The Participation Trophy

When I sent off syllabi to search committees this past year, I included my grading rubric on each. I assigned percentages for written work, oral presentations, and exams, but not for class participation. I’ve never actually taught a class that didn’t have a participation grade; such grades are pretty common and perhaps universal. But I’ve found (in my limited experience) that participation grades are a pain in the neck.

Why? Students wishing to protest a grade they don’t like often latch onto it when they turn up in my office requesting (for example) that their B+s be raised to A-s. The dialogue will usually go something like this:

Student: I don’t like my grade.
Rebecca: That’s too bad. I’m not sure what I can do to help you like your grade, though.
Student: But I came to all the classes.
Rebecca: You did, but rarely did you speak.
Student: I spoke on October 3! I made two preplanned comments on Machiavelli!
Rebecca: Two comments on Machiavelli do not an A- make!
Student: I never turned in anything late!
Rebecca: No, you didn’t.
Student: I showed up for the exam!
Rebecca: Yes, you did.
Student: I was always there! Why can’t I have an A-? I’ll never get into law school now!

So you see, the participation grade is so hard to quantify (what are two comments made in October about Machiavelli really *worth*?) that it becomes a vehicle for students who think that merely showing up and sitting in class somehow earns them a good (or better) grade in class. I was strongly reminded of this today when I read James Cox’s essay at Inside Higher Ed:

…faculty members indicated that some students feel a sense of entitlement and that their attendance and meager participation and performance should be rewarded with at least a C in a course. I spoke up and termed this the youth soccer phenomenon. Although this is a broad generalization, some college students have never been challenged and want a trophy (a grade of C) for minimal effort and work because they were on the team (came to class).

In my case, students often want a grade of A- for merely having “been on the team.”

So I saw designing my own syllabi as an opportunity to experiment with ways of raising expectations for students. My syllabi don’t include percentages for participation, but they do contain this warning:

“You will note that there is no percentage for participation. This does not mean, however, that your presence in class and active involvement in our discussions is not expected. Many parts of your work rely on collaboration with your classmates, and so unexcused absences harm everyone in the class, not just you. I take attendance at each class; after three unexcused absences your final grade, based on the percentages listed above, will fall by one letter grade. Your grade will fall by another letter grade for each unexcused absence after the third. That means even the perfect A student will fail the course after six absences. So, the moral of the story is…come to class!”

I do of course allow exceptions for appropriately documented illnesses and personal emergencies, or college-sponsored events (such as travel for debate tournaments or athletics).

My brother, a college junior, pronounced this provision “kinda harsh.” And, maybe it is. I’m honestly not sure that it would work in practice. Students have become so used to being rewarded just for showing up and warming a chair that the idea that coming to class and actively participating is expected but not actively rewarded might result in rebellion. On the other hand, it might prepare college students for life beyond the soccer field and the classroom. After all, can you imagine telling your boss that you shouldn’t be fired for not being prepared for the big meeting, because at least you showed up?


5 thoughts on “

  1. I need to read this more carefully, but I give a general run-down of what the class participation grades mean. So, if they show up EVERY day, and just take notes, that’s a C. If they answer/ask questions, it goes up. If they distract, it goes down. And it’s 20-30% of the grade. With the baseline of showing up = C if I ask them to rate their own participation, they usually see I’m quite generous.

  2. I always use participation grades, but like ADM, I specify that participation requires talking, and making *useful* contributions. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the “after X unexcused absences your grade goes down X” policy, but my biggest problem w/ it is that students kept asking me how many unexcused absences they had left – it drove me nuts! So now I just say that their grade may go down, at my discretion. (And I explain that “at my discretion” means that I can cut someone who, say, ended up in the hospital for weeks, some slack!)I will say that I’ve never once had a student complain about a participation grade – this may just mean that I’m an easy grader, but I think it’s really about 1) having so much discussion that I think it’s pretty clear how they’re doing and 2) student culture. I suspect you’re dealing w/ a rather unique student culture! Honestly, if someone tried to tell me that 2 pre-planned comments on Machiavelli in October merited an A-, I’d laugh at them. Actually, I’d probably point to some examples of good class participation and ask how I can give them (complainer) an A- and still be fair to the people who really did a good job. That, and asking students to rate themselves/others might be useful – I’ve seen interesting methods of having students comment on who’s made good comments each day, though I haven’t tried it myself, yet.

  3. I’m hearing a lot from people who have creative ways of grading participation. I’m interested to hear more! I’m not sure how I’ll handle this when I actually teach my own courses; I’m still leaning towards an experiment in which participation is not part of the grade. But as someone pointed out to me, how do I then encourage participation without rewarding students for it? Fair point…

  4. I used to have the standard “participation” grade on my syllabi, but found them to be impossible to deal with appropriately, and therefore dropped them years ago.The only class in which I require participation is my Political Theory class where it counts for 25% of their grade. I literally keep track of how many comments they make on a grid. It mostly ends up being a quantity thing, although I make some notes on quality as well. I have noticed that those who provide the quantity either start with quality, or learn it as we go.What amazes me is that there are students who willingly sit silent knowing that a quarter of their grade is slipping away before their very eyes.Of course, my classes are all on the small side (the Theory class runs 35-40), so this is possible.I gave up on penalizing absences a while back as well, noting that, on balance, they do a good job of self-penalizing on that count. I do give a bonus for perfect attendance (and I mean perfect). Those folks tend not to need it, however. Still, I have noticed the carrot working more effectively than the stick in that regard.

  5. I like the idea of making showing up=C. I’m TAing a class in which showing up for discussion section=A. It makes it very difficult to get any meaningful discussion out of the students. Frankly, its a waste of my Friday afternoons. I’m trying to improve the quality of the discussions, but its difficult to movitate the students when they feel entitled to an A for just showing up!

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