The Paradox of the Participation Grade

Ashley Thorne

Recently NAS alluded to the increased frequency of grade inflation among institutions of higher learning nationwide. According to a new study, students are now doing less work than ever before, but are expecting A's. Since when did an A mean only completing course requirements? Wouldn't it make sense that a C, the middle grade, is reserved for satisfactory completion, while a B means above average, and an A signifies above and beyond the "call of duty," so to speak? We can argue about fair and appropriate grading measures all day long, of course, but we live in a culture obsessed with good grades, the pursuit of which often compromises the quality of work. My concern lies with one particular aspect of the college course grade. While attending a liberal arts institution a few years ago, I noticed that more than a handful of classes had dedicated a rather large percentage of the grading rubric to the nebulous notion of "participation." Sometimes it was a solid twenty to thirty percent, and in one case, it was an astronomic fifty percent. Personally, I enjoy participating in class. In fact, discussing ideas openly with the professor and my peers was one of the more intellectually stimulating aspects of my education. These classroom discussions, however, were organic—they arose out of students' sincere desire to engage with the texts and each other.  But when participation is a requirement, the outcome is a forced, stilted form of discussion. Since students are required to talk to make the grade, the carrot on the stick leads students by the nose into saying whatever comes into their heads, whether or not such musings are informed by a careful consideration of course materials. And because students are increasingly doing less work and expecting better grades, in a class with large participation requirements, students quickly learn how to cut corners. For example, the class in which participation counted for half of the grade was often a forum for empty talk because students quickly figured out that they didn't have to read everything prior to class in order to put their two cents in. They could spout opinions off the top of their heads with little consideration for critical thought, and they'd get their "check" on participation for the day. Of course, professors have the prerogative to set their own standards for their classes. And in certain class situations, like in introductory foreign language courses, participation grades are certainly appropriate, because speech practice—constantly talking in the foreign language—is a critical part of the learning process no matter what the content of the discussion. However, as someone who has gone through the system, paying close attention to what furthered critical thought and what didn't, I believe professors should reconsider the high emphasis placed on forced participation. Consider that some students may feel uncomfortable bringing up their real opinions in a classroom dynamic where everyone thinks the same. Consider also that a student who blabs away in class isn't necessarily the hardest working student who wishes to further critical thought. He may just be another grade-grubbing opportunist. In this sense, the participation grade is a paradox. While its purpose is ostensibly to further thoughtful inquiry and debate, it may end up producing a class full of parrots who talk just for the sake of talking. This guest post is contributed by Kate Cunningham, who writes about online university rankings.  She welcomes your questions and comments at her email: cn.kate1@gmail.com.

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