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When my students ask questions and participate in discussion, class is more thoughtful, more fun, and more effective. I encourage their participation by checking in with them regularly, and making sure that they have time to speak and that they get a respectful hearing. Still, perhaps half of them never say a word. It seems like being in our mutual interest to get them to speak in class.

Because of these positive effects, like other teachers I have tried to encourage participation by making it part of the grading rubric. Some measures assess students' class presence within a particular timeframe, but this is hard to distinguish from attendance. More subtle is to give credit for speech, by filtering and counting contributions, whether online or in person. The speech measure is confounded by the fact that some students are happy to talk all the time while some never even want to. Without rewarding loudmouths or penalizing shy international students, what are best practices in scoring class participation?

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    I usually did not speak in such classes, and just accepted that my grade will be lower because of that. – Bitwise Oct 28 '16 at 8:40
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    The thing about grading participation is that you may incentivize students to talk for the sake of talking, whether they have something useful to contribute or not. – user37208 Oct 28 '16 at 17:06
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    It would help if you had participation-grade-check-ins throughout the semester, since it can be hard for students to tell if they're talking enough, especially in a large class. That lets shy students know they have to speak up more and also gives you the chance to tell more talkative students to tone it down. (I was once told, "Look, I'm only gonna call on you once per class but it's not personal," and that helped me a lot--you can bet I made sure I used my one comment judiciously and prepared it well.) – MissMonicaE Oct 28 '16 at 18:26
  • This is not the final word on the topic, but... I prefer to grade students on the quality as well as the quantity of their in-class participation. Adding an explicit explanation of this in the syllabus and explaining it in class is helpful here. The idea is to encourage thoughtful contributions from everyone, which allows you to warn and then penalise those who speak too much while not contributing much of worth. This hopefully creates a bit more air time for those who are hesitant to jump in and speak. – fmark Oct 29 '16 at 4:13
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    In a seminar a prof had an easy way to break the speaking barrier. Each time one student was randomly selected to summarize the talk given and one was randomly selected to ask at least one question. Some of us put that under stress, but it did typically start a conversation and increased participation - plus we also took some communication skill improvement from that class rather than "just the content". – Frank Hopkins Jul 20 '17 at 18:57
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Is "speaking in class" or "communicating about the topic in groups" part of your learning goals for your students? If yes, then you should first communicate this to your students and then think about how to include participation in the grading rubric based on the learning goals you set.

However, if you only want students to participate in the lecture to make your own teaching experience better, I think it is unreasonable to include their participation in their grade.

Put differently: I think that the grading should reflect how well the students achieved the learning goals of the course and nothing else. (This may be different in school, but for a undergraduate and graduate courses, I think this is reasonable.)

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You want to grade people, in part, on their participation. If a person isn't speaking in class, whether it's because they're shy or because they have nothing to say, they're not participating.

If part of the assessment of a class involves an oral presentation, and a student refuses to present because they're shy then it would seem unlikely that we might say "we'll let that person pass the presentation component of the class because it would be unfair to punish them for being shy." Rather, I suspect they might fail that component for not producing material upon which they could be assessed (i.e., not delivering a presentation).

You mention online discussions. Obviously that might pose less of a barrier to shy people. Ultimately though, if you believe that participation is something upon which students should be assessed, and students are made aware of this, then shy students just have to accept that all other things being equal their grade may be poorer than their more outspoken peers. Perhaps this will encourage them to (take steps to) speak up. Perhaps they'll benefit, both in terms of their grade and in their lives, as a result.

As for dealing with loudmouths, I think the answer here is relatively straightforward: You don't assess them on the quantity that they produce, but rather the quality. You decide whether what they're saying reflects meaningful participation and thoughtful contributions, or simply blabbering.

tl;dr Grading people on the basis of their informal participation adds a few wrinkles (i.e. punishing shy students, and increasing the subjectivity of grading everyone else) but if a teacher decides that this is something they consider important then these wrinkles may just have to be accepted.

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    The question invites suggestions of how to assess participation, rather than asking whether assessing participation is actually a good approach, so I'll leave this as a comment rather than as part of my answer: If you believe that participation is beneficial to academic performance then surely a better approach is to put your energy into encouraging participation, and then assume that those who participate more will perform better academically (i.e. in exam/essay marks). – Ian_Fin Oct 28 '16 at 9:07
  • The OP did not say that they believe participation will improve exam/essay grades. Assessing class participation is another method of measuring academic performance. – slow_writing Oct 28 '16 at 21:59
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When my students ask questions and participate in discussion, class is more thoughtful, more fun, and more effective.

Here is some food for thought for you.

Your assumption is that participation in class discussions can be encouraged by bestowing a grade benefit on those who participate actively.

Do we know whether that's true?

Aren't there better ways to encourage participation in class discussions?

What would you do if everyone had stellar participation? Unless your groups are small, I bet it would get unwieldy.

Have you surveyed your students to find out what they think about the class discussions? What their individual goals for themselves are?

Side note: I often see a gender correlation when it comes to level of participation during class.

(Personal comment: the most recent class I took, quite a few years after leaving grad school, had almost no student participation, and I hated how quiet all the students were. I really need the give and take. But those students were such lumps on logs, I doubt anything would have gotten them to pry open their jaws.)

  • No, I don't have evidence that it's true. Thanks for calling that out. – Aaron Brick Jul 20 '17 at 5:36
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Provide the students with low-stakes or low-pressure opportunities to participate! Award points for people who send you interesting questions or links by email. Or, if you want, for those who come to your office hours, or talk to you after class. Another option is to do some activities in class and say they're not graded, but that you'll give participation points to people who hand them in (and who clearly at least took a good shot at it). This can double as a way of collecting feedback on what the students are and aren't understanding.

I always have a mix of students in my undergrad classrooms; a lot of them are shy or introverted or non-native speakers of English. Back in my own undergrad years I was pretty timid as well (easy starstruck by professors + still outgrowing childhood shyness), so I get it. Nothing wrong with extraverts, but I'd be uncomfortable if my classroom were set up to give an advantage to the ones who don't have any qualms talking in class.

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What you can do is tell those students that notoriously always answer (in my experience there always are some) to give some others a chance as well. If the few that always contribute also have the best contributions, you should tell them to just wait a little bit for the others to speak up and still hear them out afterwards. If the most frequent contributors have contributions of mixed quality, you should tell them to favor quality over quantity and also adjust your participation grade accordingly.

Other than that, I don't think you can force people to speak up. This is a well known issue in the context of MBAs. Women typically have lower grades in those classes that heavily use participation grades.

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