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Classroom Management: Should Participation Count?

Jordan Catapano

I recall a classmate by the name Marilyn. When our teacher would invite discussion, Marilyn’s hand would shoot straight into the air. When she was inevitably called on, she would share her thought, talking as though she was forming the thought as she went. I never minded her frequent contributions or interesting perspectives; in fact, I genuinely learned from her. I was content listening to Marilyn, and students in other classes like her, who seemed eager to participate while I patiently soaked in their words and added them to my own thinking. However, a disparity arose when grades were calculated: I tended to do more poorly in classes driven by classroom management that required “Student Participation” compared to my more vociferous peers. For me, the grading was what it was and I didn’t feel bad about it. Marilyn participated more and deserved the higher grade, right? But as I use classroom management now, and consider what are the best components for assessing student proficiency, I have to genuinely ask myself, “Should student participation count toward their grades?”

Classroom Management: It Should Not Count Toward the Grade

I know there are many teachers who may argue that student participation matters, and therefore it should matter in the grade as well. I agree that participation matters, but I am hesitant to include it as part of my overall grade for a student.

First, student participation tends to favor the Marilyns – the students who more comfortably engage in discussions in ways that teachers reward. While this rewards extroverted students, it tends to punish students for their quiet or introverted tendencies. In fact, it tends to make introversion look like some kind of deficiency that needs to be rooted out with a threat to a student’s grade. Instead of helping quieter students see their internal thinking as a strength, they feel chided for not being like someone else.

Second, student participation comes in many shapes and forms. What we often mean when it comes to participation is that students take part in open discussions in the classroom. However, we have to ask ourselves if we have clearly defined what constitutes “Student participation.” While some students might not comfortably participate in these class discussions, they might be dynamite in small group work, a powerhouse on a team-oriented task, a ready contributor to online forums, or a consistent participant in other class activities. We might pigeonhole the idea of “Participating” into a narrow field of what counts as participation, ultimately excluding other forms.

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Third, how are we tallying participation? I suppose there are different ways of doing this, most notably keeping a list of students beside us at all times so that whenever a student speaks up we can place a tally mark beside their name. This could easily prove distracting. But what if we miss a tally, or in our tallying miss the next student’s contribution? Keeping track of student participation seems like a well-meaning-but-flawed approach to accurately recording this complex task.

Fourth, students may feel compelled to talk just to talk, regardless of how valuable their statement may actually be. While students will learn that participation is valued, they will also be forced to admit that they have to share something just to earn credit, whether or not that something is worth being shared.

Fifth, giving participation a grade seems to say that other elements of communication such as listening – are not as important. By favoring one component of the learning process we seem dismissive of the others.

Finally, we have to ask ourselves what role participation plays in learning. I agree that all forms of participation are necessary in a dynamic, effective classroom. However, is participation the goal in our learning or a tool toward our learning? If it’s one of the specific learning outcomes identified by our course standards, then it may be reasonable to count participation as a grade. If participation is one of the tools that is an important asset toward the learning, then we might as well grade student use of other tools: How are their tech skills? Are they making eye contact when listening to others? Do they take notes in class? Can they effectively turn to the right page in the textbook on the first try? Participation is an important part of learning, but I do not believe that if a student’s grade is supposed to reflect their extent of proficiency towards a course’s learning standards, then participation is not any more essential to include than any other learning tool.

If You Have To Grade It, Here Are Some Ways to Do It

Education journalist Jessica Lahey has written about why she includes class participation as part of her students’ grades. She also, after publishing her article about it in The Atlantic, learned a great deal after receiving backlash and feedback from a wide range of respondents. “In the end, I still believe in the value of class participation, and it remains a part of the way I assess and evaluate my students’ understanding of class material, but I have engaged in a real effort to, as [Katherine] Schultz suggested, ‘rethink how we understand students’ silences’ and ‘remain cautious about labeling children as introverts, rather than understanding the larger contexts of how and why they choose to participate in certain ways.’”

Lahey, perhaps like you, still believes class participation is significant enough to be reflected in students’ grades. But she is committed to remaining reflective on the practice. Let us, too, remain reflective of how we assess student participation. Here are some thoughts on how we might perhaps best go about grading student participation, if we must.

1. Include clear standards of expectation. Some areas of student assessment are black and white; others are more subjective. Student participation is far more likely to be a subjective assessment based on the quality of student input, the size of the class, the individual expectations for different students, and the types of participation demonstrated. Subjective though it may be, try to make the standards and expectations as concrete as possible. Let students know from the outset what quality participation looks like and, since it’s being assessed, what the criteria are.

2. Give time for preparation. Some students thrive in spontaneous, informal discussions. But many others don’t. Prior to any given discussion or opportunity for graded participation, give students time to collect their thoughts and plan their contributions. This enables many students to think through what they want to say prior to having to expose that thinking to their classmates. It helps with both the quality of student contributions and the confidence with which students share them.

3. Make sure students understand participation as an important part of learning. It is essential here to talk about why you’ve chosen to assess their participation. If you include this reasoning alongside the specific grading criteria you’re establishing, then students understand their participation is more than just a requirement for a grade.

4. Give feedback and opportunity for growth and reflection. Participation is so important you’re making it a requirement? That’s good, but make sure that you’re facilitating the opportunity to learn about and grow in this skill. Talkative students might need to learn how to listen better or how to value quality over quantity; quiet students might want to push themselves to share just a little more than they have before. Help students goal-set and self-reflect on this vital skill, and use the grade you’re giving them as only a portion of the feedback they receive from you. Make the feedback you give specific, timely, and constructive.

5. Offer alternatives to public discussion, such as web-based discussion boards, backchannels, and blogs. Technology helps to level the playing field when it comes to discussion. Since dialogues can now happen asynchronously through technology, every student has a fair shot to formulate and edit their thinking, then make their thinking public. This not only helps all students have equal opportunity to participate, but can increase both the quality and quantity of conversation as it is no longer restricted to on-the-spot classroom discussion.

I’m not aware of anyone who would question the intrinsic value of class participation. Participation is doubtlessly a core component of the learning process. But at the same time, I do not believe participation is so vital that it should be valued as part of the grade that is meant to report a student’s proficiency towards a given set of standards. Thinking, interaction, collaboration, dialogue, learning, and participation will look radically different from student to student. While every student should be encouraged to grow in these regards, we must be cautious to do so in a way that is fair and cognizant of each student’s unique preferences and needs.

So yes, participation is vital insofar as it is part of the process of learning. But let’s not confuse process with outcome.

What are your classroom management thoughts on student participation? I’m interested in learning from our TeachHUB.com community – so share your thoughts in a comment below!

Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.