When I am reviewing a program’s syllabi, I often notice that part of the grading for the course includes attendance and/or participation. It is important to note that neither of these is truly an assessment. Attendance does not evaluate a student’s knowledge or skills. So, why would you want to give students a grade or points for attendance? Is it to motivate them to come to class? Is it because it was already there in the syllabus you inherited? Is it because it is a challenging course, and you want to give students a way to “bump” their grades up? If you include points or a grade for attendance, it is essential to determine the rationale for giving students points simply for showing up to class. This practice gets even more curious if your program has a required attendance policy.
From my perspective, regardless of whether the class or program requires attendance, I believe our students need to be present in class. That includes in person in the room or with a camera on for a Zoom session. Unless, of course, you are an online program. We have so little time with our students, about two years, to prepare them for clinical practice and entrance into a very challenging health care system. What happens during class is invaluable and cannot be replicated because it is live and in the moment. My usual statement at the start of a course is telling students I am committing to them to be there, each day, on time (actually early) and ready to go, whether I am doing the teaching that day or not. I ask them to make the same commitment to themselves and their learning. Ok, so you all know where I stand on attendance.
But the point I want to make is the impact of giving points or a grade for attendance. Grading or giving points for attendance is a non-assessment item that is factored into the student’s course grade. Non-assessment items like this tend to artificially inflate grades and muddy the clarity of a course grade, truly representing the student’s acquisition of knowledge and skills. If we have our curriculum and courses educationally aligned so that the assessments we are using actually evaluate whether the students are grasping the information we need them to, i.e., meeting the course learning outcomes, then non-assessment items should not be included. Years back, we had a student in the clinical medicine course that failed the majority of the exams throughout the course. This course covered the vital concepts of medicine for major organ systems. However, 10% of the course grade was for attendance. Historically, the instructor gave everyone 100%, a common practice. She did not pass the course when calculating her grade based on her exam scores. But once the 10% was factored in, 10% of 100 equals 10 points; the student passed the course due to the 10-point bump.
Participation walks a more challenging line in terms of being a non-assessment. Participation is harder to assess and grade, but not impossible. Many times, when sitting down to finalize course grades, a gestalt approach is used that involves trying to remember each student. Unless you have a grading rubric for participation that documents each student, it tends to fall into the same dynamic as attendance. Everyone gets 100%. Please keep in mind that if you do not have a formal way that you are tracking and evaluating participation and, based on memory, you give a student an 80%, you will have no solid evidence to show how you determined that grade.
Yet, we all know that participation is important to student learning in our curriculum. But trying to evaluate it effectively, efficiently, and fairly is difficult. Commonly, we think of participation as the students speaking up in class, asking questions, engaging in or leading discussions in a small group activity, and partaking in learning and practicing skills. I came across three recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Two of them were written by James Lang, a former university professor and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence now turned author. The other is by Beth McMurtrie, a writer for The Chronicle, sharing insights about participation by Davidson University professor Mark Sample. Like many of us, they struggle with the best way to navigate and motivate students to participate. Sample spoke about his struggle with determining each student's participation grade based on how much they spoke up in class. Still, he had concerns that his quieter, more introverted students were being graded more harshly simply because they didn’t speak up.
This led him to re-evaluate what participation actually meant and looked like, and as a result, he redefined it. Instead of using the word participation, he now uses “engagement.” In addition, he defines it both during the first day of class, reminds students periodically throughout the semester, and includes it in his syllabus. His definition of engagement includes specific student activities to include:
Preparation – being prepared for class by reviewing or completing assigned readings before class
Focus – mitigating any distractions while learning, in-person or online
Presence – being engaged and responsive during group activities
Asking questions – in class, out of class, online
Listening – actively hearing what others say and what they are not saying
Specificity – contributing or showing evidence related to specific ideas and concepts from readings and discussion
Synthesizing – making connections between readings and discussions
Sample also stopped grading it. Instead, he believes that if students are engaged, it will be reflected in their work. He does ask students to evaluate, via a self-reflection activity, their level of engagement halfway through the course and ways they can improve. Engagement doesn’t only mean speaking up in class. It is participation in small group work or share-pair activities. It can be e-mailing you a question or asking for clarification, or it can be coming to your office hours to discuss a difficult concept.
Lang also came to the same decision as Sample to stop grading participation. Like most, his approach to grading participation was trying to recall which students had spoken up in class and how much, assigning it 10% of their course grade. What started to make him uncomfortable, similar to Sample, was that part of a student’s grade was determined by his memory and was completely subjective.
Lang raises another excellent point. Even if professors have a way of tracking student comments daily, are all comments equal? We all know there are students who like to talk. They have a thought about everything. Then, there are those who may only speak up once or twice, but when they do, it is significantly thought-provoking or representative of deep understanding. But if we are simply tallying, should a student who made five comments that contributed little count more than a student who made one significant comment?
These articles got me thinking a lot. Although I abandoned grading for attendance and participation long ago, I believe what Sample and Lang discussed is vital to consider for yourself in your courses and programs.
Lange, J. M. (2021). Should we stop grading class participation? The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 9, 2021. https://www.chronicle.com/article/should-we-stop-grading-class-participation
Lang, J. M. (2021). Two ways to fairly grade class participation. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 17, 2021. https://www.chronicle.com/article/2-ways-to-fairly-grade-class-participation
McMurtrie, B. (2022). Rethinking participation. The Chronicle of Higher Education – Teaching. September 8, 2022. https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/teaching/2022-09-08?utm_source=Iterable&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=campaign_5033556_nl_Teaching_date_20220908&cid=te&source=ams&sourceid=