Oct. 21, 2019

In class participation: To grade or not to grade

Try using students' participation as a skill building exercise
Student engaged
Engaged student Harderlee photography

It is not unusual to see instructors grading their students for participating in class but do we stop to wonder about the benefits and challenges associated with this practice? Although participation is an important component of the student’s learning process, instructors frequently face serious challenges when attempting to assess or grade their student’s participation (Czekanski & Wolf, 2013; Gainor & Precourt, 2017; Gillis, 2019; Mello, 2010; Paff, 2015; Rogers, 2013).

Various research studies propose similar strategies on the topic of facilitating participation in class but appear to have conflicting results when it comes to grading student’s participation (Paff, 2015). There seems to be two distinct “camps” where some instructors think it is essential to assign participation marks in order to promote and obtain student’s participation, while others believe it should never be graded (Mello, 2010; Paff, 2015; Rogers, 2013).

Pros and cons of grading in class participation

According to Mello (2010), the benefits of grading participation are: improving students class preparation; facilitating real-world learning and application of knowledge; improving job preparation; improving the development of critical thinking skills, acquisition of active learning and listening skills; facilitating critical communication skills; reinforcing behavioural outcomes; and encouraging the participation of different students. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the criticisms associated with grading participation include: highly subjective process; difficulty in interpreting student’s behaviour; requiring a diligent systematic tracking and recording system; lack of consideration for student’s personality; lack of consideration for cultural perspective; students focus on quantity rather than quality of intervention; and small number of students account for 50% of interaction.

Subjectivity of grading participation 

A consensus that exists between both “camps” is on the subjectivity of grading participation (Gainor & Precourt, 2017). This subjectivity is fuelled by different elements associated with the grading process, one of them being the fairness of the instructor and the method they use. 

Another problem lies with the definition of participation since there is a lack of clarity, a lack of consensus and a lack of awareness as the definition differs greatly between students and instructors (Gainor & Precourt, 2017). According to Fritschner (2000), the faculty define and view participation through different levels from: breathing and staying awake; coming to class, taking note, completing assignment; writing reflective and thoughtful papers; asking questions in class, making comments and input in discussion; doing additional kinds of research or preparing additional questions; to making oral presentation where students become teachers.

For the students, their definition of participation varies considerably according to their personalities, attitudes, and backgrounds; if they are comfortable in class, they will define it as voluntary speaking out in class and group activities but if they are more reserved, they will define it as active listening, being prepared, and doing assignments. Trying to bridge this gap, Paff (2015) suggests a broader definition of student’s participation including nonverbal engagement behaviours like note-taking activities, active listening tasks and homework preparation in order to be respectful and inclusive of student’s culture and personality.

Impact of grading on participation

Research shows that student participation does not increase or decrease regardless of the weighting of the participation marks assigned (Gainor & Precourt, 2017). This view is supported by the results of direct study by Paff (2015) who concluded that grading participation affected only 30% of the surveyed students even with clear participation expectations, student’s self-assessment, fairness of the process, and student’s agreement on the weight of the participation grade.

In order to tackle those issues, Gillis (2019) proposes using student’s participation as a skill building exercise instead of purely for assessment purposes or grading. This approach involves a pre self-evaluation of class participation by the student, the establishment of specific goals to improve, frequent follow up of these goals between the student and the instructor, and a grade result based on improvement. This way, the collaboration between students and faculty toward reaching these goals will equip the students with active participation skills they would be able to apply to other courses.

Strategies for grading in class participation

In an attempt to facilitate the process and to tackle the perceived unfairness of grading student’s participation, the following strategies have been proposed in this review:

  • Use a low weight grade like 5 or 10 percent of total course grade since there is no perceived benefit if it is higher.
  • Provide a clear definition of participation and having the students agree on it.
  • Provide a clear and specific rubric based on a minimum of 3 different criteria in an attempt to capture different student’s personality and style.
  • Create a classroom environment where students have the opportunity to participate and earn the grade.
  • Include a student self-assessment in the process.
  • Report student’s participation grade twice at the minimum during the course term to provide feedback and opportunity for improvement.


Based on this review, there is no doubt that participation should be facilitated but grading student participation is a difficult practice to support in view of the perceived unfairness of the process and the lack of evidence supporting its effectiveness. Although teaching and grading strategies need to be adapted to the context and the population it serves, instructors deciding to grade participation should genuinely questioning their motives before electing to use it. Having done so, choosing a skill building exercise for grading as proposed by Gillis (2019) may provide some fairness in the process since the grade is based on the students achieving the goals they have themselves identified to improve their participation in class. Regardless of the method chosen, instructors who intend to grade their students in-class participation need to take additional precaution to minimize the perceived unfairness of this grading practice.



Czekanski, K.E., & Wolf, Z.R. (2013). Encouraging and evaluating class participation. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 10(1). Retrieved from: http://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp/vol10/iss1/7

Fritschner, L.M, (2000). Inside the Undergraduate college classroom. Faculty and students differ on the meaning of student participation. The Journal of Higher Education, 71(3), 343-362

Gainor, ME., & Precourt, E. (2017). Taking subjectivity out of grading college classroom participation. Journal of the Academy of Business Education. Vol. 18, 39-67.

Gillis, A. (2019). Reconceptualizing participation grading as skill building. Teaching Sociology, 47(1), 10-21. DOI: 10.1177/0092055X18798006

Mello, J.A. (2010). The good, the bad and the controversial: The practicalities and pitfalls of the grading of class participation. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 14(1), 77-97.

Paff, L.A. Does grading encourage participation? Evidence & Implications. College Teaching, 63(4), 135-145. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2015.102821