Assigning a grade to participation compels students to meet a certain quota of participation points rather than to develop a genuine interest or passion towards the subject. While there is no doubt that participation grades can encourage participation, they also lead to a multitude of deleterious effects on the very students they are meant to help.
At Dougherty Valley, it is primarily world language classes that reserve a separate category solely for grading participation in class.
Spanish teacher Sra. Christina Burnside explains that “It’s language; I tell my students, ‘If you’re not participating, then you’re not producing the language, right?’ … There’s a good handful of us [teachers] that have adopted this practice.”
At first glance, it seems to makes sense for these classes that are primarily based on speaking and learning how to use a language to use a participation-based grading system. To learn, students should speak to their teacher and peers and grow collectively.
“Learning a language is based on practice, and I find it beneficial to work hard in the class anyways,” junior Shray Patel, a student in Sra. Mary Kate Duggan’s Honors Spanish IV class, said.
Upon closer inspection, however, are there any significant differences that make a world language class different from any other academic class, such as calculus? In both classes, students learn new concepts and their applications and practice with the help of an instructor.
Although verbal participation is undoubtedly important for learning, particularly for language classes, silence is simply another form of participation: it cultivates a productive learning atmosphere and enables students to effectively communicate with their teachers. The student who listens attentively to a lesson is just as important as the student who asks a teacher to slow down or reiterate a certain topic.
Ultimately, the a teacher’s goal is to make sure that the student can master the material, and grades should reflect that. Reporting participation grades, however, lends a degree of uncertainty to a student’s grade. Bonnie M. Miller, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts, reports that “there are no clear disciplinary standards for evaluating participation, and there exists great disparity between how professors interpret and implement it.”
Verbal participation is critical for mastering a language, and grades have proven to be an effective tool to encourage participation.
“I do not usually raise my hand or offer to read aloud often, and participation motivates me to. I doubt I would do this if there wasn’t a participation grade involved,” Patel stated.
However, teaching strategies like these can produce detrimental effects that far outweigh the benefits they provide.
For example, inconsistencies in grading policy can discourage students from wanting to participate in class.
“Participation points do not motivate me to be more involved in class. I do not believe that I should ask questions to which I already know the answer to just to receive points. In Chinese, participation points are awarded rather spontaneously, with some students receiving participation points for simply answering one question and others being denied the points despite actively participating in the class,” Joe Jones*, a student enrolled in Honors Chinese IV, reported.
Furthermore, poorly implemented participation grades can encourage students to participate for the wrong reasons, such as to take advantage of a teacher’s bias.
“Our teacher definitely exhibits some degree of bias when rewarding participation points. Students that the teacher is more inclined towards appear to be more likely to receive points,” Jones continued. “This results in a system in which some students attempt to gain the favor of the teacher in order to make it easier to gain participation points.”
Furthermore, by setting unreasonable standards for grading, unhealthy competition grows among students as they bicker for points.
“[Colard] would require ten points a week when we would only see her four days a week. Getting more than two points was really hard since everyone wanted the points, and sometimes there weren’t any questions to answer or ‘voluntary’ passages to read,” Jane Doe*, an student who took Mme. Colard’s French III class last year, recounted.
By associating participation grades with a class, teachers sought to increase participation and interest in that class. However, in cases like these, that very association backfires, causing students to resent one anothers and the class instead.
Without a doubt, these results are undesirable. The whole point of associating participation with a grade was to encourage students to contribute to classroom discussions and activities.
“I don’t really have a problem with participation anymore because [students] know it’s a grade, and they want to know that there’s a grade attached to everything, and that’s kind of like the Dougherty culture,” Burnside said.
Rather than participate for the sake of a grade, students ought to participate based on their passion for learning and the particular subject. Although participation points are a well-intentioned way of encouraging students to contribute and develop their interest, it can have unintended consequences for those very students.
Instead, teachers should use alternative methods to encourage participation and increase engagement from students. For example, a teacher could use group projects or anonymous questions to promote student interactions and questions regarding course material.
Regarding grades, Douglas Reeves, an author who has written several books regarding education, advocates “setting learning targets and linking grades to the achievement of those targets,” and “giving grades solely based on achievement and separately reporting attendance, effort, and participation.”
By doing so, students’ grades can more accurately reflect their academic performance, as well as provide students with the opportunity to independently develop their interests.
*Names have been changed at the request of interview subjects.