Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Grading Participation?

Today, I had an unexpected and quite interesting conversation about grades, including how we evaluate participation, and so I wanted to record some ideas here for further discussion. In the past, while teaching both as a TA and in my first few years at the secondary level, I've always built a participation component into my overall schema. But, after reflecting on what participation means over the past year, I no longer include it. It's a big shift from how I used to approach grading, but I think it's for the best.

The current conception of grading is severely flawed, as more and more educators are realizing; but I just want to focus here on participation, in that it may help us to see this bigger and fuzzier picture more clearly. I'm particularly interested in this question, since it has a lot to do with developing EQ and non-cognitive skills in students, which is one of my major projects this year. With that, grading participation, as I see it, is flawed for developing emotional and social intelligence for a number of reasons:

  • Grades are founded on the "carrot and stick" model that Pink has criticized so well in his discussion on motivation (cf. Drive pp. 32-57). I've come to believe that we should never force kids to participate in class, but rather create the sorts of environments that encourage and welcome their participation in their own individual ways. It's thus our responsibility as educators to facilitate classroom participation, not our kids'. As such, they shouldn't be penalized for our own failures.
  • Based on our different levels of "social comfort" within classrooms, participation cannot be evaluated evenly and fairly within a given group. How do we evaluate the more talkative students beside those who aren't as comfortable or confident voicing their opinions? How can we take into account different levels of brain development and self control? Too often, I fear, we attribute participation grades to personalities more than anything else.
  • As far as I know, participation can't be easily defined and therefore measured. Is there such a thing as a "rubric" for participation, especially within "one size fits all" model? How do we give effective feedback for participation that accurately reflects an understanding of the brain?
  • Most critically of all, perhaps, participation is often used as a tool to "fudge" grades, arbitrarily moving some kids up or down a grade level. Is it fair that one student with an 89.7% should get an "A-", while another a "B+" based solely on participation? Shouldn't an 89.7% that's fairly earned equal another 89.7% (whatever that even means!)? Opacity in grades just isn't fair.
Ultimately, this is a discussion about ego. It's not that egos are inherently bad, per se, but when we let them control us, as in this particular case, we build an expectation for participation, which we use grades to enforce. Within the traditional framework, then, assigning a grade to participation is more about us than about our students. But if we can let go of these expectations and let the kids be themselves, while we work to design engaging environments for them, we can develop EQ without the need for a carrot or a stick. In other words, it's about controlling our ego and expectation by building empathy, or an understanding of our classroom experience from our students' individual perspectives. It's not easy, but I think it's the right thing to do.

I'll admit that I'm heavily biased, so I welcome comments or other ideas below or on Twitter. What do you think about participation? Why or why not do you believe in using it to evaluate students? Can we make it work, or is it inherently flawed? What have I missed?