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Why I Do Not Grade “Class Participation”

By John Camp, English Department Head

I am a vehement opponent to class participation grades.  I am fully cognizant that I am in the minority in my department, perhaps at St. Mark’s at large, and even in the teaching profession.  Despite the self-imposed peer pressure to grade for this, I refuse, based on both my life personally as an introvert (and the value I place on my introversion as a healthy and necessary part of my identity) and my pedagogical beliefs about participation overall.

In my ‘first day sheet’ (or course prospectus), I include the breakdown of my grading, including “Attentiveness,” which does not have any numerical value next to it.  Instead, I include this explanation:

A note on “Class Attentiveness”: students are expected to be actively attentive in class, through participating in discussions, recording of notes, questioning, listening respectfully to peers and me, and contributing to class activities. All of these factors comprise “attentiveness” and will be dutifully monitored by me. Hence, if a student is naturally reticent or quiet, she or he is not penalized for not vocally participating in a discussion as long as she or he is attentive overall. “Class Attentiveness” is not given a numeric value, rather I use it to determine if a grade deserves to be bumped up (e.g. a B to a B+). 

Many students are comfortable just listening and being attentive, and, often for introverts or students for whom English is a second or third language, some will lose focus on their attentiveness if fixated on the necessity of having to make a point or speak to accrue points for a grade.  The italicized words above are all factors, none any more important than any other for ‘participation’ in a class, thereby being a benefit and level playing field for introverts and extroverts and those between. If a student is quiet, I aim to individualize that student’s experience by not forcing the student to speak if that’s not how that student learns best.  This aligns with my pedagogical philosophy in many aspects of ‘learning’: I strive to individualize students’ experiences by offering them choice as much as I can within certain assessments; I am interested in seeing what students can do with what they know best and choose to work with rather than having them regurgitate or work with material that I, as my own individual, believe is most valuable.

Of course, I understand the arguments being made for grading class participation.  Like nearly all aspects of education, students need to adapt to the particular atmosphere and expectations within a particular course, a certain classroom, and the individual teacher.  This is what makes a fruitful and important experience for students—thus, I do not require class participation and yet in the next period and class that may be required for a student.  The introverted or more reticent students, then, are being challenged to their stretch zone in the latter class and allowed to be in their safe zone in my classroom.  I strive to create a classroom that encourages and prompts students to vocally participate if they enjoy doing so and simply to listen if that fits their learning style.

Because this is my philosophy and practice, however, I have created experiences that promote varied forms of “participation.”

~~I have periodic classroom experiences based on required participation.  It’s called “Xlyocise.”  During this activity, I randomly pair up the students in teams, I create “rounds” of questions based on whatever material we are covering at the time, and, when I ask the questions, the students raise their hands to be heard.  In each round, a team’s goal is to be the first to get three points to win the round and then we all move on to a new question, yet each member of the pair may only speak twice. Points are awarded because I use a xylophone app on an iPad and a student from the class uses a xylophone app on an iPhone to “ding” intellectual points.  Hence, this activity is a time that all students SHOULD participate.  I put these objectives on the board before we start:

**To THINK quickly

**To articulate and speak well

**To get your VOICE heard

**To be confident

**To be tough, resilient, and composed when you don’t get a ding (step back up)

**To be a productive team player and strive to win for your team

If a student does not participate during this activity, I speak with her or him afterwards and explain the benefits of my “attentiveness” system and how Xylocise is one of the times when she or he has to work at vocally participating.

~~During classes, I intentionally break the students into smaller groups to work with some topic, for some might prefer to vocally participate in a smaller group rather than the larger group.

~~In my V Form class, I have a major assessment in the spring that is a 1-on-1 meeting about a short story that I assign specifically to each student. I outline the expectations for this meeting:  the student will speak, uninterrupted, for about 20-30 minutes.  I simply sit and listen, recording notes.  When the student is finished, we discuss for, usually, another 30 minutes together.  When I explain the first part to the students, they freak out.  But, I further explain that when participating in class, students usually get about roughly 5-10 seconds to speak before they are interrupted by another student, by me, or we move on.  Hence, although this 1-on-1 meeting and assessment only happens once, it prepares them for true participation:  they have thought about the topic, they have prepared the material, and they know that they have the floor–only them and their voice–with my full attention.

~~For each day that we have class (hence usually four days a week), all students are required to “Bite” on Canvas (our LMS, or Learning Management System), thereby getting the opportunity to express a point that they would like to make.  A Bite is like a Tweet on Twitter, only Bites allow for a 200 character maximum and, unlike Twitter, they have to be in proper grammar!  Thus, four times a week, each student is individually responding to the material. I strive to respond to individual Bites as much as possible, which is often every Bite made during the week or at a minimum two.  Although not vocal participation, Bites are important a version of participation that I value since I don’t require in-class participation, and they allow for verbal participation and individualization of the students’ education.

My colleague, Stephen Hebert (Assistant Chaplain and Religion Faculty), is a believer in class participation.  He prompted a discussion for many faculty members by providing salient articles on both sides of this topic that are worthy reading for any educator, student, or parent:

“Introverted Kids Need to Speak Up in Class” by Jessica Lahey

“Why Introverts Shouldn’t Be Forced to Talk in Class” by Valerie Strauss

Clearly, academic pundits can certainly argue each side of this issue and do so well.   While Stephen and I may disagree on “grading,” we both not only value ‘participation,’ but we also value what I call the most real form of professional development:  colleagues discussing and sharing their practices, beliefs, and pedagogies so that we can examine our work and policies with the goal of providing the best education for our students.

IMG_3412The most important resource that I rely upon that supports my philosophy is myself.  As a student throughout my life, from grammar school through my masters’ program through any professional development seminars, I could very easily go through a class and never vocally participate, yet be intently plugged in and processing all of the information.  Often, this is how I learn best.  Although there were classes that I did participate in more than others for several factors (comfort, the material, my peers, the teacher/professor), I never liked being “graded” for participation, because I always felt that my responses and contributions were likely to be contrived and inauthentic if that label was attached to the participation.  Earlier this year, we had a 45-minute faculty meeting about the important “SM 2020” strategic plan, at which participation was highly encouraged.  I did not participate.  I was listening closely to all of the material presented and feel confident in how I processed it all.  If I were given an “assessment” on the material presented, I would do very well–either regurgitating information, citing specifics of what was presented, or responding in depth with analysis if I were asked.  Yet, if I were graded for “class participation,” I would have received a zero.  In my classes, the latter will never be the result.

John Camp is the English Department Head.  He teaches V Form American Literature and VI Form electives, including “Getting LOST” and “Rebels With a Cause.”  He is the author of the St. Mark’s School Writing Manual and is the creator and faculty editor of LEO.  He lives on campus with his wife Tara and their three children, Grady (6), Joss (5), and Desmond (1).

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