Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Let's Chat About: How to Discuss Participation Points

It's time for another quick discussion in my not-quite-so-new "Let's Chat About" segment! 

Does your prof give points for participation? 

If so, do you know how that grade is calculated? 

I saw this Inside HigherEd post back in July about how much participation points should/should not count toward a class. It made me think back to my own college days when I'd see "Participation" mentioned in the syllabus. . . with no clear explanation of how those points happened. 

I always wondered if the prof made little checks next to my name every time I opened my mouth in class. Or, did my mere presence in class presume my participation? Or, was there an entirely different, more objective formula for calculating those points that I didn’t know about?

(Did my professor scream, "Muhahahahahaha" when figuring up those points? I wonder...)

From your prof's perspective, participation points can be derived a number of different ways: 
-How often you open your mouth in class and constructively contribute to class discussion
-How much you attend class
-How actively you participate in group and partner activities
-How many times you ask questions and propose answers (not to mention the quality of those questions and answers)
-How substantively you write and respond to others on an external discussion forum, Wiki, blog, etc.

These are just some examples; there are countless others.

Bottom line: If your syllabus talks about a participation grade, those points should not be a mystery. 

So what's the communication lesson here?

Ask questions about how your participation relates to your overall grade! How do you do that? 

Here are tips: 

1) Go back and look at your syllabus. If participation points exist, are they clearly explained? Hopefully the prof discussed what he/she expects on the first day, but if you are unsure and the syllabus doesn’t define the requirement, say, "I noticed on the syllabus that 20% of my grade is based on participation. I want to make sure I understand what to do to earn those points."  

2) If there are not distinct participation points mentioned in the syllabus, but other statements allude to interaction in class (think attendance, contributions to discussion, participating in activities, etc.), then your prof may not actually give you points for participation, but could take it into consideration later if you are thisclose to getting a higher grade. You certainly can ask your prof, "I don't see participation counted in our overall grade, but does it make any difference when you are determining my final grade?" 

If your prof has an attendance policy and you can lose points for not being there, showing up is a measure of participation. However, being there in body isn't all that your prof expects from you, so find out what you need to do. 

3) If your syllabus does state that you need to show up to class, speak up in class, and play the prof's reindeer games in class in order to earn your participation grade, find out how those points are tracked. Does your prof give you a check mark every time you utter a word? Is your attendance a declaration that you are participating? First, ask: "Can you tell me how I'm doing on my participation points so far? My goal is to earn full points in this area.” Or “Am I meeting your expectations for participation?”

Then, you can add, “Is there a way I can keep tabs on my participation to make sure I’m meeting all the requirements?” If your prof is using BlackBoard, Angel, or another course management system, maybe you can view these points in the gradebook yourself.

If the prof tells you that you need to speak up more or contribute in class differently, say: “Can you give me an example of what you expect?” If you feel you are doing more than you are getting credit for, then ask, “How are the points tracked? I'm concerned that some of my participation is being missed."

4) If your participation involves online work, such as discussion board posts/responses, and you are not receiving full points, here’s specific advice on how to expand your writing.

5) If you are unable to participate in class in the way that is expected of you (channeling this post with Melvin whose cultural norms did not support him speaking openly in class), then you need to tell your prof specifically, “I am struggling with speaking out in class and I know it is expected. I am worried about earning my full participation points. Do you have advice for something else that I can do?”

You can ask: 
-"Can I submit questions to you ahead of time?"
-"Can my participation in paired or group situations count more fully?"
-"Can I do additional work in another area?"

Your prof may or may not agree, but talk about it so you aren’t blindsided by fewer points.

You may also want to consider speaking out in class even once or twice just to see how it feels to share your thoughts openly. Maybe you’ll find a newfound confidence in sharing your voice!

Best wishes to you, wonderful students, as you participate in all the wonderful opportunities available to you in your classes! I’d love to hear how it’s going!

Colleagues, I abandoned participation points a long time ago. I felt that participation would bear itself out in the many other opportunities that I have for collaboration. What do you think about the Inside HigherEd piece? I’d love to hear!


  1. I also abandoned participation points, because it doesn't generate an organic conversation. In my math classes, I don't want my students to feel singled out if they truly can't communicate the concept. My primary goal is to help them gain the confidence so they will feel inclined to participate on their own. As the instructor, I feel that it is my job to get the conversation started and having participation points may not be the best way to go about it. Loved the advice you give on how to seek clarification. Students should feel empowered to approach their instructor if they don't understand something, and your tips could provide that empowerment.

  2. Eric, I'm so glad you wrote. So very true, in a class where there can be inherent and significant apprehension, dinging them with loss of participation points doesn't make sense. Hopefully, once they feel confidence with comprehension and application, they'll want to share with everyone else and help others. I appreciate your words! Ellen

  3. I LOVE my participation grade. HOWEVER I also let my students know exactly what I want http://eslcarissa.blogspot.mx/2012/06/self-evaluation-for-participation.html they will it out about halfway through letting me know how they think they are doing...and I let them know what I know thay are doing, how it affects their grade and how they can improve.

    Are they too shy? OK. They still have all the other areas PLUS the extra credit I offer to make up for it, PLUS about 65% of participation is just being well behaved (showing up on time, not talking when othe rpeople are not texting, etc)

    1. Carissa, I'm sorry this took so long for me to respond to! My blog has moved to ellenbremen.com :-). I think the transparency for participation points that you have is incredible. This is one area where students are often flummoxed about how they are doing and it looks like you totally take the guesswork out of it. Bravo!