One of several big debates in education right now is the debate over participation marks within the schools. Generally speaking, I personally am not in favor of participation marks, but I recognize that the situation is the biggest determinant over whether it should be appropriate. In other words, participation marks should change based on the class, the school, the subject, and the age, among other things. Growing up, participation marks were common in almost every class, and in some cases, were worth a significant chunk of the final grade. Likewise, attendance marks permeated most areas of my education. Critics will tell you, and I tend to agree, that the problem with participation/attendance marks is that they don’t measure anything of significance – a student who learns nothing, but makes a point of asking a question every class, could theoretically get a better grade than a student who excels at the course, but is shy. However, there may still be a place for this grading practice in schools, albeit heavily modified to better reflect outcomes and learner needs.
This post from the Teaching Professor Blog, written by Maryellen Weimar, explores an alternative way of assigning participation marks. She and her colleague, Lolita Paff, note that participation (and attendance) marks are really intended to measure a student’s engagement with the course material – which is distinct from being loud and/or present-in-body-only. They use a point system to reward attentive, engaged learners – students who volunteer in class, are consistently on-time, who have their homework ready to be submitted, and participate positively in group work situations earn tickets. Those tickets can then be added, at a students discretion, as a bonus point on a major exam. This strategy emphasizes independent behaviour regulation and demonstrating active learning skills; the fact that it is not applied wholesale means that there is added value, and that students are earning it, rather than it being handed to them.
On the other hand, there are some who see no use whatsoever for participation marks, of any kind. Ashley Squire lists a number of arguments against participation marks here. Among them, the fact that it is difficult to calculate consistently and that by its very nature is vague – both reason enough to question its legitimacy, because honestly, what is really being assessed? What are you asking of your students? More importantly, though, participation marks rarely do what they’re intended to, which is to encourage meaningful contribution and discourage “slacking off”. The students who will be most affected by a participation grade are those who don’t “earn” it – extremely introverted students, those will anxiety issues or learning disabilities, those who don’t have the necessary language competency, or those who don’t feel that they are well-liked by others (or have nothing of value to contribute). Ask yourself: what type of learning environment do participation marks create?
I realize I don’t have a lot of in-classroom experience, and maybe my views will change over the next year, but traditional participation marks don’t seem to have much, if any, value in the classroom. I liked Weimar’s alternative approach, and is something I might try in the classroom myself; but it’s hard to argue with Squire’s logic against the rarely-effective effort mark.