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Monday, March 08, 2010

Legally Blind Grading, Take 2: Do You Boost Student Grades For Exceptional Class Participation, And If So, Why?

Last week, I posted an entry asking about whether readers of this blog dock student grades in non-seminar classes based upon insufficient class participation. As of this writing, the results of my poll on the issue are that 22 responders answered "Yes," 27 answered "No," and 10 answered "It depends on the class." This follow-up posts asks whether readers boost student grades in non-seminar classes based upon exceptional class participation and why readers do or do not engage in this practice. For starters, here is another poll:

In non-seminar classes, do you boost student grades based upon exceptional class participation?

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As I noted in my previous post, I (sparingly) dock grades based upon insufficient class participation but do not boost grades based upon exceptional class participation. Here are some of my reasons:

One: "Class" Participation: I think that a class benefits from every student's voice being heard as much as possible. By having the possibility of a grade dock, it deters students from not participating. It is my feeling, though, that if I boosted grades based upon exceptional class participation, it would encourage a certain type of student to (try to) dominate class discussions. Even if these were always the best students, I would find this troubling, but as many professors know, it's not always the cream of the crop always volunteering to speak. 

Two: Student Disgruntlement: I remember taking classes with class participation boosts. Professor questions to the class would inevitably lead two things: the wall of hands and the student complaints that the professor always called on student X and never called on them. I don't want that reaction from students, whether justified or not. Moreover, with me, there probably would be some justifiable complaints. Presented with a wall of hands, I don't trust myself to remember whom I have called upon, and have not called upon, in similar situations in the past.

Three: Logistics: It is pretty easy for me to note on the class roll when students are unprepared for class. I call on a student and the student is absent, the student tells me that he has not read the material, or it is clear that the student has not read the material. I put an X by the student's name and move on. If a student accumulates enough Xs over the course of a semester (and does not make other positive contributions to the class), the student gets his grade docked. 

Now, let's say that I chose to boost grades. And let's say that a good class discussion gets going. I would much rather focus on facilitating the discussion than putting something down on the class roll after each student makes a comment. And what do I put down? Some students make good comments, some make very good comments, and some make great comments. I suppose that I could mark such comments *, **, and *** on the class roll, but I don't know that I trust myself to distinguish the good from the great in the moment. I also suppose that I could wait until class is over to make these notations, but I don't trust myself to remember exactly which student made which comment at the end of class.

Four: Discrimination: As I will detail more in a later post, studies show that white males participate in class to a much greater extent than either women of any race or men of other races. See, e.g., Sari Bashi & Maryana Iskander, Why Legal Education is Failing Women, 18 Yale J.L. & Feminism 389, 405-417 (2006). I'm not sure that I understand the reasons for these differences well enough yet or that this finding in and of itself would deter me for grade boosting, but given the above reasons, this is yet another factor on the scales.

Of course, that is just me, and, as I've said, I have never boosted grades based upon exceptional class participation, so a lot of this is just speculation on my part. And that's the very point of this post: to hear from people who do boost student grades. So, if you do, why do you do so? And if not, why not?

-Colin Miller

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on March 8, 2010 at 09:01 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Most of my classes were subject to a half-grade bump for class participation. Different professors had different criteria for how they would measure whether the bump was earned, so I think there's ways of dealing with the logistical issues.

On retrospect, though, I think grades should have been subject to at least a full-grade bump. As I think back on my education, what I remember is not what blew past me in a stressful, crammed exam, but what we talked about in class. That type of engagement in learning should be incentivized because that's what's going to matter most in the long run -- but students might not realize it in time, especially if they have to be so focused only on the exams.

Posted by: Cathy | Mar 8, 2010 8:46:00 PM

i don't bump for quantity, but do bump for when the student's comment is thoughtful *and* shows that she prepared for the class. i do it to incent preparation and participation, which are two activities that will serve the student well during her career.

Posted by: law teacher | Mar 8, 2010 9:55:48 AM

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