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Monday, March 12, 2007

Zen and the Art of Class Participation

Many thanks to Dan, Rick, Orly and the rest of the Prawfsblawg crew for letting me enter the fray  the next few weeks.   I'll chat mainly about teaching and academic culture issues that affect us all, but as a proud "tax geek," I won't be able to resist sneaking in a few more taxing posts.

I'd like to start by taking two recent cross-blog discussions from the concrete to the Zen (I do live in Boulder, after all).   A few weeks back, the blogs were all abuzz about the "best" way to grade and weight exam questions.   A few months back, they were all abuzz about how best to use and encourage class participation during the semester.  But what about factoring class participation into grades?   Are there "best practices" for grading class participation?   I assume none of us follow Dan Solove's method when it comes to actual, live students ...

More after the fold ...


Counting participation seems to involve two decisions:  (1) Determining what "counts" as participation, and (2) giving it the weight you told your students you'd give it.   I'll chat about the first today and the second later. 

As background, I count participation as 10% of each grade.  I cold-call (even though I teach 2 and 3L's), but each student can ask for  3 "passes" throughout the semester.  I  call on about 5 students a day, and several students not on call usually chime in also and become part of that day's discussion.

I evaluate someone's participation roughly as follows:  When I call on them, are they generally able to  intelligently answer my questions?  I don't require a "right" answer (which tax questions often actually have!), just one that shows they did the reading and tried to do the assigned problems before class.   Days that they volunteer, do they thoughtfully respond to their classmates' comments and ask questions that move the discussion forward?  If someone intelligently volunteers a lot but fumbles when called on, I tend to give them a break.    If someone only talks when called on, I put more weight on how they respond to my questions. 

I do this in a very Zen manner.  I don't keep track of how many times someone volunteers.   I generally don't make a note after each class of who answered questions well or poorly (unless they didn't use a pass and were clearly unprepared).  I don't keep track of attendance.   I do use index cards to make sure I call on students evenly.   At the end of the semester, I look at the seating chart, record my holistic impressions of the above, and divide students into "levels" of participation.

This leaves several questions unanswered, and I hope my fellow prawfs will chime in:   What about students who volunteer a lot, and genuinely try to move the discussion forward, but consistently sidetrack the class?   What about students whose substantive contributions are intelligent, but  are sometimes disrespectful to me or their classmates?   What about students who are quiet in class but make wonderful points to you outside of class?  Do you dock points for unexcused absences? For internet surfing?

In other words, what matrices do you use to judge class participation?


Posted by Miranda Fleischer on March 12, 2007 at 07:35 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Posted by Jeff Lipshaw Miranda Fleischer (Colorado, left), guest-blogging over at PrawfsBlawg, has engendered an interesting discussion on evaluation of law school class participation. There is another variant on this discussion if you teach at a schoo... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 13, 2007 8:27:04 AM


For both my 1L and upperclass courses, I take attendance and then right after each class, I put a check-plus, check or check-minus on the roll next to each person who participated. Roughly 90% of the participation is given a check. I also count contributions to the discussion section of the course Website in the same way for those who are less inclined to speak in class. I count the participation/attendance points as 20-30% of the final grade, depending on the course.

In my Employment Law course, I frequently have the students work in small groups during class. This semester, I am probably going to have them fill out a peer evaluation for the other members of their group to capture this piece, which I told them in the syllabus I would do.

I think this is an important issue; thanks for posting on it.

Posted by: Jason Solomon | Mar 13, 2007 1:42:02 PM

I generally teach undergraduate political science courses, so my response may have limited relevance to law school.

The use of "holistic" participation has always been a pet peeve of mine, for several reasons. First, our memories are imperfect. Actually, they are more than imperfect. They are biased. That is, each person remembers some people and arguments better than others. Accordingly, grading by impression is likely to produce a biased set of grades. If you were to asign, say, four essays to your students over the course of a semester, woul;d you simply read them, refrain from marking them or writing down any grades, and then just try you best to conjure up how each student performed at the end of the semester? Retrospective, holistic grading of participation poses exactly the same problem as retrospective, holistic grading of all student work.

A second problem with holistic grading of participation is that it is very difficult to keep the participation dimension of the grade completely separate from the exam and/or homework dimensions. If a student writes well, it is easy to remember the student's "voice" in class as being articulate and prepared. If the student writes poorly, it is difficult to avoid rethinking initial impressions of the student's words in class -- perhaps those arguments were really superficial phrases and not in-depth analyses after all....

The final problem with holistic grading is that it provides no feedback or justification to the student. Students can whine about grades under any system, but if participation has never been recorded then it is difficult to defend a grade. Sure, it is easy to separate the A and F students -- but do you really believe that given the exact same words from students over three or four semesters, you would then assign exactly the same voices the grades of A and B? Students surely don't believe this, resulting in the impression that sucking up is a legitimate way of gaining points. (Incidentally, it doesn't matter if they're wrong -- if the system gives them that impression, they won't discover their mistake until too late). In addition, keeping a running tally of participation allows students to see how they are performing during the course and adjust their behavior accordingly.

My alternative is to record attendance each day and then, during class discussion, make a tick mark next to a student if he or she says something relevant and insightful. Doing it twice gets a student two tick marks, the maximum for the day. Then at the end of the semester, it is a simple matter to add up the students' tick marks (you can add a point for showing up, if you desire) and divide by the number of participation points expected (which, of course, should be determined before the first day of the course and published in the syllabus). This retains the ability to dismiss trivial remarks or comments from the obviously unprepared but also provides a record of each student's performance on every single day of the class.

Posted by: Jeffrey Dixon | Mar 13, 2007 5:56:04 AM

We can't get away with oral final exams in the US the way they do in some European universities because our students regard them as too subjective. (This is unfortunate, because an oral exam allows you to follow up on a question and see if the student really gets it.) I suspect that students also harbor a suspicion that grading class performance is also subjective.

My compromise, which I'm not thrilled about, is to grade the exams anonymously (which is what we have to do at Northwestern, but I'd do it even if there were no such rule), and then if the student's grade falls right in between two of those clunky letters (A- or B+, for example), then look at the name, recall class participation, and bump the student up if the participation was good and down if it was poor.

Posted by: Anthony D'Amato | Mar 12, 2007 11:57:05 PM

Glenn and Laura, thanks for raising some interesting points. To start with Laura, I generally "dock" poor participators by giving them zero participation points. This technically does not lower their exam score, but does push them "down" in the curve when their classmates do receive some points. More on the mechanics in a later post ...

Glenn, you raise a tough issue. One reason I persist in cold-calling students is to partially rectify any disparity in volunteering that may exist. Likewise, one reason I factor participation into grades is to encourage students, regardless of gender, to overcome any hesitancy they might have about talking in public and thinking on their feet. No matter what type of law you go into, this is a necessary skill. So I try to get everyone talking, but in a comfortable environment. One of my favorite parts of teaching is the following: Almost every year, there are students who start the semester not volunteering, but after being called on and given positive reinforcement, become active volunteers later in the semester. On a side note, I was suprised that the article you linked to suggested that any gender disparity becomes more pronounced with a female professor. I expected the opposite, and I actually don't think I see much of a disparity in my classes.

Posted by: Miranda | Mar 12, 2007 3:43:21 PM

Miranda, delighted to see you blogging! I'm not quite as organized as you on student participation, but I agree that it's one of those "I know it when I see it" things. Question: how often do you dock students for poor participation? What's the trigger? I always have an easier time bumping grades up for participation than down...

Posted by: Laura I Appleman | Mar 12, 2007 2:06:29 PM

There is some interesting data on how gender and classroom participation interact. In this law review article,http://www.wcl.american.edu/journal/genderlaw/13/neufeld3.pdf?rd=1, Adam Neufeld presented some of the data he collected on this subject in a study of Harvard Law School students.
One interesting finding of the study is that student-initiated classroom comments are much less frequent among female students than their male counterparts. It is not clear what, if anything, that should mean in terms of whether (and how) to grade participation, but perhaps others have given the matter some thought...

Posted by: Glenn Cohen | Mar 12, 2007 1:30:31 PM

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