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?