Have you ever wondered what would happen if you stopped giving students participation grades? Professor Berkeley Kaite did and decided to find out. Berkeley, a professor in McGill University’s English Department, teaches a course called Topics in Literature and Film — Solitude (ENGL 385). After teaching this course for 7 years, Berkeley revised the evaluation scheme for the Winter 2020 term and eliminated the 10% for participation. In the following interview, Berkeley shares what prompted her decision and why she’s not planning to go back to participation grades.
Carolyn: When you ask students to “participate” in your course, what do you expect them to do?
Berkeley: I expect students to attend class, respond to my questions, offer their own insights on the course material, and move the class discussion along in conjunction with peers’ input and questions.
C: Why is it important for students in this course to participate?
B: Students’ participation adds to a robust classroom discussion. Their contributions help them develop their understanding of course material and help me help them in their progress through the material. I also believe in the “talking cure,” namely, that we can work out ideas through verbalizing them.
C: Why did you decide to remove the participation grade? What were you hoping to achieve?
B: I think there are some students who are used to participation grades because they’re pretty common, and I think some students have a cynical attitude. I imagined students thinking, “Now, what kind of question can I ask … what can I say that’s going to be worth 2.7 marks toward my 10 marks?” They want to be rewarded for anything they say in class whether it has any substance or not. I had the impression some students felt compelled to attend class just to earn their participation grade, and I didn’t like how that made me feel. I also imagine they don’t like to feel obligated to attend just because their participation grade depends on it. I occasionally sensed an atmosphere of stress in the classroom and I wanted to minimize that.
C: How did you communicate to students what your expectations were for class participation?
B: Here’s what I put in the syllabus:
Attendance & Participation: There are no grades for either attendance or participation. Please note: This does not mean I think lectures and ensuing discussions are to be dismissed or considered insignificant. On the contrary, in classes I will make clear how to analyze our texts, what to look for, emphasize and question. Lecture material and discussions deepen our understanding of course content and help you succeed in your assignments. As well, students provide thought-provoking questions that add immeasurably to our understanding of the material. Lectures are significant; you should want to be in class and participate in class discussion for its own sake and for your own sake. Note also: I will provide written comments on the assignments of only those who routinely attend class. Others can see me in my office for feedback on written work.
I also stated verbally in class: “I don’t want you here if you don’t want to be here, but I’m not at all saying that I don’t think the lectures are unimportant.” I talked with students about the value of all of us being in class for the right reasons.
C: How did not having participation grades play out?
B: It went well. Students attended class and participated. They were free agents. It was kind of like reverse psychology—you tell them they don’t have to be there and they show up of their own free will. Without feeling the pressure of having to be in class to get marks, students could just say what was on their minds. At office hours, students dropped by to talk about material. A few times, they came in pairs, which I loved, and which was not the norm.
C: How did the change affect you or your approach to teaching this course?
B: I didn’t think about who was or wasn’t in class. I didn’t fret about students being upset about their participation grades and wanting to negotiate them. I love it when students want to talk about the material and not the grade. I felt much more relaxed. My energy was freed up to focus more intensely on the delivery of the material to, what I assumed were, interested students. Showing up to class was “our” reward. Everyone was in class for the right reasons. I also think it made students better listeners, as they were free to do just that: listen and think. There was no pressure to talk on the spot.
Students had the freedom to skip class … So what? It turns out not to be a big deal, and it shouldn’t be a big deal, but when you have a participation grade, it becomes a big deal …
Students had the freedom to skip class. I mean, students don’t come to every class for a myriad of reasons: some have allergies, some are sick, some are hungover, some are too tired, some are writing another essay, and some don’t like the book or the film. So what? It turns out not to be a big deal, and it shouldn’t be a big deal, but when you have a participation grade, it becomes a big deal because it creates tension when students have to show up but can’t or don’t want to. Students shouldn’t be penalized when they don’t come to class and they shouldn’t have to duck when they see me in the corridor.
I used to give assignments that suggested students didn’t really have to be in class: something worth 50% and another worth 40%, suggesting students could cram for their take home and cobble together an argument from a few readings. I don’t have those kinds of assignments anymore. It’s too stressful for students when so much of the grade hinges on two essays that could fail them if they don’t do well. Instead, students now do short weekly assignments to develop their thinking for larger essays they will submit.
The short weekly assignments mean students have reflected on the material and they come to class really eager to sink their teeth into it. You can intuit when someone has read the material and it’s inside them and they can’t wait to talk about it and work something out. Students don’t want to sit in a class listening to people talk about a book or movie they haven’t read or seen. That’s deadly. I really love it when students come to class eager to participate. It’s win-win.
C: The term was disrupted by the suspension of classes in mid-March due to COVID-19. What impact did that have on class participation?
B: We met once after Reading Week and then the suspension of classes happened. Because I had returned students’ first essay before the break, I assumed attendance in that class would be weak. Instead, the usual robust number of students showed up, eager to discuss the assigned text, and their final essays, which were submitted after the lockdown, were excellent. I’d like to think that students’ engagement in class before the lockdown enhanced their learning and this was reflected in the quality of the essays. Of course, I can’t say for sure.
C: What advice would you give instructors who might consider removing the participation grade?
B: Ask yourself, “What do you want students to get out of being in class?” Put a clear statement in the syllabus that explains what participation is in your class and why you’re not including a grade for it. Also, state verbally: “I don’t want you here if you don’t want to be here.” Many students don’t read the syllabus and will come out of the woodwork at some point in the term saying, “Oh, I thought there was going to be a participation grade” because they’re used to having one. So, put it in writing and say it aloud in class.
Interested in reading more about strategies for fostering in-class participation?
Weimer, M. (2013, February 13). Moving from participation to contribution. The Teaching Professor. https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/for-those-who-teach/student-comments-moving-from-participation-to-contribution/
Zakrajsek, T. (2017, April 13). Students who don’t participate in class discussions: They are not all introverts. The Scholarly Teacher. https://www.scholarlyteacher.com/post/students-who-dont-participate-in-class-discussions
Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!
(Photo credit: Owen Egan)