Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Class Participation: How and Why?

I have been rethinking my approach to class participation, and invite your suggestions about how to grade that aspect of student performance, if at all.

Last semester, in Property I, I based 10% of the students' grades on class participation. They won points for class participation in a variety of ways, including serving on review teams, filling out short ungraded quizzes, and signing an "on deck" sheet for Socratic questioning. Despite those many inputs, I still ended up with a very tight cluster of scores, making it difficult to generate a curve that satisfied Chapman's somewhat challenging specs. (My other class, a Law & Economics seminar, raised similar problems.)

I've tried in the past scoring class participation on a more subjective basis, marking the seating chart immediately after class to indicate which students has won class participation points for contributing to discussion of the assigned materials. Although no student ever challenged that system for fairness, it admits the claim all too easily; I prefer more objective measures of performance. Also, I found that scoring students during or after each class, based on some rough measure of "added to class discussion," invited pestering along the lines of, "Did you count my performance, today, Professor Bell? I didn't see you mark the sheet, and you confess to being absent-minded." Fie on that.

I could give up entirely on grading class participation. I don't recall my profs at Chicago keeping track of student participation, after all, unless perhaps for casual dissection in the faculty lounge, and they taught very well. Perhaps I should just stick to exams, and run the risk of teaching to students unprepared for class and unrepentant about their ignorance.

I promised my students that, before I decided how to assess class participation in Property II, I would seek informed advice. If you have some to share, I would welcome hearing it, in the comments below or privately. Thank you.



Anonymous shg said...

A radical idea: Make class participation, defined as actively answering questions using the Socratic method, and doing so correctly, as 50% of the grade. Watch them stick up their arms, demand to be called, argue why they're correct and someone else isn't, defend their answers from detractors, and generally conduct themselves in the way they will be expected as lawyer.

Not to mention, be compelled to learn by their active involvement in the process of thinking.

1/12/2011 1:37 PM  
Blogger Tom W. Bell said...

Radical, indeed! But I would not want to make so much of the grade rely on my idiosyncratic judgements--judgements perhaps tainted by knowing whom I'm grading. Despite its sometimes heartbreaking effects, I favor blind grading.

1/12/2011 2:12 PM  
Anonymous shg said...

Idiosyncracy is definitely undervalued. Persuading judges invariably involves appealing to their idiosyncracies, not to mention overcoming their bias. What better lesson in being effective?

Or, with apologies to the Trix tagline, fairness is for kids.

1/12/2011 9:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with grading based on class participation is that it encourages poor quality participation.

1/13/2011 12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had an excellent professor in law school who offered a boost of 0.1 to 0.3 on a 4.0 scale based on participation. She stated explicitly that quality of participation was more important to her than quantity.

1/13/2011 9:15 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Tom: Please share where you end up on this. I find it especially tough in large upper level courses. My first year students are great and small groups of upper level students. Otherwise it's very difficult.

1/16/2011 2:54 PM  
Blogger Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks, all.

To you, JH, in particular: I'm going to try a variation of a method my colleague, Henry Noyes, uses. Basically, in involves calling on students randomly from a card deck marked with their names. Each student gets one free "pass" per semester. After that, though, failure to show adequate preparation results in .1 points taken off the final grade.

I'll go through the whole deck once before shuffling and starting over except in the case of passes or unprepared students, whose names I'll return to the "to be called on" part of the deck.

1/16/2011 11:29 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

I like that and your courage not to worry about your evals.

1/17/2011 12:58 AM  
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1/20/2011 5:18 AM  

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