In my first year of teaching after graduate school I received (what I thought then) was sage advice about grading: Always make participation at least 20% of the final grade in your class. This strategy gives you wiggle room to make the ultimate decision about a student’s grade. At the time it didn’t raise any red flags. In fact, it seemed like solid common sense advice, especially for the courses that I taught which were mostly in the visual arts.
It is fairly common in an undergraduate art course (and I imagine in other disciplines as well) to have students who submit really amazing work, but believing they are the next Picasso, put forth a lot of attitude and only a little effort. These students tend to coast on a bit of talent and intuition, but rarely challenge themselves or improve. Then, there are those students who submit fairly average work, but who put forth enormous effort, regularly step outside of their comfort zone, demonstrate enthusiasm for their accomplishments, and improve tremendously throughout the semester.
So when I received this advice I thought of course! Shouldn’t I be able to penalize a slacker or reward added effort? Shouldn’t students’ final grades reflect their overall performance in the class? Back then my answer was absolutely yes! However, today my answer to these questions is slightly different. Today I still say yes—but with one caveat. I now believe that participation should only be graded if students are provided a clear definition and standards for participation. To achieve this, I use a participation rubric. A “rubric,” simply defined as a list of specific criteria for grading, provides this clarity to them.
I advocate the use of a participation rubric for two reasons: fairness and learning.