Solving the Participation Dilemma

When I first started teaching university classes (back when I was working on my Ph.D.), I ran into a problem with class participation. Specifically, I ran into problems with grading it. I remember during my times as a doctoral student, and as a new faculty member, reviewing examples of syllabi. I used them to analyze how people taught their courses, how much reading they assigned, and how they graded.

One thing I noticed right away was that a lot of people had “Participation” listed on the syllabus, and it was something that typically received a grade. Usually 10% of the grade was devoted to participation.

I initially put participation (10% of the final grade!) on my own syllabi. I did this because: (a) I valued participation and genuinely wanted my students to participate and (b) everyone else seemed to be doing it too. Seriously. I thought that everyone else doing it meant I had to or should do it too. But I also valued participation so it was hardly a conflict of interest.

Well, if you’ve attempted to grade participation then you might have run into the same issues I did pretty much straight out of the gate. This included basically trying to figure out what counts as participation and how to actually grade it. I immediately ruled out attempting to count how many times a person participated or attempted to participate (i.e. raised a hand) during class. If I started counting then, well, that’s just nuts. How would I keep track of all that? If I could, then what about the quality of the participation? Surely that must count, right?

I could use entrance and exit slips (or something like that) to track participation. I could have students do short writings in class that I could collect. But that’s more like a structured response and not really participation.

What does this even mean?
What does this even mean?

How on earth does anyone grade participation and grade it well?

In the end, I gave up. I took participation off my syllabus. I certainly encouraged participation. Today, it is a crucial part of my class. Class kinda isn’t worth attending if you aren’t going to participate. It is what you make of it. I tried to set up my classes in ways that would make students excited to participate and hoped for the best. Some classes worked better than others.

The Realization of How to Grade Participation

It wasn’t until just recently that I figured out I had moved myself along this continuum of how to grade student participation. It turns out, I am doing it to some extent even though I didn’t realize it.

When I started gaming my classes, I shifted into a space where pop-up quests became the norm. Students were expected to engage in quests during class that required their active participation to varying extents. In some cases, participation might be writing down a question or sharing a teaching practice in a chart on our class wiki. We would then use those responses to shape class discussions.

Recently, I wrote about how I designed a class where a portion of it was very much tied to student participation. If they chose not to participate, then class might bomb out. It was a risk I chose to take (come back next week to hear what happened!).

When students participate in these quests, they earn XP for engaging in certain ways. If they choose not to participate, then they don’t earn the XP.

And there you have it. Once I started seeing class as a series of quests where XP could be earned I was effectively grading participation to some extent.

No longer was I having to worry about the quantity/quality I had struggled with before. There are now clear expectations marked out on the class wiki. Do X and earn Y experience points. There are usually multiple opportunities for XP ranging in terms of complexity and total number of points one can earn.

Students choose when, if, and how they will participate. Participation is not an all or nothing grade either. Students can float in and out of it as they want to. However, the one thing that cannot change is the importance of student participation. Without it, class will always suffer. I am feeling kinda good though about pulling something together that works reasonably well in terms of grading participation and allowing students to see a clear path of what their participation can look like.

One Year Ago



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