Ditching the class participation grade

I have written before about my struggles with grading in general, especially with grades that don’t tell much about a student’s learning.  I started my career using a school-wide grading schema with 5 categories, each making up 20% of a student’s quarterly grade: Homework, Class work, Projects, Tests/Quizzes, and Class Participation.  It seemed sensible enough, and it worked okay at first. I’ve since tweaked the categories and weight of each one to better suit my class, and I’m half-way happy with them.  The one I’m grappling with right now is that classic, vague, class participation grade.

Just what is a class participation grade?  How is it calculated?  I’ll come clean and say that I’ve mostly been making mine up.  I do this based on how frequently a student contributes to class discussions, lessons, and group work, and I include my perception of the quality of those contributions.  Class Participation is also influenced by how frequently the same student disrupts lessons, discussions, and group work.

I recall a teacher telling me that in his school, a student walks into any classroom with a 75% for class participation.  He or she can either increase the grade by participating positively, or lose points by misbehaving.  Some teachers keep intricate tally charts during class of how many times students raise their hand to speak and how many times they interrupt.  Some teachers say all students start with 100%, but lose a point every time they interrupt a lesson.  Still, what do any of these grades tell you about a student’s learning?  What is the objective here?

Let’s consider two students.  Student A is generally quiet in class.  He almost never raises his hand to participate, nor does he interrupt lessons or discussions.  Sometimes he appears to be paying attention; other times he seems to be daydreaming.  He earns a class participation grade of 75.  Student B participates frequently in discussions and lessons; however, she often forgets to raise her hand and calls out.  On occasion, student B also strikes up a conversation with a classmate, disrupting a lesson.  She also earns a class participation grade of 75.

If the purpose of having a class participation grade is to promote order in the classroom, there are many other, probably more effective strategies to improve students’ behavior, besides grading individual students on a quarterly basis in a somewhat random and convoluted way.  But if the objective is really to teach and assess a student’s ability to make meaningful spoken contributions to class discussions and group work, then why don’t we teach and measure this as we would any other learning objective?

During an English Department meeting early this year, while working on a vision statement for our department, my colleagues and I found ourselves looking to the state standards which emphasize reading, writing, and speaking as the areas covered by English Language Arts classes.  I thought, “Hey, one of my graded categories is reading and another is writing.  Why don’t I have a graded category for speaking?” And now, as I rip apart my less than useful practice of making up class participation grades, it occurs to me that I should just get rid of it, and create a new category for speaking.  It makes me a little nervous for some reason (change…? Will something be lost?), but it makes more sense the more I write it out.

I have many assignments that are designed to build and assess students’ oral language skills, and even rubrics that make explicit what’s being graded.  Yet I’ve struggled with which category to place them in!  So now they have a home, and my grading is more aligned with ELA standards.  I still need to figure out a manageable way to assess students’ participation in lessons…suggestions welcome!

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