Encouraging and grading participation, preparation, and engagement in a class

Hello all. Time to get back to some substantive posting, now that the semester is *almost* over here in Rust Belt. I’ve got two more classes to teach this week, then a final to give and grade, and a set of grad student papers to grade, and I’m done for the school year! Huzzah!

Anyway, calculating and tallying some final grades in my classes got me to thinking about how and why I grade participation/preparation/engagement in my classes, and why I run them the way I do, with so much of the burden to “bring it” on the students. But this semester I was also reminded of how I really need to be more transparent with the students about why I do this and how it benefits them, and I need to give clearer instructions in what is and isn’t productive participation. In some of my upper division classes where I have a rather complicated system of short assignments that are specifically geared towards participation, I have equally detailed handouts on the do’s and don’t’s of participation, and on what counts, how it’s scored, etc. Although I think my gen-ed classes would be overwhelmed by such a document (and also would never read it), I think I might use an adapted form there.

But first, let me tell you what I do, why I do it, and how I grade it and see what you think. Partly because I came up through a grad school department with HUGE survey classes run as lectures with discussion, I got a lot of training in running discussions as add-ons to “content delivery” in the lectures, and I got used to running my classrooms as discussions. But more important, I saw that a lot of the core skills that students learned and *retained* from those survey classes were gained either from what we did in section or from the papers they wrote (usually seeking one-on-one guidance from us TAs), which the TAs advised and then graded. So there was a clear if tacit connection between discussion section and assessment. (There were usually prof-designed final exams, too, but they always seemed secondary to the papers. And even there, it was the TAs who ran review sessions and taught students *how* to do those exams well.) This is not a charge against the engaging professors who ran the lectures — it’s really more about the lecture form itself.

But when I was in grad school, I was working with a population of students who were MUCH more willing to talk, to try, to throw something at the wall and see if it sticks, than are my current students. They were also really freakin’ driven to come to office hours for extra help. We used to have lines snaking down the hallway of students waiting to see the survey course TAs. But here at RBU, not so much. Polite, reticent, midwestern, working class — whatever the explanation, I don’t get as many lively conversations here as I did in grad school, unless I prod with carrots, sticks, and tasks. (Although, as I mentioned on Facebook a few weeks back, the general ed students — the *non* English majors — are more willing to talk about literature than the English majors are. Theory: less is at stake for them.) So that’s one of the reasons why I grade it, to give an *incentive* for participating.

Over time, though, I’ve refined it from a mere “say *something*” grade (which just unfairly rewards natural extroverts, some of whom talk just to talk) to a “you contributed to the value of this class for yourself and others” grade (which still leaves out the really shy folks a bit) to a “you’ve been actively engaged in this class on a regular basis and may also have contributed to the value of it” grade. Here’s why — and then below, I’ll tell you how. As I said above, I learned early on that students learn from discussion and active engagement, and I don’t have to tell *you* that. Talking through things is a great way to learn, even if you say something off the wall at first. Talking can also be full of blather, so it gives me an opportunity to rein in the kind of flabby, off-topic free-association that students sometimes give into when interpreting a text for the first time — so I can teach them not to do that in their written work, where they’re graded more for *how* they express themselves and their arguments. Or, I can urge them to be more specific, to give examples, to *show* me in the text — things I’m likely to write in the margins of papers if they don’t practice avoiding those pitfalls beforehand. All that counts in my book — it’s a conversational rough draft of thinking, and I want to value it as such. But what also counts is being visibly engaged in other, quieter ways: taking notes, listening and thinking (you can often tell by people’s expressions). And being prepared counts. I kind of slacked off on this in my gen-ed poetry class this semester, but at the start, I’d planned to note who had notes from their reading and preparation and who didn’t, but I *did* know when someone was trying to interpret something on the fly that they were reading for the first time. In some classes — for instance, my Old English class — not being prepared is more obvious (either you’ve translated that line or you haven’t!), but it’s noticeable in discussion, too. (And it’s especially noticeable if I start class with in-class writing based on the reading, something I need to do more often!)

What doesn’t count, as far as I’m concerned, is bs and posturing (OMG, do *not* say, “I haven’t done the reading, but…” to me or make it obvious in other ways that that’s the case), or talking just to score points, or monopolizing the conversation. Or interrupting and blurting things out before other people have had a chance to process and contribute. I’m a muller myself, so I want to make room for mullers. Plus, I’m losing my hearing, and blurters and interrupters make it harder for me to hear/process what other people are saying, so they’re essentially disrupting someone else’s contribution and learning. And lately I’ve been getting a lot of students who just want to restate facts or share some random trivia from the text that they remember or read elsewhere or that’s only even vaguely relevant. I need to make clearer, in the nicest way possible, that that’s not really productive participation, that it’s not interpretative enough. I say in “the nicest way,” because I suspect a lot of these guys — and they are mostly men — may be on the autism spectrum or something. I know they can’t change entirely if that’s the case, but I need to make room for the productive “thinking through” kind of participation I want, and so need to get them to dial it back as best as they can.

And that’s what it’s really about for me — the “thinking through” — and why I work so hard to encourage students to come to class with some nascent ideas and to develop them more in class. It’s not about brownie points or being charming or getting attention. But I think I need to make that *all* clearer to the students, that what counts is *productive* participation and engagement. And I need to make clearer to them that it’s OK to get something wrong or say something wacky — better in discussion than in a paper or on an exam. About half way through the semester in one of my classes this year, there was a moment in class, something someone said, that kept me thinking about a poem all weekend after the class. And so the next week I told them that, and used it as an example of how their *classmates’* comments, too, matter, and can be spurs to their own thinking. I need to say such things early and often, to make clear how it all matters to them and their learning — and hence their grades. I also need to make clear what’s *not* productive because — oh my! — the last three semesters running I’ve had some of those blurty, oddball, non-stop talkers in every one of my darn classes and they eventually drive everyone nuts to a greater or lesser degree, and that’s just not good for anyone, including them. And I think some students think that participation is some kind of zero-sum game — that if they’re not talking at all times, they’re losing points or something.

But that’s not how I grade it. I actually have a very generous system, but you’d be surprised at how many people blow it. If you come to class, assuming you don’t do something negative to *lose* the points (e.g., putting your head down on your desk and going to sleep, at which point, you might as well not be there), and assuming you don’t do something to prove you haven’t actually come prepared, then you get 2.5 points. Then, if you engage productively (by any of the ways mentioned above, including the quiet kinds) — and once is all it takes — you get another point. I generally have 30 class meetings a semester, so a person can actually earn an A+ in participation and preparation. A person can also miss three classes (absences are zeroes) and still get an A. Most students who blow the grade do so by excessive, unexcused absences. I give ‘make-up’ points for visiting me in office hours, too, and talking about the material. In a lot of my classes I lay out this system in the same handout that details the do’s and don’t’s. Again, I think that might be too much in a gen ed class, but I think I need to give students a clearer understanding that yes, they really are being graded. (Oh, and btw, at the end of every class, I *immediately* enter those scores. And yes, my classes are small enough that I can remember distinctly who talked and what they said — or who left early or interrupted constantly or did something else distracting.)

I have assignments that foster engagement, too — discussion questions, ungraded but required homework (as in Old English), close reading exercises, etc. — but I still find it important and worthwhile to have a separate participation and preparation grade, and in many classes, it’s a high percentage of the grade. At another institution I might not give it such a big role, but at RBU, where so many of the students don’t know how to “do” college because they’re first-generation students, and don’t understand that discussion is practice for papers and essay exams, or that class isn’t just a passive content-delivery system (in the humanities, our classes have been “flipped” for a long time), I think it’s an important and valuable part of the learning process. And students at my university are more likely to take something seriously if they get a grade for it.

So, do you grade some form of participation, preparation, or engagement. If so, how do you grade it? What do you do to encourage it? Or, are you virulently opposed to the idea of a participation grade (I know some people are)?

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