Counting Participation in the Philosophy Classroom


Do you grade your students on their in-class participation? How do you do it?

This was the subject of a post here five years ago. The topic resurfaced in an email I recently received from a philosophy professor and associate dean looking for good practices on the topic, and it seemed worth revisiting. He writes:

We’re currently looking at various assessment regimes we’ve come across that involve significant weightings for active student engagement in classroom discussion and other interactions, and how these can be designed to accurately and fairly assess the acquisition of philosophical skills and dispositions (of the kind philosophy programs commonly claim to be developing in their students). If such assessments require attendance as an obvious baseline, it’s the quality of participation that is being assessed rather than attendance as such. We’re looking for assessment transparency but without overthinking it, or tying it up with unhelpfully burdensome rubrics etc. it would be very interesting to see what other philosophers (and/or philosophy departments) do in this area.

It would be helpful to hear about whether you grade student participation in your philosophy class, how you do it, what steps (if any) you take to make sure you’re doing it accurately and fairly, how significantly a student’s participation grade factors into their overall course grade, and so on. How, if at all, have you modified your practices in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of the accompanying increase in online teaching?

Additionally, if you’re aware of any empirical studies on the correlation between class participation and the quality of student outcomes in terms of knowledge retention and understanding, the development of core philosophical skills competencies, or overall student experience, please let us know about them.

Related: “Did I Miss Anything? On Attendance

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harry b
11 months ago

I don’t. Here’s why:
https://community.acue.org/blog/making-participation-count/
The basic story: I generally think that their participation is a function of our skill as teachers. If you’re a (relevantly) skilled teacher they participate. If you’re not then you should be working on your (relevant) skills, not on the extremely attention-consuming task of monitoring their participation fairly.Report

Mark Herman
11 months ago

In Intro Philosophy, I grade in-class participation via bonus points–good participation can boost your grade (typically, 1-5%), but not participating cannot hurt your grade. As the overall grade drops, I allow for larger bonuses from participation. Excellent participation over the semester can raise a low C to a B, but not a low B to an A (for better or worse, my school has letter grades without +’s or –’s). Participation is graded for quantity and quality. Though I significantly rely on memory, I try to put a check or check-plus next to their name in the seating chart (either during or immediately after class).Report

Linds Whittaker
Linds Whittaker
11 months ago

In recitation sections at least I do count participation (if it’s something that the IoR has indicated is part of the course grade) but I also try to make it as broad of a category as possible with some elements quite clearly laid out for folks that like more structure *and* to reframe what it is and its purpose.

When it counts as a grade, during class discussions I keep track of who participates in large groups by sharing their thoughts/contributing to thought experiments, in small groups I circle around so I account for the folks that like smaller group discussions and tend to participate more readily in those, office hour exchanges count, filling up my inbox with philosophical questions counts, this quarter discussion board posts/interactions count, office hours count, etc.–choose your own adventure and what works for you more or less. Since at the end of the quarter I need something to justify participation grades (when we have that as a graded component) I have a spreadsheet that keeps track of this after every interaction/class so that I have a way of tracking how folks did and also if they’re having an off week/to know when to check-in with folks if there is a shift in trends (it also let’s me take note of really cool things folks say in class for the recaps I send out)

But, I also try to reframe it from something that is just about earning a grade to something that can be more about the project of improving and understanding our own views. At the beginning of the quarter I open up a space for folks to (anonymously–thanks Canvas) reflect on their current beliefs concerning all the topics we discuss and to have a starting point for seeing where things go (they can share as much or as little as they want and I let them know that it’s something that can contribute to participating in the broader sense but isn’t graded based on what they right). At the end of every recitation section students are invited to spend 5 minutes reflecting on specific components of the conversation, what it means for their beliefs, how it ties into their major/intended vocation, if there’s something they want to know more about, etc. as part of a “participation page”. This also lets folks who maybe didn’t have the bandwidth to openly discuss their views/the topic on a given day to still have a space to reflect on the topic and the pieces that are coming up for them.

At the end of the quarter I ask folks to revisit the first “I Believe” reflect that they did and reflect on what, if anything, has changed. In this way participating is framed as something that can help them get better at motivating and defending their own views, learning their own “whys” for various views, and as something that is beneficial to their future projects beyond just earning a grade or mark in the class.Report

Paul Hamilton
Paul Hamilton
11 months ago

After a few frustrating semesters at a new institution where there was less student participation than I was used to, I started making it part of the grade. It’s generally worth seven percent, which seems to be enough that it requires participating but not so much that students are incentivized to try to argue against every point deduction.

After doing some research on evaluating participation and concerns about biases and whatnot, I settled on the following (heavily influenced by a 2017 piece on Faculty Focus from Stephanie Almagno). I provide students with a template for an “Engagement Log” assignment where they score their preparation and participation and keep a record of when they ask and answer questions. They must fill out the template, scoring themselves with the provided rubrics, and submit it the day/class after an exam (for a typical class, I have three exams). Here is a link to the template I use in Business Ethics: https://tinyurl.com/EngagementLog

I like this approach because it i) means I do not have to rely on my memory to score participation, ii) communicates what my expectations are for students at each grade level, iii) recognizes that preparation and practicing studentship skills are important, iv) encourages reflection on one’s performance for the section of the class that we just completed, v) with the reflection component, provides students a space where they may express if they are having any personal difficulties or trouble with the class so that I can direct them to the appropriate resources. It does mean that there is yet another thing to grade and some students attempt to fudge their scores by using things not on the rubric to try to justify a higher grade. But on the whole, students tend to score themselves within an acceptable range.Report

grymes
grymes
Reply to  Paul Hamilton
11 months ago

This is a great idea, thanks!Report

Sara Pope
Sara Pope
11 months ago

I sympathize with the concerns of harry b above. There are so many ways that grading participation can be unfair to the students. I am going to be trying out a new method for grading participation next semester, which includes a few rules to help mitigate some of the issues mentioned in that blog:

1. The amount of points any given student can earn in a week is limited. (This incentivizes the dominant talkers to shut up after they get their one or two points for the class.)

2. Students can earn points not just during class, but pre- and post- class by adding thoughtful comments/reflections and questions to a running Google doc that is shared with me at the start of the semester. (This deals with the “finite class time” problem.) Office hours also count for participation points.

3. There is no set amount of points that students should earn by the end of the semester to earn the full participation credit. The “A” grade for participation (which is 20% of the overall grade) will be determined by the students with the most points (excluding extreme outliers). This compensates for the fact that I might not be a very skilled instructor, so if the class as a whole just isn’t participating much, then the students don’t suffer. But if there is a sizable group of students regularly making quality contributions, then I can reasonably expect this from other students as well, and grade them comparatively. (And, the more that students see others engaging, the more they will feel pressured to engage too, which helps promote contributions from those who tend to ‘sit back’.) I decided to try this because I think grades should not reflect students in themselves held up to an objective standard we created in our heads, but rather students in comparison to others. So when students get an A, that simply means they are comparatively more competent than students who get a B in the same class. (Obviously there are flaws to this, and perhaps the entire system of “grades” in general, but that is another post.)

4. Points are earned only as a result of making significant, quality contributions to the class. This will be the hardest to achieve, but I think I will do some kind of exercise early on in the class to demonstrate/exemplify the difference between significant/quality contributions and those that take up space, derail the conversation, etc. I would very much like to know if other instructors have specific criteria laid out for what constitutes a “quality” discussion question or a “significant” contribution to the discussion. Some features that come to mind are precision, depth, clarity, relevance, and provocation. But this is still vague.Report

Matthew Smithdeal
Matthew Smithdeal
11 months ago

Yes, but I try to make it very clear that speaking a lot in class is neither necessary nor sufficient for participation credit. I’m looking for constructive engagement with the class and the material, which can be demonstrated in a variety of ways.

Constantly making irrelevant comments, taking over the conversation, playing “devil’s advocate”, etc are not constructive contributions, nor do they demonstrate engagement with the material/class, and won’t earn credit. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other ways to make constructive contributions to class that don’t involve speaking in front of the entire class (e.g. asking questions via text even during live in-person classes, participating in small groups, participating on discussion forums, etc etc etc).

Philosophy does a fairly terrible job acknowledging that there is a range of ways in which one can engage with and learn philosophy. Students do not all learn or approach problems or engage with the world in the same way. We should be doing more to support them and encourage them to explore different approaches to learning and engagement rather than trying to force every student into a single model of how one must learn and engage with philosophy.Report

Antipodean
Antipodean
10 months ago

Some great comments above about pros and cons of grading in this way. Worth noting that internationally, mandating attendance as such is not always possible, so building in participation can be a way of addressing both engagement with the material outside the topic of the term paper, and getting students there in the first place. Point taken that the onus is then on great teaching to ensure this is not a lost opportunity for engaged learning.
I recently come across this helpful article in *Teaching Philosophy*: Nahmias, E. (2005). “Practical Suggestions for Teaching Small Philosophy Classes”. Teaching Philosophy, 28(1), 59-65. A little dated, but some excellent practical ideas here.Report