Thursday, August 30, 2007

Grading for Class Participation: A Moral Issue

It is common for professors to base a student's grade in part on the degree to which he participates in class discussion. This policy seems to me to raise serious moral issues. The grades I give my students purport to measure how much of what is taught in the class they know. By giving a higher grade to those who participate more I am bribing them to help me to teach the class. To put the point more strongly, I am getting them to help me by offering to lie to their future employers about them, to overstate how much they learned as a reward for their assistance.

This objection would not apply if I were using their classroom participation merely as evidence of how much they had learned, grading them up for participation that provided positive evidence, down for participation that provided negative evidence. But that is not what professors who give credit for class participation do, or say they do.


Jonathan said...

I appreciate your very scrupulous concern, especially as I wasn't very participatory in class when I was a student, more than three decades ago.

Perhaps some of your colleagues would argue that they're rewarding students for social skills and character traits that may not be directly relevant to the course, but will nevertheless be relevant to their future lives and careers. I put this idea forward hesitantly, with my Devil's Advocate hat on.

Rick and Gary said...

As a general rule, employers use grades to measure how well someone will respond to incentives to work hard and jump though whatever hoops are placed in front of them.

To the extent that employers really care about what students actually know from school, they'll test to see what the student retained, as opposed to how he tested at the end of the course.

Mark said...

Trust me, you're not lying to employers. By now, most people know that grades - at all levels - are based on all kinds of squishy criteria. That's why interviews at large companies are becoming increasingly rigorous.

GC said...

Many traits that allow you to "get ahead" in the business world, especially as you climb farther up the management ladder, would likely be seen as immoral in an academic setting.

In school we are taught that truth is paramount, knowledge is power, and the best solution is the most complete and accurate one. In business we lie (calling it "politics" for political reasons), experience often trumps intelligence (thank goodness for those of us who aren't that smart), and quick decision making is favored over taking the time to make sure the course of action is 100% correct.

On point, it is often the case that the people who raise their proverbial hand around the executive table are looked upon more favorably at promotion-time than the (often very qualified and very smart) ones who do not.

Arthur B. said...

As a student I always saw myself as competing with others for participation. Participation had value to me because it helped me grasp a specific concept better or validate an intuition. Far from seeing at other's participation as useful, I saw it competition for the teacher's personalized help. It was rare that the question asked or the answered offer by someone else was of any value to me.

Therefore, I have a hard time seeing other people's participation as "helping the teacher" teach its course. This means that some student benefit from the participation of others, by the dynamism created... it's possible but that's not me. The way I see it is more as a way for the teacher to dedicate some of his time to help specific students.

With this in mind, grading becomes more of way to signal to the student how he is doing. By telling him he understood correctly during exams, and by telling him he is doing the right thing competing for personalized help when he needs it.

Unfortunately this makes grading unsuitable for evaluation. I did most of my studies in France, where grading was always separate from evaluation. You had grades during years of studies, but what would serve as evaluation would be a separate graded exam where your grades during the year had no part.

Most serious universities (called grandes ├ęcoles) won't look at your GPA, they will have an entrance exam.

I like that separation of teaching (and graded evaluation of the learning) from graded evaluation of skills and knowledge.

This also gives the ability not to lose time on homework I knew I didn't need to do, for the grade was irrelevant, only information for me. This habit was very hard to break when I studied in the US.

Richard P. said...

My objections to class participation grades are two.

First, class participation is biased towwards short off-the-cuff answers or conclusions. I am good at these types of answers and I enjoy an advantage in this area. But I think that it is a disservice to well thought out answers and consideration of the ideas expressed in a classroom setting.

Second, the problem of participation competition leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, classroom time is more like a commons; my participation directly impacts others' chances to show the professor their understanding. I think this is why teachers have been moving towards online forums for participation grades.

One idea that I am not so confident of is the possible bias towards giving answers rather than saying, I don't know. Participation is not randomized and therefore those with answers on the tip of their tongues are probably over represented. If and when I become a professor, I might use random sampling and allow my students the occasional I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me, but you teach at a law school, right? Isn't using the socratic method in class a tried-and-true tradition, forcing lawyers in training to demonstrate abilities to communicate, analyze and integrate on the fly, etc.

Also, forgive, but you teach at a law shool, right? Why, then, are you raising questions of ethics? :-)

Amy said...

Participating in class generally requires at least some semblance of keeping up with the reading, understanding what's going on, etc. Even if not graded on the quality of participation, informal social pressures from both the teacher and the students discourage uninformed comments.

What grading on participation is really doing, in my opinion, is bribing students not to take a "slack off all semester and then cram for the exam" approach.

Richard P. said...


First rule of doing or policy; If you want to change X, act directly on X. Don't act on Y, to change X.

If one wants to test for having done the readings, one should give a quiz at the start of class. By using an arbitrary and subjective measure, one gets all these nice and nasty side effects.

Anonymous said...

I have graded for class participation in the past, though I don't do so now. I enjoyed your post, but I feel I want to defend the practice against your (David's) criticisms.

First, the charge of "bribing them [the students] to help me to teach the class." Bribing has connotations that the reward is unethical but this begs the question, I think. A defence of grading for class participation would start from the proposition that students are members of an academic community, and that contributing to the learning of ones peers is part of what that means. Rather than bribing participants, you could think of it as punishing free-riders. As an aside, if I think back to the best classes I took as an undergrad or Masters student, I would say I learned as much from my colleagues as I did from the lecturer.

As for "lying to employers", if you accept my first argument, then awarding marks for class participation in fact places weight on an attribute that employers ought to value--willingness/ability to contribute to a public good, while placing negative value on free-riding.

The reason I have discontinued awarding marks for class participation is altogether non-moral. I came to the conclusion that the marks that I was awarding were not reliable, and I became concerned that the marks awarded classes taught by tutors (other than myself) were not consistent with the marks that I was awarding. If I could overcome these problems, I would reinstate the practice.

Chris Bogart said...

In evaluating a student's knowledge, you don't care just how they do on a test at the end of the semester -- they could have crammed for that and forgotten most of it quickly. Ideally you'd want to evaluate how deeply they'd integrated and understood the concepts. A student who's participating in class is probably wrestling with the ideas more than one who is taking a few notes then cramming facts for the exam. Seems to me it's a legitimate indicator that they're going through the right process that will lead to mastering the material.

The downside is it undervalues the efforts of shy students who are doing that mental work, but silently where you can't evaluate it.

steve said...

I took a class from a professor that used participation as a form of extra credit, in that if she called out a question which you answered, you were given a small amount of extra credit. Therefore, one could not participate and still theoretically earn a 4.0 in the class. I felt it was a good system, although your chances were certainly helped if you had the ability to get to class early and get a front row seat.

Raphfrk said...

Continuous assessment does something similar, where some of the marks go for a test midway through the course.

Another option would be multiple choice questions. Everyone who raises their hand when you call out the right answer 'wins'

Ofc, there are tracking problems with something like that.

Anonymous said...

A course serves two somewhat incompatible purposes: to teach the material, and to certify (to future instructors and employers) that a student has in fact learned it.

Course grades, therefore, also serve two somewhat incompatible purposes: as a certificate of mastery of the material, and as an incentive to students to behave in specified ways, whether ways that make the instructor's life more pleasant or ways that make learning the material more likely.

One can argue for class participation grades on both bases. As others have commented, it provides some information (albeit shaky) about the student's ability to interact constructively with peers, think on his/her feet, etc. And, as amy points out, it encourages students to adopt behaviors (such as reading the reading assignments and actually thinking about them before class) that, research shows, are conducive to the course goal of learning the material.

I understand lenin3's objection to the latter. Would (s)he suggest leaving students to figure out for themselves, by trial and error, what behaviors lead to passing quizzes? That would accommodate differences in learning styles, but by the time a student has figured it out, the course is over and the student hasn't learned much. To the extent that part of my job is to teach "how to learn", it is appropriate for me to explicitly reward behaviors that, for almost all students, make learning more likely.

An in-class discussion, however, is unavoidably biased in favor of extroverts and improvisers, at the expense of introverts and those hesitant to put forward an idea until they've analyzed it thoroughly. There is some research evidence that these kinds of students are more likely to participate in asynchronous on-line discussions than in-class discussions, so I try to use those as well. (Although in some classes, getting students to participate in either format is like pulling teeth... from a dead whale... with lockjaw....)

Anonymous said...

It's also immoral to grade homework, but many professors will count homework as 10% of the grade. The purpose of homework is to prepare you for tests, and only the tests and projects should count towards your grade.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: It's also immoral to grade homework, but many professors will count homework as 10% of the grade. The purpose of homework is to prepare you for tests, and only the tests and projects should count towards your grade.

I'm suddenly reminded of Dolores Umbridge :-)

What if I'm teaching a subject for which tests aren't a particularly accurate means of assessing learning? (I teach mostly computer programming, and you might define my "homework" assignments as "projects" and therefore valid sources of grade data... but I also teach more mathematical topics like theory of computing, for which I can't fit many interesting problems into a one- or two-hour exam.)

Anonymous said...

First of all, I wish to make a crucial distinction. Employers don't pay me to screen prospective employees for them. That idea is perilously close to the notion of bribing students to help teach the course, without even the semi-justification of a bribe. The universities pay me to teach statistics and then to evaluate students accurately. Accurate grades are something I owe the school and the student, not anybody else. What the student does with them after I'm finished is none of my business.

I originally agreed with you about class participation. But several years in the classroom have convinced me that, at least in statistics classes, the people who don't participate are the ones who aren't reading the book and learning the subject.

I am now convinced that:
a. Class participation judges some degree of understanding of the course content that's hard to measure with homework and tests, and
b. Having course participation in the grading criteria leads most students into paying more attention, and therefore improves their overall understanding of the material.

Since the net effect is that they learn more and are evaluated more fully, I'm all in favor of grading class participation.

The problems (if they existed) would be students who understand the material and don't participate, thereby lowering their score, or poor students raising their score by participating.

The first problem solves itself. Students who can make an A in statistics are perfectly capable of evaluating the point allocation in the syllabus and deducing that they must participate.

The second problem is actually a feature, not a bug. Poor students who decide to pay more attention in class in order to earn class participation points will, in fact, learn more of the class content. Not a lot more, but when class participation is only worth 10 points, and most passing students earn between 6 and 9.5 of those points, the effect on the grade is commensurate with their improved knowledge.

*All* evaluation of students could be described as a "bribe" for doing certain work, totally separate from understanding the material. If the work accurately measures their knowledge, that's fine. I give a quiz at the start of each class, written such that if you read the textbook carefully but don't understand any of the math, you should get 100%. These quizzes total 3 points over the course, and I describe it in class a a straightforward 3-point bribe for reading the text before class. In fact, the students who read it get far more than 3 points worth of benefit for it, but those three points they can see.

And no, I'm not concerned that the quizzes and class participation will raise their grades too high. I teach statistics -- I don't need to find ways to keep the grades down.

jbm said...

I was under the impression that "participation grades" arose only after schools began barring teachers from basing part of the grade on attendance.

In my (very recent) experience, participation accounts for 10% of your grade, and it's basically a freebie. I can't recall anytime I haven't received the full ten points, even in classes where my attendance left something to be desired.

I would be more concerned about the absolute subjectivity and lack of accountability. Even when grading essays and short-answer exams, teachers are expected to provide some kind of feedback to justify why a particular response garnered a poor grade. "Participation" is usually arbitrary, evidenced by the fact that most professors don't even learn their students' names until halfway through the term.

In the end, I suspect a self-interested quid pro quo: teachers feel better about their craft, and thus themselves, when students appear to be engaged. Although this is admittedly cynical, participation grades seem like a way to buy self-esteem.

That being said, I appreciate the automatic 10%.