Death to Participation Grades

As a Creative Writing major, I’m expected to speak during my workshops and to provide helpful feedback regarding another student’s work. Most teachers refer to this as the ominous “participation grade.”

My first experience with these workshops and “participation grade” was a fiction technique class in which the teacher told us “If I can’t remember your face or your voice at the end of each day, your grade will suffer.” Pretty daunting, but I didn’t see it  being a problem.

Throughout the semester, I’d made several comments that I deemed especially important to the authors, without regurgitating the same nonsense everyone else believed was necessary. I just didn’t see the point of suggesting the same thing 2 people before me said, but in different words. How is that helpful?

My friend in the class was a talkative guy. He didn’t necessarily do his daily work on time (or at all sometimes) and even skipped class up to the absences we were allotted. He was told by the teacher that points would be docked from his grade.

Imagine my surprise when grades were finally released and he received a higher grade than me (only by half a grade letter, but still) because he had a higher participation grade than I did. A student who finished every assignment to a tee, attended every single class, and wrote two short stories that were graded as A’s received a lower grade than a student that didn’t do nearly as much work.

Participation grades have truly become a menace within Florida State University’s music and English departments. This grade that claims to encourage class discussion acts only as a punishment to those less vocal, and it accounts for up to twenty percent of a student’s grade.

“I find it almost entirely subjective,” said Dr. Deborah Coxwell-Teague, first year composition program director. “Unless a teacher has a well thought-out method for determining participation and is prepared to keep track of who speaks, what they say, and the value of the input, they should not include it.”

She makes an important and excellent point. How a teacher would remember if someone spoke every day in class is beyond imagining. Most teachers, at least in my experience, don’t exactly write down someone’s name every time they “participate” in class. If anything, I assume most teachers just take a guess. Maybe some even follow the sentiments of my former teacher.

In addition, the participation grade can be used as some type of weird vendetta the teacher has against a student. A teacher could simply punish a student, for whatever reason, by lowering their participation grade and the student would never know. And because the grade is subjective, there is no proof that the student did or did not speak in class. It’s ridiculous.

Some teachers state only that students are expected to add to class discussion. As to what exactly that entails, students aren’t sure. Questions of whether the grade is rewarded on quality or quantity remain unanswered. Regardless of the logistics of the grade itself, the case of the introverted student must be considered. Punishing a student for stage fright seems highly unreasonable.

“Whenever I went to a show that had audience participation, I’d sit in the back to avoid it,” said James Sullivan, a psychology professor at FSU. “Forcing these students to speak up in class is the same thing.”

Sullivan explains that proposing “What do you think?” to a shy student point blank is a terrible idea. “If a teacher notices you are petrified, they should have the human decency to leave you alone. Read the body language.”

Some students don’t have an issue with the grade.

“I am not opposed,” said Shannon Lyles, a music student. “I think that it serves as encouragement to be on time to class, to come to your classes consistently, and to be engaged in the class discussion.” She does, however, point out that it has a tendency to hurt those uncomfortable with speaking.

Still, there must be other ways to seek student participation other than making students speak impromptu to an entire class. Sullivan gives some ideas, “Walk around. Circulate the room. I tell the class that if we can get discussion going, we can skip the next chapter.”

The fact of the matter is that teachers just need to be more concerned about finding an appropriate way to encourage class discussion, rather than sticking to a system that rewards the extroverted and punishes the more reserved student.