bueller… bueller…

New pick by carrots!  I’m on time for once!

As a book nerd and obsessive student, I was a habitual participator.  I did all of the reading, and silence in the classroom made me nervous.  These students!  Why were they not answering the question?  I would only let a professor’s query remain unanswered for a moment before I’d put my hand in the air, whether I had something particularly appropriate to contribute or not.  Sometimes, around mid-semester, my professor would begin to ignore me, waiting for a different student to contribute.

Yeah, I was that one.

The sole exception was, perhaps, my high school economics class.  I’d settle into my seat at the back of the room just after lunch period, my brain lethargic after a turkey sandwich and a snack-size bag of Doritos — tryptophan! —  and I’d realize within a few minutes that focusing on supply or demand was simply an impossibility.  My teacher was surprisingly enthusiastic about fiscal policy and regulation, but the filing cabinet behind my desk was such a comfortable object to doze upon…  I still feel a little guilty about that.

I’ve been considering the topic of classroom participation a lot lately, especially as I figured grades for my survey course last week.  Participation comprised fifteen percent of my students’ final grades.  This percentage may fluctuate in future classes, especially if I’m leading larger classrooms that preclude really engaged group discussions.  But I will be teaching at Rice in some capacity next year, and therefore I’ve been considering ways to really perfect how I present the topic of participation to my students and, more importantly, how I evaluate it.

I want to be fair.  And I want to demonstrate to my students that I understand my responsibilities as someone evaluating their performance in my classroom.  And, of course, I’m also mindful that I’m teaching students who may challenge my decisions, and I want to be sure I have evidence.

So I’m thinking of doing something like this, outlined by a professor at the University of Virginia, with my own minor tweaks.  I need to develop a system with clearer expectations, evaluations, and consequences for my undergraduates when it comes to class participation.

I’m particularly keen on that first one — expectations — because I’m realizing that many students don’t know what constructive participation looks and sounds like.  For some, participating apparently means showing up and avoiding eye contact.  For others it means toting a laptop into the classroom to feign research while, in fact, surfing facebook and putting in that winning ebay bid on a Count Chocula tee-shirt.  And for some it means disagreeing with the professor.  I don’t mind that last one, of course — in fact, I encourage it — but in and of itself it does not constitute participation.

What do you carrots readers — the educators and the former students — consider fair grounds for grading participation?  Do you do it?  If so, how?  I am currently in R&D.

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5 thoughts on “bueller… bueller…

  1. I’m a fan of the rubric. I grade participation in courses with up to 40 students in them. I don’t do this for all courses, though, because I teach some classes (intro to theory, for example) that I think demand enough of students already just in terms of reading and writing. But when I do grade it, I make a rubric sort of like the one you’ve linked to and put that on the syllabus. I use letter grades. I tell students that if they come to class every day and make one good comment or ask one substantive question, I’ll give them a “B” for participation. Then I structure the other letter grades relative to that.

    At mid-term, I type up a little evaluation for everyone in the class. It says, “If I were grading participation at this point, you would receive an X, and here is why…” I find that participation increases dramatically from that point on. Students don’t seem to mind this at all, and lots of students who would otherwise never say a word find that they have interesting things to contribute.

    • Thanks, Liz! This is really helpful. I’m starting to think that the mid-term evaluation in participation is really key. The last thing I want is a student unpleasantly surprised by his/her participation grade.

  2. i was so the one with my hand up too! i’m on the fence about participation. as a teacher of young kids for some time, i stopped requiring participation because, what is participation anyway? some kids are thinking intently without speaking, some are terrified to speak and so the requirement to participate interferes with their concentration in class, and let’s face it, some kids love to participate and bring a lot to the class and the other kids. what i found later on in my teaching career that i thought was interesting was that when i gave kids a chance to participate online, in my small classroom forum, the quiet ones were finally, voluntarily participating, and they had vibrant personalities that i never would have never seen without that medium.

    this, of course, is different when it comes to college students who are no longer fragile adolescents (though, maybe not all of them). i just hate how participation becomes a big game and i feel like the classroom should be a bit more of an organic experience, but then evaluating student work is required and necessary. and then there are those that you have to create these evaluations for, the ones who don’t really engage. it’s a tough call, but i think that whatever you decide to do will be fair and thoughtful because, well, that’s just how you are. that wasn’t very helpful, was it? 🙂

  3. A rubric works wonders. However no matter how defined your expectations are expect someone to argue the point. Also you do need to take individual personalities into account. Not all of us can be the one answering all the questions. I find that, especially with writting, force is not always the answer to participation.

    Todd

  4. I’m a chronic participator (often to my own embarrassment). You’ll remember the 8:30 am classes with Henry Taylor and the zombies. I think to be fair to the shy people or those who just think more, many ways of participating should be offered. Perhaps not only in class but office hours, participating on a blog, writing emails. Obviously, in class is important to discussion but there are many students who are learning and paying attention who may not speak up much in class.

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