Grading on Class Participation

What College Students Don’t Like

In February, I posted an article entitled Is It Wrong to Grade on Class Participation? In that article I pointed out the importance of clarifying class participation expectations and giving students feedback.  Something a student said to me recently prompted me to write this follow-up article.

A student came to me a few days ago to complain about the grade he was getting in a course. Actually, after going through the calculations with him, it turned out he had an A locked up. However, when he came into my office very concerned about his class participation grade.   His syllabus clearly stated that class participation accounted for 10 percent of the final grade.  The instructor allegedly told this young man that his class participation grade was 5 percent.  The student assured me that he participated more in class than any other student.  He had challenged his instructor with that same claim.  According to the student, his instructor said that no one in the class was receiving the full 10 percent on class participation.

The student wanted me to confirm that it was wrong for his instructor not to give the full 10 percent to the student who participated the most.  As always, I did a little tap dance around his challenge so as not to point a finger at my instructor.  I told the student that perhaps his frame of reference included other classes that he has taught.

So, assuming my instructor will not be giving anyone more than 5 percent for class participation, is that wrong?  The answer is … drum roll … more drum roll … “maybe.”  There are three issues here:

  1. Did the students have a clear understanding of the instructor’s rubric for assigning the class participation grade?
  2. Did the students know how they were doing against that rubric?
  3. Is it acceptable to give less than full credit to the best performing student in the class.

If the answers to the first two questions are “yes,” and if the instructor had created an “achievable” rubric, then all is well.  The instructor could curve the class participation grades, but that isn’t required and may not be justified.  Just as all well-written goals are achievable, so should students be able to achieve full credit for their work.  Of course, that doesn’t mean any will.

Time out! What did I just say?  With my “wonder words of would-be wisdom,” I believe I have hit on something.  (I’m half smart!)  Grading rubrics should follow the same guidelines as goals.  Have you heard of SMART Goals?  SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable (some authors say Acceptable), Realistic, and Time Limited.  As with goals, grading rubrics and overall grading policies should also be Specific, Measurable, Achievable , Realistic, and Time Limited.


If your SMART Goal is to be a Smart Instructor, one thing you need to do is create a SMART Grading Policy.  It isn’t difficult …  (Bad pun alert!  Bad attempt at humor ahead.  Proceed with caution!) As I started to say before I so rudely interrupted myself, it isn’t difficult to create a SMART grading policy.  It doesn’t “smart” a bit.  🙂

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted May 7, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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