Participation Counts for 20% of your Grade!

Class Participation

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

So I was watching a TED Talk by Amy Cubby, a professor and researcher at the Harvard Business School, and she said that “student participation counts for 50% 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% 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% 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.  It is the “act of taking part in something,” which implies that 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, or some subset of them, included above.  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 nonachievement 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 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.

7 comments on “Participation Counts for 20% of your Grade!

  1. Interesting post, something I’ll have to think about. But I must say, as an English teacher I realized a couple of years ago that I suddenly wasn’t okay with my quiet kids remaining quiet. As I began thinking about using a SBG system, it occurred to me that “discussion”–the ability to be heard and contribute and show leadership in meaningful conversation–is one of the most important skills that a thoughtful, literate adult can have.

    For years I had kids whose body language and test answers and written work showed engagement, but I almost never heard them speak. I was basically comfortable with this pattern and didn’t have any sort of “participation” component to my grade, though my comments at mid-semester usually included some sort of “I wish he would share his thoughts more often” type language. I now think these well-meaning comments were actually less fair–I was essentially saying “it’s not okay to be an introvert” without providing a clear rationale as to why.

    Now I’ve got “discussion” and “collaboration” spelled out as essential learnings, and I’m thinking about and working on how to clearly and consistently (and efficiently) assess these skills and provide feedback. My message to my students (I hope) is that it’s fine to be introverted (I’m a solid Meyers-Briggs “I” myself) except when it’s not–there are simply times when not being able to hold your own in meaningful discussion and collaboration is not a viable option.


    • Clark:

      Thanks for reading and responding to the post. I totally understand where you are coming from. And by the way, I do think it is important to give feedback on participation. I just think that participation as an essential learning should be treated in a more comprehensive way. I think we owe it to students to honor all types of participation AND encourage verbal participation from students who are reluctant to share in public. I would agree that verbal participation is one way of discovering what you know…by articulating it we learn about our depth of knowledge or our ability to express that knowledge. I guess I just don’t see that feedback counting in the academic achievement grade. Separate it out is my feeling. Susan Brookhart does a nice job of showing how to value it but not have it count in the academic grade.

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Let’s continue the dialogue and thinking about this important topic.


  2. I have considered myself an introvert most of my life so this post really resonated with me. Firtst, it made me remember all the times I felt practically discriminated against for being quiet. It wasn’t that I wasn’t participating. I just tend to reflect a bit before i speak. I am usually not the first voice to jump in and speak. For this reason, often I was (and sometimes still am) talked over because I am not great at jumping in conversations when people are rushing and not really listening and thinking. I don’t understand how people can really be reflective without pausing (and I am sure others may not understand my need for reflection. I actually felt like there was something ering with me as a child because I was the introvert with straight As but didn’t love speaking up in class. This post caused me to reflect on how our practices are often really just a reflection of our personality, not research. Extroverted teachers often count participation in this way because that is how they act/learn/communicate. I am an introvert and have never penalized a student for not being verbal enough because that is how I communicate. Beyond this, though, it brings me back to another burning question : what do grades REALLY mean? They sometimes seem like less of a measure of academic progress and more of a measure of who conformed best to the whims of a particular teacher.


    • Donya:

      This makes total sense. I think you expressed in a personal and eloquent way the very core of the issue. As you so aptly point out we tend to not be reflective before we speak out. Extroverts tend to speak out rather quickly, giving little time to pause and think. Again, I think you make a good point by suggesting that extroverted teachers tend to reward extroverted students OR at least value a student who is extroverted. I know we are throwing around these terms rather loosely but they do apply to the situation we are trying to understand. The real task of a teacher, as Clark points out in his comment, is to be objective and respond to a student fairly and thoughtfully regardless of their personality. I really think this idea we are discussing is very important for our students. As teachers, we need to be more award of our grading practices and what goes into constructing a students’ grade.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your personal story.



  3. As a high school mathematics teacher, I believe strongly that all students need to participate in classroom discussions, activities and board work without counting it as a grade. Beyond being shy, I have found in my math classes that many students do not participate because they do not have confidence in themselves and their understanding of the material. Others are concerned that all eyes will be on them, and if they make a mistake or give a wrong answer they feel mortified. Some students have even had a distressing experience in another class or earlier in their academic career where they were made fun of and teased for not having the correct answer.

    Grades should be based on knowledge and understanding of a specific topic, not if they continually raise their hand in class. Some students are outgoing, and others are introverted. It does not mean one student is smarter than the other. What it does mean is that, during the course of the school year as an educator, it is my job to help the student want to become a more active participant in classroom activities. I do this in many different ways. First, I make sure my class is a safe zone where no one is ever made fun of for making a mistake. I set the tone from day one. Than, in the beginning of the year when students are asked to work problems on the board I have four or five students at one time at the board so no one feels pressured by being the only one. I also tell students from day one that every student must go to the board at least once a week. Next, if I still have someone who is embarrassed or too shy to go to the board, I let him, or her know that I will check their work and answer for the problem to make sure it is correct. Then they can write their problem and answer on the board. I also group students together to work on one problem and after each new problem a different member must go to the board to show their results. So far my efforts have been successful. I do feel the more a student participates the quicker they understand a topic, and the quicker I can see what they are doing wrong.

    If a teacher feels strongly that they need to use a participation grade to get students more involved I hope they will use it as a reward only, possibly towards extra credit. The other way would be to use a broader definition of class participation as discussed in the article.



    • Halley:

      I think your comments are exactly on point. It sounds to me from your comment that you are very aware of the needs of your students. “Grades should be based on the knowledge and understanding of a specific topic” is a viewpoint that most experts would strongly agree with. As you point out, you value and expect participation but you manage that differently trying to help each student find his or her voice. I applaud your efforts and hope you will continue to share with others how you achieve this goal in your classroom.



  4. Bob, I agree that we should continue to advocate for and practice with the disaggregation of grades and feedback domains. I could imagine a participation “dashboard” that provides evidence and feedback according to attribute/activity like you name in your list of various participation clues. I would add that making thinking visible in other ways should “count” too: http://itsaboutlearning.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/changed-what-if-we-empowered-the-introverts-before-trying-to-change-them-60-60-60-8/

    Thanks for this thinking and advocacy.


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