Participation Penalizes Quiet Learners

Making the Case for Standards-Based Grading

This story is one of three that we’re featuring on the question of class participation. For other perspectives, see “Class Participation: Let’s Talk About it” and “Encouraging Introverts to Speak Up in School.”

“Stop counting participation as part of a student’s grade.”

As a professor of teacher education at Montclair State University, every time I teach our unit on assessment, I begin class with this statement. Usually, there’s a nervous giggle that spreads around the room, and my students wait for me to say, “Just kidding.” But I’m not, and neither is my colleague Meg Riordan, who for years has been supporting Expeditionary Learning leaders and teachers to implement a clear vision for students’ learning that includes standards-based grading: separating academic achievement from the habits that support it—such as participation, effort, or timeliness.

Imagine two students. They both receive an 80 as their final course grade. Ideally, that number should reveal what each student did or did not understand about the content and demonstrate her ability to perform particular skills. But what happens when the teacher includes “class participation” as 25% of the grade? Student A might have received a 90 on the final comprehensive exam or project, which assesses content and skills. Or maybe Student A received a 65 but, due to constant participation in class, benefited from a boost to her grade.

When a grade combines evidence of learning with class participation, its meaning is distorted—not only for students, but also for teachers, parents, and institutes of higher education. If grades should primarily communicate student achievement, how is one grade that includes participation and achievement to be clearly interpreted?

We suggest that teachers stop counting class participation as part of a student’s grade—a move that not only increases transparency about actual learning but also acknowledges introverted students.

We realize that this approach may challenge assumptions. Many of us have encountered grading policies during our K-12 schooling and higher education where up to 25% of a grade rests upon participation. At the highly regarded Harvard Business School, “participation often accounts for 50% of the total course grade.” Why might including participation as a portion of a student’s grade be tricky and particularly difficult for introverted learners? Let’s explore.

A classroom participation grade generally rewards students who are active communicators. Sometimes, it even includes a teacher’s perception of students’ behavior. It may help teachers to “manage” the class and perhaps compensate for students who struggle in other areas; thus, the student who works hard, but continues to fall short on tests, may find a grade increase when class participation factors in. What for many expressive students provides a boost, for introverted students creates a barrier. The quiet learner who finds traditional classroom discussion challenging may be penalized by a teacher who interprets introversion as disinterest or silence as confusion about the content.

However, introverted or quiet learners may have various reasons why they don’t participate as actively as their more extroverted counterparts. Some quiet learners include students from cultures that do not expect them to challenge their teachers’ ideas, ask questions, speak without prompting, or debate with peers. Other students might simply value listening and thinking as much as participating in discussions. The spontaneous nature of some discussions may be difficult for introverted learners who need time to process ideas before sharing them with a group.

When class participation becomes mixed into one grade with academic achievement, overall academic grades no longer communicate what we believe they should communicate: evidence of learning. Instead, participation becomes a motivator for a portion of expressive, extroverted students and a roadblock for less verbally communicative, but no less knowledgeable or interested, learners.

The solution we propose in order to honor all learners—the extroverted and introverted—is standards-based grading, in which the academic grade reflects what students have learned about the content, what students know and understand about a topic, and what students are able to demonstrate about skills or knowledge through multiple assessments.

Usually, this is when my student teachers go nuts. They argue that the qualities measured in class participation—engagement and communication of ideas—matter in the real world. And we agree! What concerns us is confusing these qualities with evidence of learning. We suggest, therefore, that qualities that support learning be evaluated with a separate grade—a grade for what Expeditionary Learning calls “Habits of Scholarship.”

In Leaders of Their Own Learning, Expeditionary Learning authors Ron Berger, Leah Rugen, and Libby Woodfin explore how a standards-based grading system provides clarity for students, teachers, and families. Curriculum is guided by standards called learning targets, which support all instruction and assessment. Students’ progress towards learning targets is assessed separately from habits of scholarship (sometimes called habits of work), which include qualities like responsibility, revision, participation, or preparedness. These habits are articulated so that “students know what behaviors are expected and what they look and sound like in the classroom.” In this way, all learners have a clear vision of how achievement is determined and an understanding of their roles in contributing to their successes.

Including participation into a grade that is intended to reflect evidence of learning results in a murky understanding of students’ achievement. What part of the grade reflects actual knowledge or skill, and what part is participation or effort? The traditional approach to including participation into one letter or number grade also reinforces classroom participation that supports superficial conversation—talking for the sake of “earning points.” It penalizes the quiet, introverted student, who might be listening and creating space for thinking and reflection. When we grade learning separately from participating, we offer teachers the opportunity to create a classroom structure where listening is as valuable as speaking and where the meaning of a grade becomes clear to students, teachers, and families.