Grading Participation- Does it work?

Sara Briggs wrote a piece (2/7/15) for InformED titled: 12 Myths About Student Engagement.  The article does a nice job of providing background on engagement and identifying common myths. This post is the third and last in the series providing practical strategies to debunk myths about student engagement. [Find the original article here: ]

Today’s topic is #2: Participation should be graded.

Classroom and online interaction have been on my radar for a few years. I’ve done a lot of reading and a fair amount of writing on the subject. Working with faculty in workshops, I’ve discovered that a lot of faculty want to facilitate interactive classes where students contribute meaningfully to advance learning. Unfortunately, in many classes only a few students participate. The few who do speak up offer tentative comments and sometimes there’s little educational value in what’s said.

Thus, teachers grade participation because grading it is the only way to get it, right? Embedded in the desire to promote classroom interaction are deeply ingrained assumptions about grading and its effects on participation. If we believe students only do work that’s graded, it follows that we must grade participation to motivate students to speak up.

What if grading doesn’t motivate class participation, or only does so weakly for some but not all students? What if grading doesn’t improve the quantity or quality of class participation? What might that suggest for grading participation? How might that affect classroom practice?

Some have found grading has little or no effect on increasing participation (Foster, et al., 2009; Gopinath, 1999; Paff, forthcoming in College Teaching). Others find grading participation does motivate more of it, though not necessarily better quality (Junn, 1994; Delprato, 1997). If the principle reason for grading participation is to motivate more of it and to increase quality, the evidence is mixed at best. That’s why “Participation should be graded” is a myth.

What are the alternatives?

Student survey data reveal several strategies and alternatives to consider when thinking about the role of participation and interaction in learning. For example, expanding participation’s definition affords reticent students a means of demonstrating engagement. Unless the course explicitly requires speaking, like in a foreign language class, some consideration as to students’ right to remain silent can be acknowledged and incorporated in a broadly defined participation policy. Broad definitions could incorporate nonverbal engagement behaviors like: note-taking activities in and out of class, participation slips or other in-class assessments, active listening tasks, homework preparation, office hour visits, email communications to the class or instructor, student-led study groups, out-of-class peer interactions, and just-in-time assignments. Emphasizing engagement over oral participation is particularly appropriate in courses with large enrollments or in lower-level survey courses.

A broad definition of participation also fosters a favorable class climate for interaction. Establishing a friendly, engaging learning environment may be a more effective way to increase verbal and nonverbal participation than grading. Fassinger (1996) recommends placing greater emphasis on activities that boost students’ confidence to overcome fear of appearing unintelligent to ones’ peers or instructors. One way to do this is to ask students to share after the instructor has previewed answers privately. Similarly, Rocca (2010) advocates creating a supportive climate by addressing students by name, providing adequate praise, being supportive of questions and errant answers, and allowing for sufficient wait-time to think in silence that is intentional, not awkward. Another strategy is to allow students to share in pairs or small groups, before addressing a large class.

Participation doesn’t have to be graded to signal its importance. By engaging in discussions about discussion with our students we communicate a powerful message about the role of interaction in learning. By collaboratively (students and instructor) defining participation, power and responsibility for classroom interaction are shared. By offering formative feedback, as often and as detailed as the class size permits, we provide learners information they can use to improve their oral communication and interpersonal skills. By providing specific examples of what lower- and higher-level contributions look or sound like, we help students identify the kinds of comments and questions that advance learning, even if these utterances are ungraded.


Delprato, D.J. 1977. Increasing classroom participation with self-monitoring. The Journal of Educational Research, 70: 225-227.

Fassinger, P.A. 1996. Professors’ and Students’ Perceptions of Why Students Participate in Class. Teaching Sociology, 24(1): 25-33.

Foster, L.N., McClearly, D.F., Aspiranti, K.B., Nalls, M.L., Quillivan, C.C., Taylor, C.M., & R.L. Williams, R.L. 2009. Increasing Low-Responding Students’ Participation in Class Discussion. Journal of Behavioral Education, 18: 173-188.

Gopinath, C. 1999. Alternatives to Instructor Assessment of Class Participation. Journal of Education for Business, 75(1): 10-14.

Junn, E. 1994. Pearls of wisdom: Enhancing student class participation with an innovative exercise. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 21: 385-387.

Paff, L. Forthcoming. Does Grading Encourage Participation? Evidence & Implications, College Teaching.

Rocca, K.A. 2010. Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review, Communication Education, 59(2): 185-213.


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on July 6, 2015, in Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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