Class participation grades hard to judge, sometimes unfair

October 23, 2010 — by Cecilia Hollenhorst and Alex Ju

In a classroom, there are always the students who constantly talk, the students with hands shooting up to answer every question and the students who shy away from even the idea of standing in front of the class. To fix this imbalance, many teachers choose to use a participation grade. Although scoring participation can encourage students to engage in discussions, it is often harmful to the classroom overall.

Participating for points can be disruptive to other students’ learning experiences. Students who feel forced to participate solely to improve their grades usually fail to actually bring insightful comments to the table. The drive to receive a high grade can induce pointless questions that waste class time, eliminating opportunities for those who genuinely want to learn.

Many teachers, particularly in English, foreign language and social studies, have a participation element to their grading. With the value of this section varying from 5 percent to as high as 15 percent, participation can have a significant impact a student’s grade. However, despite its sizable influence on a student’s marks, it is hard to determine an exact system of measurement.

The grading of class participation tends to be ambiguous. For instance, it is nearly impossible to grade insight objectively. In addition, simply recording the number of times a person participates fails to capture the nature of what exactly was said.

Such logic fails to consider the different learning styles of different students. Just because a student is unwilling or unable to speak in class does not always show a lack of care, since all students function in different ways. For example, for some students it takes a period of time for the information to register, and by the time they have conceived something to say, the teacher has moved on to new material or another student has raised her hand.

Many teachers believe that students cannot truly understand material unless they are able to explain it aloud. While this may be true in world languages that require specific pronunciation training, it is not the case in subjects such as English and history where a student’s knowledge can easily be displayed in written form.

Class discussion is necessary for an effective, engaging class environment, and many genuinely talkative and open students will ask and respond to questions unprompted. However, for shyer students, verbal participation can be stressful. Participation should be formatted in such a way that both confident and reserved students can excel. The opportunity to participate should be presented but not mandatory. Students should not be thrown into the ocean of participation to either sink or swim.

In some classes, points are deducted from participation because of absences, even those that are excused. Although these teachers often allow students to regain lost participation points outside of class, the system forces students to choose between attending class while sick and losing points while staying at home. It is already difficult for students to keep up with work when returning from an illness and many cannot make up both tests and participation points within the allotted time after returning to school.

Conversely, some teachers tweak participation grades to bump a students score a letter grade, such as a B+ to an A-. Such adjusting is unfair to the students who put in extra study time and do well on tests to achieve the same grade. The participation category of grades leaves too much room for a teachers’ favoritism to show through, especially when a portion of the grade is dependent on just the teacher’s opinion of students’ behavior in class. In addition, students who do study and put in an incredible amount of effort into their schoolwork may find themselves with sub par participation grades, which discredits the actual effort they put into understanding the material.

While necessary for learning in world languages, verbal participation is not essential for all students in subjects such as math and history. It should be assessed in a more balanced manner so that all students, whether shy or social, can succeed equally.

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