One of the most difficult grading concerns is assigning a grade for “participation” or “group discussion.”
Accurate and fair grading for participation and discussion is important as it often makes up a large portion of the class grade, especially so for those classes in which the major course content relates to oral/speaking skills. In part because it is so subjective, there are several concerns related to grading students for their class participation/discussion as follows.
- Assessing quantity: How much discussion/participation came from an individual student? In a class of thirty students in which students typically sit in small groups of three or four to hold a discussion, it can be quite a challenge for a teacher to circulate around the room and determine how much each student is participating in the conversation.
- Assessing quality: How much relevant and appropriate discussion/participation came from the student? Besides the already ambiguous task of determining how much each individual student participated is the concern with assessing the quality of that participation. Although a student may participate, and participate a lot, in class discussion, this does not guarantee the participation is quality participation. How much of it is relevant to the conversation, how much does it advance the conversation, how courteous is the participation to the other discussion participants? These are all issues that need to be addressed in meaningfully assigning grades to participation.
- Assessing relative quality: A further concern in assessing quality of participation is the degree of quality. If letter grading is required for the course, what is the dividing line between “excellent participation” required for an “A” and “very good participation” for a B? The judgment would seem very subjective and ambiguous in an area already so.
So is it even possible to grade participation and discussion? There are a few strategies and tools, actually, that will move the instructor toward fair and accurate grading of group discussion that follow.
10 Methods of Awarding Individual Grades for Group Discussion
Begin by Discussing the Nature of Academic Discourse
This is critical to the entire topic of course discussion and participation, what it is to communicate in an academic environment. Most students new to college, understandably, have little understanding of what is expected for academic discourse. The teacher should therefore go over some ground rules such as the importance of not interrupting and listening attentively. Beyond these basics, other obligations of academic discourse should be raised: “listening actively” does not mean pretending to listen while planning what you will say but to really pay attention to the other speaker; discussion does not mean just spewing your ideas and feelings on the topic but rather to build on the existing discussion (which is one reason you need to pay attention to what others say) and advancing the conversation in some way to arrive at a new understanding of the topic.
Design a Rubric. Discuss It and Define Terms
A rubric is a grading guide that shows the different levels, such as from Excellent to Poor, and criteria for the grade, such as listening, asking questions, sharing opinions, and so forth. Generally speaking, the simpler the rubric, the better. Rubrics can be difficult at times for teachers, who are experts in interpreting and writing rubrics, to figure out; therefore, students will struggle understanding a complex rubric. I suggest three levels of participation: “Good,” “Average,” and “Needs Improvement.” In addition, at the most, there should be three related descriptors for each level: e.g., “listens to peers,” “contributes to the conversation,” and “advances the discussion.”
What is the difference between “advances the discussion thoughtfully” and “advances the discussion well”? Give examples and model the difference, perhaps from videotaped conversations from other classes or by modeling yourself what expected participation is. Otherwise, the difference between discussion that proceeds “thoughtfully” and “well” is an abstract, fine line even to instructors. Again, instructors themselves have to be trained in how to use a rubric and are shown extensive examples of each level and descriptor before being expected to apply the rubric. We should do no less for our students before they can be expected to see how the rubric applies to their own participation. Students will in the process of learning the grading standards also learn what quality class participation looks like.
Observe Students Interacting in Groups. Take Notes on Each Group. Take Notes on Each Participant within the Group
In a discussion/participation class, the instructor cannot hide behind her desk or the podium. She is as much a class participant as the students are. The teacher needs to circulate between the groups, sit among the students, and listen to their discussions. Notes may be taken of how the group functions as a whole as well as the performance of each member of the group.
Discuss Student Participation; Offer Feedback to the Class as a Whole
Once you have taken notes on each of the groups, you will see some patterns emerge and can offer feedback: e.g., while students are listening to each other thoughtfully, they could be more extensive in their comments within groups. These comments can be offered at the beginning of a class to give students an idea of what skill their group should be focusing on.
Review the Rubric
Periodically, review the rubric and the criteria for grading to remind students of the expectations. Students will, as the course progresses, develop in their understanding of the rubric and can bring that understanding to the discussion. Ask students for examples of varying degrees of participation. Now that students have been interacting in groups for several weeks, they have developed their own ideas on what quality participation is and is not.
Have Students Rate Their Own Participation
Students often have surprisingly apt insights into their own performance. If solicited, they can often produce a reasonable assessment of their own progress and a rationale that can be taken into consideration as part of the grade as a whole. This also further reinforces the grading standards for the student.
Midterm Rating. Meet with Students Individually to Discuss Progress and Goals in Participation
At midterm, if possible meet with each student individually to discuss strengths and weaknesses and areas to work on in the latter part of the class. The session need not be very long, perhaps on average no more than five minutes, and students can also use the session to ask any questions they might have.
Rate Each Other’s Participation. Offer Feedback
Just as students can be very apt in judging their own work, they can also be quite good at understanding quality in their peers’ work. Having students watch other groups in discussion and rating the performance of its members is another activity that can reinforce the understanding of the rubric and develop ability to critique other’s ideas and communication in an appropriate manner.
Discuss Progress over Term
The day will come when the course is at its end. At this point, students can reflect back to where they were at the start of the term and compare to where they are now, perhaps watching clips videotapes of the class over the course of the term. Almost always, they are pleasantly surprised by their change and growth—going from mumbling into their desks to confidently looking at their audience while speaking clearly.
Of all the course grading criteria, “participation” is perhaps the most ambiguous. However, by clarifying issues regarding the nature of academic discourse and its expectations, and through developing methods to assess participation, teachers can fairly and accurately rate students’ participation as well as develop student understanding of academic discourse.