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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Zen and the Art of Class Participation, Part II

A hearty round of "check-plusses" to all who chimed in about evaluating class participation.   Now for the next question:  How do you factor various levels of participation into a student's final grade? 

I've used three different methods, all made possible by Colorado's flexible grading system.  For background:  We grade our exams anonymously, and submit grades to the registrar.  She returns a list of names and grades, and then we adjust for attendance and participation.  We don't have a mandatory curve, but we do have a mandatory median of "84".  (We give students a number grade, instead of a letter grade. Each number grade, however, correlates to a given letter grade).   Even without a mandatory curve, many professors (myself included) use a less stringent curve voluntarily.

More after the jump . . .

So, if I say that class participation counts as 10% of a student's grade, how does that translate to their grade sheets?

One semester, I tried to be very mathematical about it.  I looked at the number of points scored on the best exam (say, 180).  I then reasoned that that should equal 90% of that student's grade.  If so, then the "most" participation points available to anyone should be 20.  Next, I looked at my seating chart, and using the matrices described earlier, doled out either 20, 15, 10, 5, 0r 0 points to each student.   After I received the names and grades back from the registrar, I was able to determine how many points each student earned on their exam.  I added that to their class participation points, and then arrayed the students on the curve for a second time.  Only one student's grade changed.

That seemed like a lot of work for such a little change. 

One class, I used participation only as a "tie breaker".   Who falls on each side of the dreaded A-/B+ line?  Who do I have to move down to an 84 to make our median?  That type of thing.   Another time, I was even more Zen.   High participators who earned a high B+ on the exam might get bumped to an A-.  If someone got the lowest numerical B+, I might move them to the highest numerical B+.  If someone really bombed the exam but genuinely seemed to get the material in class, I'd bump them up a grade.

Those resulted in more changes, but from a more imprecise method.

What do you do?

Posted by Miranda Fleischer on March 15, 2007 at 01:08 PM | Permalink


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I reserve about 5 points as a "discretionary component" (out of 100 total for the course) that is based on the quality of class participation. I also call on each student at least once, giving them the chance to shine on that day. Generally, if the student shows that she is prepared and that she grasps the material on that day, she is assured of at least 3 of the 5 points. If she is absent or unprepared, she has to speak up in class at other times in order to make those points up. I only note who is not prepared or is absent when called on (usually, that comprises a very few persons). Over the course of the semester, it is not difficult to determine who makes regular quality contributions. So, although I sympathize with the student who fears the Zen approach, I do not think it arbitrary, and certainly no more so that grading written final exams. I also think that in the vast majority of cases, what a particular student gets in his five discretionary points makes no difference in his final letter grade. All that said, why do I do it? Because I think it does help stimulate class participation, attendance, and preparation.
As for our blind system: first, I grade the discretionary component. Then, I grade the finals anonymously, submit the finals grades, and receive them back with the student's name. I then add in the discretionary component. We have a fixed median, and I generally grade the finals on that fixed median. I have not had a situation in which the discretionary component changes the median, and I don't really expect to.

Posted by: Scott Dodson | Mar 16, 2007 3:29:47 PM

From a former student's perspective, the Zen method really makes me nervous and would make me not want to take the class. I just don't trust that professors can make adequate judgments without writing down notes frequently. Exams are not graded in a Zen-like manner--we'd all object to a prof who read all the exams through and then went back and assigned grades based on their general feeling about the exam. Grading participation that way seems even worse -- you wait months from the first time someone participated to assign value to the participation.

Posted by: former student | Mar 16, 2007 11:11:41 AM

Like you, I sort of take a "Zen" approach, based on recollection of who spoke, how often, and the quality of what was said. I do try to do a quick snapshot after each class. I arrange this on a scale of 0-10 points (0 being absolute silence throughout the semester, 10 being the superstar(s)).

All other projects for the course (exams, papers, oral arguments, etc.) are worth 90 points, with all written work blind-graded. I then have the registrar add the appropriate number of points (0-10) from class participation to get a grade out of 100 points.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 15, 2007 4:33:23 PM

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