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Participation Counts For 20 Percent Of Your Grade

Photo provided by Robert Ryshke
Photo provided by Robert Ryshke

Southern Education Desk blogger, Robert Ryshke, explores the concept of class participation as a factor in a student's achievement grade. Robert Ryshke is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA. The Center for Teaching designs and implements professional development programs for faculty at Westminster, Drew Charter School and other Atlanta area schools. Prior to being in Atlanta, he was the Head of School at The Meadows School in Las Vegas, NV. His career in education spans 31 years, having started as a science teacher at the Trinity School in New York City in 1979. Read his blog below.

Why do teachers count class participation as part of a student’s achievement grade? Is there a direct correlation between how much a student participates in a class and academic achievement? Is there a direct correlation between the quality of a student’s level of participation in a class and academic achievement? In the case of the first question, I don’t know of any research that would suggest any correlation at all. With regard to the second question, there is probably some correlation, but I highly doubt it is definitive.

I was watching a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy, a professor and researcher at the Harvard Business School, and she said, “Student participation counts for 50 percent of a student’s grade.” I was shocked. I guess if you are an introvert at Harvard’s Business School you might be in trouble if you can’t put aside your reticence to share your ideas in public. But it got me to thinking about this idea of student participation and grading. Is it fair to count participation as part of a student’s academic achievement?

Scenario 1: Student has a B+ on academic work in a class and participates with regularity. She earns an A for participation. Since participation counts for 20 percent of a student’s grade, the teacher gives the student an A-.

Scenario 2: Student has an A- on academic work in a class and rarely participates. She earns a C for participation. Since participation counts for 20 percent of a student’s grade, the teacher gives the student a B+.

What are your thoughts about fairness in these two situations? While fabricated, I think as educators we know these are highly possible situations.

In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and her engaging TED Talk, Quiet: The Power of Introverts, she points out that people who do not freely speak at a moment’s notice can still be highly engaged in an activity. Their engagement might take on a different form than the person compelled to raise their hand and share their thoughts verbally. Introverts might have a different way of expressing their interest and level of engagement. Check out a previous blog entry I wrote on the topic of introverts and extroverts in school, Rethinking the Idea of School Promoting Extroverts.

Here is a basic question I would pose to any teacher:

How do you define participation or what are the all-inclusive qualities represented by good participation?

It seems to me if we answer this question honestly, we would come up with a list that includes many of the following (add your own):

- Body language indicating that the student is attentive to the teacher
- An active and inquisitive mind
- Oral contributions
- Thorough preparation for class
- Body language indicating that the student is attentive to classmates
- Offering good questions
- Responding to other students’ questions
- Expressing, verbally and non-verbally, a desire to learn
- Carrying on an internal dialogue about the topic
- Taking good notes in class

The Oxford Dictionary defines participation as: “The act of taking part in something.”

The point is that participation is a highly nuanced activity. The “act of taking part in something” implies there are many ways to take part in something other than talking. However, I would venture to say that the majority of teachers grade participation based on the quantity (and maybe quality) of a student’s verbal contributions. Doesn’t that put the introvert at a great disadvantage? I think it does.

I seriously doubt that teachers use a participation rubric including the 10 ideas included above, or some subset of them. In fact, I would say most teachers grade participation subjectively by assigning a grade to a student based on their observations and impressions of a student’s in-class verbal contributions. Is this sufficient or fair when we use the information in the high-stakes world of grading a student’s academic achievement in ways that follow the student after they leave school?

In her book, Grading and Learning: Practices that Support Student Achievement, Susan Brookhart strongly advocates that non-achievement factors, like effort and participation, should be reported but not graded as part of a student’s achievement.

Let’s support the growth of all students whether they are introverts or extroverts. I think it is time for us to broaden our understanding of how to report and evaluate student participation so that it is not included in a student’s achievement grade in any discipline. If we feel compelled to evaluate participation in our classes, then we owe it to our students to develop a more rigorous and inclusive protocol that takes into account the many ways in which a student could participate in class.