sneak authentic participation opportunities into graded course assignments. For example, Norell requires students to interview someone with whom they disagree, which is a kind of participation, albeit outside the classroom. The goal of the assignment, which is graded, is to understand the person’s point of view without interjecting their own beliefs.
“When we have policies that require students to show up every time the classroom door is open and participate in some way that we decide as meaningful, we are asking them to pretend that anything going on in their life is not important while we are in charge,” Norell said of her pandemic-inspired reckoning with grading participation. “That serves to create distance between students and faculty members that can really be quite harmful. I don’t feel like we should go back to that in any way.”