Should College Instructors Grade Participation?

Millennial and Gen Z students are often characterized by their need to be rewarded for simply “showing up”—think losing teams taking home trophies—and as a generation of learners who expect their grades to reflect the fact that they “tried.” Some say giving credit to students for participation in a college course is a direct result of this expectation but one that nevertheless encourages students to come to class prepared, ask questions, and listen respectively. Others say grading anything beyond tests and written assignments dilutes the meaning of a grade.

The Pro Side

Those who favor giving credit to students for class participation say doing so can increase engagement. Since students are rewarded for listening, commenting, bringing books, and responding—assessed using a rubric the instructor completes after each class session—they are more likely to tune in.

A clearly defined rubric that measures student responsiveness also encourages learners to come to class prepared, according those who favor using this pedagogical approach. They argue grading participation has another benefit; it helps students learn to speak confidently in groups and hone their conversational skills, an important workplace skill. To make sure shy students are not penalized, instructors who grade participation offer a variety of ways students can join in without speaking, such as taking part in online discussion forums or turning in written exercises completed in class.

In some courses, especially those in the humanities where discussions are imperative to guide learning, instructors consider participation a key learning outcome.

The Con Side

However, not all instructors agree that contribution should comprise part of a student’s grade. They claim that a grade is a measure of performance and nothing else. By including non-performance elements such as extra credit for participation taints the purity of grades as a quantifiable measure of mastery over course materials, a prime directive of the professoriate.

The era of outcomes assessment likewise mandates that grades earned in college should exclusively reflect intellectual performance, these instructors point out. Say a professor gives extra credit for attending a lecture on campus. In that scenario, students whose graded work is lacking can jump ahead merely for having sat through the talk, during which they could have been looking at their phones. Giving credit for this type of participation further waters down the meaning of a grade, according to this argument.

The con side of the participation debate also notes that upgrading for participation is fraught with problems. Instructor bias can affect objectivity. The same hand-wavers can up their grades whether what they say merits credit or not.

Finally, those against rewarding students for participation claim to do so ignores the reality that grades are the measure of student performance in our educational system. Grades not only help determine whether a student is admitted to a graduate program, they help employers evaluate new grads. If grades are used to enhance a classroom experience rather than to objectively measure mastery of material, the system begins to fall down.

Both sides make a good argument. Where do you fall on the issue?


Leave a Reply