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He Didn’t Participate At All! (I Think…)


A long, long time ago, when I had to teach my students how to use the Internet (I said it was a long time ago), I was conducting research on how professors were using Listservs to enhance learning.  In the pilot study, instructors indicated that they like using Listservs as a “participation” option for those students who don’t contribute to discussions during class.  For the larger study, I read and coded Listserv messages for about 10 courses ranging from freshman-level general education with several hundred students enrolled to doctoral-level seminars with only a handful of students.

Since part of students’ participation grades were determined by the number of Listserv messages, I asked professors to indicate how many times they believed each of their students had posted a message to the Listserv during the semester.

Most professor’s perception of their students’ participation level was frighteningly off.  It was not unusual for an instructor to say that  students hadn’t posted any messages when, in fact, they were frequent contributors to the assynchronous discussion.  As part of the deal to participate in the study, professors were given a report of my findings as it pertained to their course.  Many of them expressed shock that their perception of participation and the actual number of posts could be so different.

As a result of this study, I wondered about my own ability to accurately gauge participation and decided to make some changes to my own grading practices:

  • I now ask students to weigh in on their own participation level both at the mid-semester point and at the end.  I give them a participation rubric and ask them to grade themselves and give me a rationale for their grade.  I also ask them whether they are satisfied with the grade or what they can do to improve it.
  • Learning management system technology has improved tremendously since the days of having to overtly manage my students’ discussion postings.  Now, I can take advantage of the statistical information that ReggieNet provides.  With just a few clicks, I can see how many posts students authored, how many of their classmates’ posts they read, etc.    This also helps give a snapshot view of students’ participation behavior–perhaps they aren’t posting messages very often but they are reading (called lurking in discussion forum slang) and taking it all in.

Many faculty are eliminating a participation grade and instead are incorporating a professionalism grade.  Participation, in all of its many nuances, is part of their professionalism grade but it also takes into account things like attendance, disposition, turning in assignments on time, etc.

You wouldn’t try to determine students’ grades in a course by trying to guess what their exam scores were, would you?  It is the same way with participation.  Don’t rely on your memory for assigning grades.


CTLT’s ReggieNet Team–They offer training and on-call help!

CTLT Little Idea for Teaching: Strategy: Grading Student Participation

Teaching Excellence Series:  Assessment: Are Your Grades For Real?

CTLT Coordinator, Faculty Development, Julie-Ann McFann, Ph.D.