Demotivating students with participation grades

Alfie Kohn has posted another great article on ways we demotivate students. This time he is talking about the practice of ‘cold calling’ in classrooms, through which teachers coerce students that have not volunteered to speak into speaking, rightly observing that this is morally repugnant and reflects an inappropriate and mistaken behaviourist paradigm. As he puts it, “The goal is to produce a certain observable behavior; the experience of the student — his or her inner life — is irrelevant.” A very bad lesson to teach children. But it is not limited to children, and not limited to classrooms.

Online, it is way too common for teachers to achieve much the same results – with much the same moral repugnancy and with much the same behaviourist underpinnings – through ‘participation’ grades. We really need to stop doing this. It is disempowering, unfair (especially as, rather than grading terminal outcomes, one typically grades learning behaviours) and demotivating. It also too often leads to shallow dialogues, so it’s not as great for learning as it might be, but that’s the least of the problems with it.

Ideally we should help to create circumstances where students actually want to contribute and see value in doing so, regardless of grades. If it has no innate value and grades are needed to motivate engagement, there is something terribly wrong. There are lots of ways of doing that – not making everyone do the same thing, offering diverse opportunities for dialogue, for instance. I find student and tutor blog posts and the like are good for this, because they open up opportunities for voluntary engagement where topics are interesting, rather than having to follow a hierarchical threaded flow in a discussion forum. Allowing students a strong say in how they contribute can help – if they pick the topics and methods, they are far more likely to join in. Asking questions that matter to different students in different ways can help – choice is necessary for control, and is way easier to do in an asynchronous environment where multiple simultaneous threads can coexist. Splitting classes into smaller, mutually supportive groups (ideally letting students pick them for themselves) can be beneficial, especially when combined with pyramiding so each group contributes back to a larger group without the fear and power inequalities larger groups entail.

If grades are needed to enforce participation, it’s a failure of teaching.  Getting it right is an art and I freely admit that I have never perfected that art, but I am quite certain that grading participation is not the solution. There are no simple formulae that suit every circumstance and every student, but being aware of the problems rather than relying on a knee-jerk participation grade, especially, as is all too common, when there are no course learning outcomes that such a grade addresses, is a step in the right direction. Of course, if there actually is an explicit outcome that students should be able to argue, debate, discuss, etc then it is much less of an issue. That’s what the students (presumably) signed on to learn about, though there is still a lot of care needed to ensure all students have an equal chance, and that there is enough scaffolding, reflection and support available to ensure they are not graded on ‘raw’ untutored interaction, and that the interaction becomes a learning experience that is reflected upon, not just accomplished.

In case you are wondering how I deal with grading based on social interactions, my usual approach is to allow students to (optionally) treat their contributions as evidence of learning outcomes, typically in a reflective portfolio, and to encourage them to reflect on dialogues in which they may or may not have directly participated. This allows those that are comfortable contributing to do so, and for it to be rewarded if they wish, but does not pressure anyone to contribute for the sake of it, as there are always other ways to show competence. There’s still a reward lurking in there somewhere, so it is not perfect, but at least it provides choices, which is a start.

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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