Wednesday, January 25, 2012

More Syllabus Talk

We tend to discuss teaching stuff a fair bit around here, and the other day, the question of "participation" as part of the grade (and also attendance as part of the grade) came up.

So now I'm wondering, do you folks grade "participation"? And if you do, what counts as "participation" for you? And how do you keep track in a meaningful way?

Do you count attendance in your grades?

Me? I don't count either. We're required to tell students our attendance policy, which suggests that the administration here thinks we count attendance as part of the grade. And indeed, since I read syllabi from across campus, I know lots of people do.

I don't, for a couple of reasons (and the same goes for attendance). On the practical side, it's a pain in the rear to keep track of. I mean, do you mark next to someone's name when they say something in class? What if they say something great, and someone else says something really non-contributive, do they count the same? To be honest, I do my best to facilitate discussions and such, but I can't do that even decently and try to keep track of who's saying what or how often.

I also think that what I really want in class is students who try and are cooperative and respectful with me and each other. But grading that is like grading people wiping their rears.

As far as attendance, I hate the gaming of who gets what excuse and why. The school gives official excused absences for music and sports travel, but I think if someone's kid is sick (or heck, if their dog is sick), then they've made a good decision to prioritize the kid over attending class.

The thing is, I rarely have poor participation or poor attendance in my classes. And when someone isn't attending, they usually have something serious happening and their term is screwed up anyway. And if someone doesn't participate, it may mean that they process verbally slowly, and they may write a really thoughtful paper, or come up with something cool for a project, or whatever. The important thing isn't saying something in class, but learning stuff. I do think that most people learn best when they learn in a variety of ways and by hearing other people learning and by trying out ideas and such and being wrong occasionally. For most people, then, being in a room with other people actively learning helps them learn. Of course, being in a private tutorial would likely be even better for some, but it's not financially realistic here.

And, knock on wood, I almost never have had a student be actively non-cooperative in class. I've had students who can't keep their mouths shut, yes, but when I ask people to, say, freewrite, most of them seem to be doing that. And when I ask them to work in groups, I haven't had anyone refuse.

So why make a rule about something that's so rare that it's not a problem?

I DO try to be really conscious every single day I teach of making that time valuable and worthwhile for everyone in the room. I want students to go away every single day glad that they came to class, glad that they learned something, glad that they've had the experience. I don't always succeed.

There may be regional issues. Students here in the midwest are pretty darned polite, and they're likely to be outwardly cooperative and polite, even if they think something's really stupid or irritating. They're likely to come to class because they're self-selected to be here and have been long trained that being in class is important.

Waht do you do? Why?


  1. Participation counts in some way for 2nd-4th year courses. 2nd year students have to present in class and comment on others' presentations. (They can do the latter online.) Seminar students have a participation self-evaluation they submit at the end of term (and which I compare against my own notes).

    Attendance doesn't count at all, although it factors into the senior seminar participation mark. If you're not in class, you're missing a bit part of that participation. So I don't take attendance in the other classes: students can attend or not as they wish. However, I have documented a clear correlation between excessive absences and low marks.

    You're right that we should be more worried about if classes are hitting the mark rather than marking who's there and who's not. And, to be honest, when I have eighty students, I don't want to waste time recording attendance. That's time we could all be doing something more important, like learning!

  2. My classes have a cap of 22 students, so it's not a bother to me to take attendance. I do it every day - mainly, at first, to learn their names. I do count attendance and participation as part of the grade because they are both ways that students who aren't the strongest writers can make use of the skills they do have - being responsible (ie, showing up) and using verbal communication skills. Plus, since I teach almost exclusively freshmen these days, it helps to give them incentive to show up.

    I think you make a perfectly fine case for not having attendance/participation count. But I have found at this school participation is very, very low unless I force them to talk. I have never had that problem in many years of teaching - not to this extent. (Last year, I had one class of IT professions who didn't want to talk, but they were an anomaly.) Anyway, I use the grades for these things as a booster, too. For me, it's easy to remember who's talking and how well they are engaging. I'm sure it's not for everyone, but I have a good memory for it and don't have to write it down.

    So I don't know - I see it both ways. But one thing about our gen-ed classes is that there is a strict attendance policy. You can fail if you miss six classes, and a lot of kids get very close to that mark. For those classes, I'm required to take attendance. I would anyway, but it's policy in there.

  3. I require attendance in my first semester required core course (a scary math class few people want to take). I don't in my upper level classes.

    I didn't used to at all, but students who didn't go to class complained I didn't teach things that were on the exams... so...

  4. Anonymous2:19 PM

    So my context is really different but participation is 50% of the grade in my classes. We have to take attendance, obviously. When it comes to grading discussion, we grade both discussion skills, frequency of contribution, and content. I do keep notes during discussion on the quality of what is being said and on how a student is participating. I also have student observers who primarily note frequency of participation. I do my grades out of 100% for a given discussion. I use my notes and student observer forms to calculate grades. I do have a rubric for this that tries to balance how a student speaks (respectful? aggressive?), how often s/he speaks, and the content (summarizing the text vs. advancing an original thought).

  5. I count both, and have posted rubrics online that spell out what happens and why. I spent a bit of time articulating what counts and what doesn't. Attendance is easy - I pass around a sign in sheet. My classes are fairly small - a big one is 35. I get to know the students, and can keep track of who contributes and who doesn't. Participation is 40% of their grade, so they know that it's important. And they tell their friends, so those that are not comfortable in that format go elsewhere. Three absences (unexcused) costs them that 40%; five means they fail the class. I don't do exams or papers (except in upper division stuff) - they have to actively participate and demonstrate their learning in every class meeting. Period.

    All this in a uni that stresses student engagement and personal attention. So it's weird, but not totally unheard of...

  6. I always take attendance and--in classes that have 45 students or fewer--post # of classes missed in a column in the electronic gradebook in our course management system. But I mostly don't grade on attendance--it's just a record I keep of who was there when.

    Sometimes, for first year courses, I will have a participation scheme wherein attendance confers a participation point, and I set it up so that someone can miss 2 days and still have A-level attendance points (2 days = 1 week missed). I don't deal with excused/unexcused absences in any event.

  7. Anonymous9:31 PM

    I continue to revise what I do with attendance and participation. I typically teach small classes (anywhere from 10 to 28 students) so keeping track of the students isn't difficult. I do hate having to deal with the excuses, though, so I don't differentiate between absences. You're either in class or you're not; I let my students make the decisions there and take the consequences if they overdo it.

    As far as participation goes, I give every student full credit unless they clearly show they haven't earned it: missing the readings, unmarked readings, evident disengagement during discussion, poor written responses on in-class writings. I just keep notes on my lesson plans and transfer that info to my gradebook after class using a 5-3-1 scale: 5 = prepared, engaged, active; 3 = missing some aspect of those three elements, 1 = physically present but unprepared to engage.

    I don't try to differentiate between "good" and "bad" discussion; there's no way I could keep track of that. With small classes, I'm able to push if a student says something vapid, so any comment works for me. I can also use small group work to give my quiet students an opportunity to talk if the larger class atmosphere doesn't suit them.

    [this is phd me - blogger wasn't playing nicely]