Participation, Engagement, and Grading – Oh my!

by Robert Cole, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

I was recently scrolling through my social media feed and happened upon a proclamation that the individual making the post was no longer calling class participation, participation. That instead he was calling it engagement. And then, he went on to delineate several facets of what engagement meant in his class. I was struck by this and the comments that it drew because I do not grade “participation” in classes I teach. There are many reasons for this, but among them is I want students to do so much more than show up and make sure they say something during the class. Mark Sample (2022) doesn’t grade what he identifies as engagement either. He feels if students are engaged that will show in their work, and if they are not engaged, well, that will too.

When I think of engagement, I typically think about the Conrad and Donaldson (2011) Phases of Engagement framework. However, this is really more for how one might think of engagement over the course of a semester rather than during a class meeting on any given day. So, Sample’s (2022) ideas have helped clarify for me some of the things to think about when I envision what engagement means. The qualities he identified in his post include but are not limited to:

  • Preparation – the actions students take prior to the class meeting from doing homework to reviewing readings and preparing materials.
  • Focus – Honing the skill of paying attention rather than giving in to the natural tendency to be distracted.
  • Presence – a close relative of focus, being a part of the goings on in the class beyond simply attending.
  • Asking questions – asking questions of the instructor, classmates, themselves. Different situations may call for different forms of questioning, but asking deep questions would be an indicator of engaging.
  • Listening – Making the effort to hear and understand what others are saying and perhaps what is left unsaid.
  • Specificity – the ability to refer specifically to ideas or concepts set out in the readings or offered by others in the class.
  • Synthesizing – In this case, synthesizing means the ability to make connections between readings and discussions or between content from one class to content and ideas from a class from earlier in the semester or even across the program.

Consider instead of grading students’ “participation” asking them to engage in your class. Then tell them what you expect. Maybe the qualities above will help. Perhaps you have qualities you would add. Hopefully this is a good place to start thinking about it.

If you’d like to read about how another instructor has dropped grading participation, there is a great article written by James Lang in the Chronicle. If that is not something you can consider at the moment, Dr. Lang wrote a follow-up in the chronicle entitled 2 Ways to Fairly Grade Class Participation. And of course, we at the Reinert Center would be glad to talk with you about ways to think about the role grading and participation may or may not play into your course.

Conrad, R. M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. John Wiley & Sons.

Sample, M. [@samplereality]. (2022, August, 28). I no longer call class participation “participation.” I call it engagement and emphasize that it’s not just about (and in fact may be the opposite of) being talkative in class. [Image attached] [Tweet]. Twitter.