Why grading class participation is wrong

Giving marks for class participation is inefficient, unfair and offers an excuse for poor teaching. It is not allowed on the Cambridge MFin.

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The majority of business schools include class participation in grading of students, typically 20-30% of the total mark and sometimes more. The justification is that it rewards the type of behaviour that teachers want: more students asking questions, offering opinions and sharing their experience. These things certainly enliven a class but there are problems. I was doubtful about allowing MFin teachers to include class participation in their grades but several, having taught MBA courses before where this is normal practice, were keen to do so. I stopped it when I heard of a class in which the class participation grade was decided on the basis of a teaching assistant (a PhD student) counting the number of times that students put their hands up.

Class participation grading is not allowed on any course that the MFin organises. But we share some electives with the MBA and some of their teachers use it. This summer, the grades on one elective were unusually high, across the board. It turned out that the teacher allocated 35% of the grade to participation and gave 100% marks to many of the class. In the Cambridge marking scheme it is normally impossible to get above 90% and anything over 80% is for truly exceptional work. So these grades are inconsistent with the marking applied across the rest of the MBA and MFin.

In another elective the grades were uniformly very low, far lower than the students had got on any other course. The teachers gave low grades for class participation, as they were “disappointed” by the students’ involvement. My immediate question to these teachers would be, whose fault is that?

Class participation, properly defined, would include a range of things from turning up, doing the pre-reading, thinking about the material, considering points of reference to other courses, examples and personal experience, listening thoughtfully and making well judged, constructive, clear and concise comments and questions. If class participation is to be graded at all then it should be done on the basis of a clear set of rules. I found one example from the Teaching Resource Centre at the University of Virginia, which calibrates carefully all of these actions. I have seen nothing as detailed at Cambridge.

But even if it is done in that thoughtful and clear way, I believe this form of grading is wrong, for the following reasons.

First, it’s inefficient because it measures inputs not outputs. There is evidence that actively talking about a subject helps a student to learn it but even so it’s a means to an end, which is to understand the material, remember it and be able to apply it in future in an appropriate way. Class participation doesn’t measure any of these things. It’s equivalent to grading the time or effort that a student puts into an assignment or the number of hours they spend in the library: worthy perhaps but not the same as assessing the actual assignment.

Second, it’s potentially (and I think actually) very unfair. It penalises people who are shy or introverted (these are not quite the same thing). I recently watched the TED talk of Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Cain, an introvert herself, claims that they make up one quarter to one third of the population. She argues, correctly I think, that there is a widespread bias in western society in favour of extroverts, especially in politics and business. Classrooms that reward talk continue this bias. There are many situations when it would be best to pause and think, but that is not encouraged by rewarding class participation, especially when it is crudely measured by the level of noise a student makes.

And what struck me above all in Cain’s wonderful talk is the plea to “stop the group work!” Lots of people enjoy group working and sharing their ideas but the introverts hate it. They have a contribution to make that is just as important but they need to make it differently, not by being forced to speak.

When I took the Myers-Briggs personality test years ago I came out almost exactly on the boundary between introvert and extrovert so I think I have some idea of what introverts feel. I can share the anticipatory misery when hearing a group facilitator say that we’re all going to throw an orange around to get to know each other. I have worked with excellent people from all parts of the personality scale; it is clearly a good idea to fit people to roles but there is no intrinsic benefit in any one personality type. The Huffington Post (admittedly not exactly a scholarly source) lists 30 famously successful introverts, including Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi. Consider how well grading participation would have captured their talents.

It’s also unfair to those students, primarily not from North America or Europe, who have been brought up to listen respectfully and not to push their views. This cultural conditioning is not necessarily a good thing, as it may lead to insufficient willingness to challenge blatantly wrong or bad behaviour out of a misplaced sense of duty. But it is not the place of western universities to force Asian and African students to strain against a lifetime of learning in order to avoid being penalised relative to noisy Americans and Europeans.

Lastly I believe that good teaching should bring about the right level of participation. Forcing the students to contribute is a lazy shortcut for teachers who are not doing their job properly. Unfortunately most leading universities recruit, promote and retain academics mainly on the basis of their research. Business schools are under greater pressure to make sure the teaching is good too, because they charge the highest fees. But the reality is that most academics are professional researchers and only amateur teachers. Most receive no instruction in how to teach, no peer review on teaching and no continuing professional development for teaching. These are all standard features of high school teachers’ careers. So it’s not surprising that many university teachers are not confident in their ability to create a lively classroom so they insist that students are penalised for not talking. This is understandable but unjustifiable.

To the best of my knowledge the only department at the University of Cambridge which awards grades for participation is Cambridge Judge Business School. And it is mainly or only teachers on the MBA which do it. But I know that even within those degree programmes there are people who support restricting the class participation grades and stricter enforcement of the rules, which require all teachers to specify clear criteria in advance and to provide detailed explanations to students on their participation grades. I wish them success.

6 Responses to Why grading class participation is wrong

  1. Agreed. Simon. Besides, I am convinced that from students’ perspective, individual curiosity and passion are the prerequisites for good learning. If they truly love their major, they will do the excellent job on class participation automatically. Forcing students to participate seems to be needless.

  2. Dear Simon,

    What a fantastic post! I completely agree with your views.

    At Sydney University where I am an affiliate, I do have class participation marks (Maximum 5%) which I use as an reserve if it is really needed to push a participant based on their overall performance and score out of remaining 95%.

    Thanks again for such a wonderful post.

    Regards, Chandra

  3. Simon, A very interesting and well balanced article. In my teaching at Anglia Ruskin we get many students who are introverted, often they are from countries where speaking up and challenging the teacher is not encouraged, hence I agree it would be most unfair to penalise them against the more confident and often verbose European students. I recall one student who sat at the back and by week 10 of 12 had not said a word. She stayed after class to discuss her assignment and within her asking me two questions I knew she would score a distinction, her understanding of the topic and the position she was taking in her paper were way beyond what I would have expected someone of such limited experience. I later learned other tutors had the same experience with her. Quiet but quite brilliant. I guess as lecturers our role is to encourage those with really important contributions to make themselves heard and manage the talkers sensitively.

  4. Simon,

    You raise many valid points in this post. I also truely believe that students contributing themselves in class is very important, as it furthers learning.

  5. Thanks for this important article. .Today I was confused about putting mark on participating or not ! But now I’ve decided to not give marks for participation since you refuted its worthiness efficacy. I am teaching in Ishik university in Iraq

  6. Hi, Simon. I am so excited to see this post. Totally agree. In my uni, the participation made up usually 10% of grade or even 20% (including group work) in one of my courses. as an introverted person, forcing me to speak is to change my personality and myself. But as the participation is important for my grade, I am so suffered, nervous, and painful every class.

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