Participation and Grading: a guide

Last week in our department meeting, Mark Bobrow walked us through some of the issues around attendance, participation, and grades. As you may know, as of summer 2018, CUNY has declared itself a “non-attendance-taking institution,” meaning that we faculty are not allowed to grade on the basis of attendance (or, more to the point, failing to attend). On the face of it, this sounds ridiculous: why can’t we penalize, or even fail, students who neglect to attend more than X number of sessions without a legitimate excuse?

Leaving aside the arguments, pro and con, regarding the policy change, we faculty still have a lot of latitude to ensure that students are required, not just to attend, but to participate actively in class, in order to succeed in the course. It’s called the good old “attendance” grade. On the basis of Mark’s excellent presentation and the vibrant discussion that followed, this change offers an opportunity for us to think more deeply about the participation grade, which can often be something of an afterthought in comparison for grades for exams and high-stakes writing and research assignments. What follows are some ideas gleaned from Mark’s work with English 220 instructors, with a little gloss from me.

First off, what is “participation”? Mark’s materials, which we are all welcome to appropriate for our own syllabi, define terms precisely and usefully:

In English 220, in-class participation includes:

  • contributing to class discussion by responding to instructors’ and classmates’ questions, posing questions, and commenting on relevant aspects of the subject;
  • attentive listening to classmates and instructor;
  • contributing to group activities, presentations, and peer review sessions;
  • bringing to class discussion questions and reading those questions aloud as part of full class and smaller group activities;
  • undertaking in-class writing assignments and quizzes;
  • meeting in conference with the instructor on those occasions when the instructor has set aside class time for individual conferences;
  • bringing to class assigned formal response papers and reading from them when called upon to do so either as part of class discussion or a group activity;
  • posting to class discussion boards and/or blogs when assigned to do so.

Because participation occurs in real time during class sessions, students may not make up class discussion, but as an alternative students may be given the opportunity to write a short response that demonstrates understanding of the material/discussion missed during the session. At the instructor’s discretion, students who miss in-class writing assignments may be asked to make them up. As always, students who miss class due to religious observance or documented medical reasons should be given ample time to make up the work upon returning to class.

The participation grade is determined both by the quantity and quality of participation. Failure to submit written work (including quizzes) or to contribute to verbal activities will adversely affect students’ participation grade.

What I admire about this language is the emphasis on the importance of all activities in class. There’s a tendency for students to think that everything that’s not “on the test,” as it were, is inert and not subject to evaluation and, thus, less worth one’s attention or even attendance. Here, Mark makes it clear that everything that unfolds in the class hour/s is subject to evaluation. Second, note Mark’s emphasis on incorporating activities and work into the class hour that are subject to evaluation, giving a material basis for the participation grade, or part of it at least. Added bonus: folding in low-stakes writing assignments, like spontaneous bits of writing, quizzes, and the like, is just sound pedagogy and develops students’ skills in crucial areas.

Mark continues his documentation for 220 instructors with suggestions regarding how to weight participation and how to communicate expectations to students:

It is up to you to determine what percentage of the grade to devote to participation, and how to calculate the participation grade. It is important, though, that students know if you weight some aspects of participation more than others, so please consider a participation rubric or description. I provide one such sample description below, deliberately vague in some areas (such as “meaningful participation”) to provide flexibility. Also below are some notes on ways to calculate and account for participation grades, but you should not feel bound by them:

  1. Make everything but the formal close reading paper, research paper, and final exam part of the participation grade. For example, if you count the research paper for 35% of the final grade, a mid-semester close reading paper for 20%, and the final for 5%, the participation grade would account for 40% of the student’s grade. You might then weight some activities more than others. For example, formal response papers (including precis) and in-class writing may count for half the participation grade (20% of the overall final grade), and contributions to class discussion, in-class writing, and group work for the other half. Or you might simply approach the participation grade holistically.
  2. Include only in-class activities in the participation grade and have a separate category for response papers.

Finally, here is the rubric Mark offers for 220 instructors (and us) to use or adapt:

Here is a draft description of an English 220 Participation Rubric:

A: meaningful contribution to nearly all class discussion, which may include reading passages aloud and reading from in-class writing and/or writing prepared for class; full or nearly full participation in all group activities, including peer review; completion of all or nearly all in-class writing activities, including quizzes, with satisfactory results; completion of all response papers with at least satisfactory results.

B: meaningful contribution to at least 75% of all class discussions, which may include reading passages aloud and reading from in-class writing and/or writing prepared for class; full participation in group activities, including peer review; completion of nearly all in-class writing activities, including quizzes, with satisfactory results; completion of all response papers with no less than satisfactory results.

C: meaningful contribution to at least 50% of class discussions, which may include reading passages aloud and reading from in-class writing and/or writing prepared for class; nearly full participation in group activities, including peer review; completion of nearly all in-class writing activities, including quizzes, with mostly satisfactory results; completion of all response papers with mostly satisfactory results.

D: inconsistent meaningful contribution to class discussions; inconsistent participation in group activities, including peer review; completion of at least 60% of in-class activities, including quizzes, with some unsatisfactory results; completion of at least 60% of response papers with mostly unsatisfactory results.

F: little or no meaningful contribution to class discussions; little or no participation in group activities, including peer review; failure to complete at least 60% of in-class writing activities including quizzes, with mostly unsatisfactory results on those completed; failure to complete at least 60% of response papers, with mostly unsatisfactory results on those completed.

This assumes holistic participation grading. Separate categories could also be weighted.

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