Pros of Participation Grades 1

I’ve written a series of posts addressing some common criticisms of giving grades for participation in class. For each of those criticisms, there was a strong rebuttal. Basically, they can be summed up as “this isn’t a problem if you do it right.” Now I’m going to go over some of the arguments teachers give in favor of participation grading, and try to include weaknesses of these arguments as well.

1. It can positively contribute to socialization.

This is not a universal benefit; I am only arguing this point as it applies to some implementations of participation grades in some subjects and circumstances. For example, this “pro” would not apply to a math teacher having students shout out their answers to the homework for “class participation” purposes.

This argument is based on a function of schooling. There are many different reasons people cite for having an education system: economic benefits, successful democracies, etc. One of these is also to help promote socialization. One might try to argue that this is only really important for younger grades (like kindergarteners learning how to share and not to hit other kids) or even that this isn’t necessary in school at all. After all, there are plenty of homeschooled children that grow up to be perfectly functional adults. Then again, as the recent “metoo” trend of publicizing sexual harassment which had been going on for years and years has shown, maybe a lot of people need more help being socialized, not less.

Regardless, one of the functions of school is to be a tool for socialization. Students need to learn a multitude of cultural norms to function well and fully participate in their societies. A mismatch between a student’s actual behavior in the world and their expected behavior can be devastating, as this can make them seriously struggle to succeed. Of course, there are certainly downsides to socialization: many norms can be illogical or even unethical (though that depends on whether you subscribe to a more relativistic or objectivist view of ethics).

Additionally, in some subjects, social interactions are a part of the actual content of a course. For example, in art, the students are not only learning about artwork itself, but how to talk about art and how to give and receive criticism. It turns out that there are, in fact, better and worse ways to give someone a critique. In these circumstances, grading participation is not just about checking off that students spoke in class, but considering if they have actually learned how and why to speak in a particular way. There is constructive criticism and nonconstructive criticism. Students can defend themselves with reasoned responses or with defensiveness and counterattacks. These skills are a part of a good art class, and they relate to having successful social interactions in life as well.

When students do not participate in a group critique, they are not demonstrating that they have some of the actual skills required to interpret art. That is, failing to participate means they have failed in a typical grading sense. It’s not an arbitrary extra criterion that the teacher has just lumped on top of the assessment plan, it is a basic and useful part of the actual subject. In this case, participation and student behavior is something worth grading.

In other subjects, particularly in the humanities, group discussions can play a key role in class and are often the focus of participation grades. Here, socialization may be a teacher’s motivating factor. Group discussions don’t just teach students about a particular subject, they teach students how to behave in a group. Giving peer feedback, either verbal or written, can help teach the idea of a social obligation. Reading the material in advance (another item that is often found on some teachers’ participation rubrics) can relate to the idea of an expectation for preparedness. Not only can this show students how to show respect (whether genuine or not) for their teacher, it can also demonstrate a kind of work ethic. All of these things are aspects of socialization.

These are social skills that people need to function well in society, and they are not the kinds of things we could teach well as isolated subjects. The best bet is to integrate them into other subjects, where appropriate. Assessing these skills is typically done though assessing participation. As in the art example, this isn’t a huge leap away from the purpose of a particular class. Students don’t just talk about Shakespeare to learn Shakespeare, they talk to learn how to talk about Shakespeare, and that includes a variety of general participatory behaviors.

As I have brought up before, there are some problems with this socialization argument. It doesn’t apply to all situations. It’s probably a better argument for younger grades, and post-secondary educators need to be very careful that participation really is a part of mastering their subject.

There is another criticism of this reason that is worth addressing. Even granting the importance of socialization and it being a function of schools, why does it need to be graded? Why not just have a behavior policy that is enforced through other means? Aside from this sometimes being impossible (at some levels, a teacher’s grading policy may be the only behavioral enforcement they can do), it meets the purpose of grading in general. Grades are assigned as a reflection of assessment. Assessment is meant to be a way to measure if students have certain knowledge and skills. The knowledge and skills taught in schools are meant to serve particular social functions, and socialization is one of those functions. In this way, grading participation is totally appropriate within the context of schools.

Still, if this was the only benefit cited for grading participation, it would not be a very strong case. However, there are a number of other “pros” I will break down in the following weeks.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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