In our teaching roles as graduate students, we often are called on to assess students' participation in classroom activities like discussion; often, this evaluation assumes the form of assigning an actual grade to such effort.
As I look back on my graduate school career (yes, I successfully defended my dissertation last month!), one constant stands out, at least in terms of the many courses I've taught and the discussion sections I've led: "Grading participation" is a tricky but necessary business.
Currently, I regard "participation" as engagement in discussion but also preparedness and classroom etiquette. Grading participation is difficult because it is a subjective practice--to a certain degree. Moreover, and compounding this fact, is that students perceive the grading of participation to be influenced almost entirely by the instructor's whims, tastes, and unevenly-applied standards. As a result, some students view the participation or discussion component of their final grade as a way into negotiating a higher course grade at the end of the semester. To make matters worse, we as grad students may be particularly susceptible to grade-negotiation. Many of us are or are perceived to be young and inexperienced, and we often lack institutional clout, and thus, through little fault of our own,we tend to invite grade-haggling.
Certainly, students are entitled to ask questions about their assignment or course grades. If some such requests come across as "grade grubbing," we can teach students how to ask the right questions about their performance, and most importantly, how to also frame those questions in order to discern the steps they could take to improve in the future. However, participation grades, particularly if they are assigned once at the end of the semester, don't lend themselves to the kind of discussion that is productive and appropriate.
Lately, my own challenge with grading participation has been how to accurately assess the quiet student: the one who rarely, if ever, participates in discussion, but who nevertheless faithfully attends class and appears to be on the ball, based on his or her test and essay scores. What is more, how does this student compare with the chatty student? That is, the one who is adept in thinking on his or her feet during class discussion but whose subsequent test and essay scores indicate that he or she hasn't been keeping up with the readings, lectures, etc.?
Despite its challenges, grading participation is necessary, and in some teaching situations, it is required. I say "necessary," because I think grading participation is useful to the student. We're training students to enter the workforce, and we're also helping them to become more informed citizens of their community (and beyond). To be successful (and personally fulfilled) in these endeavors, students need to practice interacting with one another in a context that is at once intellectual, professional, and social. Face-to-face interaction (even via Skype) improves oral speaking skills. Discussion in traditional classrooms and online spaces promotes civility as well as off-the-cuff, impromptu thinking. Grading or otherwise assessing students in these areas provides them with constructive feedback about their strengths and weaknesses.
I've experimented quite a bit with how I evaluate participation, but I'm eager to hear from GradHacker readers about their own strategies for assessing a student's engagement in class and/or discussion. Please share your thoughts or tips below.