Using a Participation Rubric: A Case for Fairness and Learning

November 15, 2014 2 comments

Johanna Inman
Assistant Director, Teaching & Learning Center
Temple University

In my first year of teaching after graduate school I received (what I thought then) was sage advice about grading: Always make participation at least 20% of the final grade in your class. This strategy gives you wiggle room to make the ultimate decision about a student’s grade. At the time it didn’t raise any red flags. In fact, it seemed like solid common sense advice, especially for the courses that I taught which were mostly in the visual arts.

It is fairly common in an undergraduate art course (and I imagine in other disciplines as well) to have students who submit really amazing work, but believing they are the next Picasso, put forth a lot of attitude and only a little effort. These students tend to coast on a bit of talent and intuition, but rarely challenge themselves or improve. Then, there are those students who submit fairly average work, but who put forth enormous effort, regularly step outside of their comfort zone, demonstrate enthusiasm for their accomplishments, and improve tremendously throughout the semester.

So when I received this advice I thought of course! Shouldn’t I be able to penalize a slacker or reward added effort? Shouldn’t students’ final grades reflect their overall performance in the class? Back then my answer was absolutely yes! However, today my answer to these questions is slightly different.  Today I still say yes—but with one caveat. I now believe that participation should only be graded if students are provided a clear definition and standards for participation. To achieve this, I use a participation rubric.  A “rubric,” simply defined as a list of specific criteria for grading, provides this clarity to them.

I advocate the use of a participation rubric for two reasons: fairness and learning.

The Fair Thing to Do

After seven years of working with faculty in various disciplines, I now have a keen understanding that faculty hold a broad range of expectations and definitions for participation. Moreover, expectations for participation range from discipline to discipline, as widely as the expectations for students from their first year to graduate school. Students cannot possibly know what is expected of them unless we tell them specifically and they may not be able to improve on their own unless we provide a clear pathway.

Additionally, as that sage advice I received demonstrates, too often a participation grade does not reflect participation, but rather personal bias. What learning outcome is assessed when faculty use participation to reward a teacher’s pet or penalize an annoying student? It is simply unfair to hold students to enigmatic standards of conduct that are a mystery to them, and sometimes even to us.

Promote Student Learning

As Levi and Stevens lay out in Introduction to Rubrics (2005), a rubric is a valuable tool for instructors because it can significantly shorten the time spent on grading, provide effective feedback, and facilitate student learning. I want to expand on this last point with regard to participation.

Before indiscriminately adding a 20% participation grade, we need to back up and ask: What is the intended learning goal for participation? For example, in some of my courses a learning outcome of participation is the ability to engage in respectful, pertinent, critical discussions about course topics. In order to reach this goal students need practice, but they also need to learn what signifies a “respectful, pertinent, critical” discussion.

To help students reach this goal, first I define expectations for class discussion in the participation rubric. In class I review the rubric with students, model the expectations outlined in the rubric, and provide monthly feedback on their performance as compared to those standards. Through this process I have shared the learning goal and provided examples, opportunity for practice, and targeted feedback with a road map for improvement. In Tools for Teaching (2009), Barbara Gross-Davis suggests adding an additional step to the evaluation process by using the participation rubric to incorporate peer and/or self-assessment. This is an excellent learning activity and an added safeguard for faculty concerned about personal bias or subjectivity.

Another use of the participation rubric is to help measure the learning goal of developing academic or professional conduct. Increasingly, I see faculty resorting to punitive policies regarding lateness, cell phone use, or other disruptive behaviors in class. While these policies might clearly define unacceptable behavior in class, students typically interpret them as idiosyncrasies of the teacher—not hard and fast rules for all academic and professional situations. On the other hand, a participation rubric shares a clear, positive ideal model of academic or professional etiquette. The details provided in a rubric can help students learn complex cultural, professional, academic, and disciplinary standards. With positive expectations set, faculty can use the rubric to provide constructive feedback to students who are engaging in behaviors that do not meet those standards.

As mentioned previously, definitions and expectations for participation range widely from the classroom, to the studio, to the lab, and they should. A participation rubric should clearly align with the goals you have for students in your course. Is respectfully listening to and discussing diverse perspectives a learning goal in your course? Is learning to support statements with evidence from the readings a learning goal? Do you want students to be able to distinguish between the quantity and quality of their contributions? Set these standards in the rubric.

Although there are countless ways a participation rubric can help teach and measure learning, the key here is to prioritize. As is the advice with all rubrics, a participation rubric should steer students in the right direction, without overwhelming them. I recommend keeping your rubric to 3-5 key dimensions that align with your course learning goals. It’s also a best practice with all rubrics to be consistent across the dimension descriptions by using clear, concise language that your students will understand.

If we want our students to become valued professionals, disciplinary thinkers, and ultimately our colleagues, we must provide an opportunity for students to learn this craft and practice it. A participation rubric can  support this learning. When we share our goals and standards, we empower students to take responsibility to reach them. If you are one of the many teachers that grade participation here is my advice to you: seize this opportunity to improve your students’ learning and use a participation rubric.

Get Started!

Are you ready to dig deeper and give this a try? The following examples and additional resources can provide a starting point. As with any tool developed by someone else for their own purpose, the key is to adapt rather than adopt. Your first step is to specify what is important for your students to do and learn through class participation. Then take a look at the following links for additional ideas and let us know how it goes!

References & Resources

Bean, J. C. & Peterson, D. (1998). Grading classroom participation. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 74, 33-40.

Davis, Barbara Gross. (2009). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Stevens, D. D. & Levi, A. (2005). Introduction to rubrics: An assessment tool to save grading time, convey effective feedback, and promote student learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishers.

2 Comments on “Using a Participation Rubric: A Case for Fairness and Learning

  1. Great article. I completely agree and my journey to participation rubrics has followed a similar path to yours. I have found that “Participation” if not explicitly defined amounts to nodding, smiling and making small talk in many cases! The categories in this sample rubric are terrific I have never broken out listening as a discrete skill. Thanks for this resource!

  2. Since I teach mostly online graduate courses, my experiences are with grading student participation in asynchronous discussions mediated through technology. While I have not adopted a rubric for grading, I do model the kinds of discursive postings I expect of my students as well as provide a fairly specific guideline for participation. I have conducted research on participation in online discussions and found that many faculty who teach online measure participation by # of posts or words/post. I have taken a more qualitative approach and seek deeper, more thoughtful discussions that promote learning and professional development. An article I published about this approach and the theory behind it is available for anyone interested: Topper, A. (2005). Facilitating student interactions through discursive moves: An instructor’s experience teaching online graduate courses in educational technology. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6(1), 55-67.

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