A Curation of Student Voices on Participation in the Writing Classroom

A Curation of Student Voices on Participation in the Writing Classroom

Lauren Obermark

Critel’s Commonplace: Grading

I start with the theme of participation as a graded component of a writing course, in part because that is at the crux of Critel’s interrogation in her chapter. Moreover, I start with grades because this was the most dominant and immediately applicable theme that crossed each of my interviews.

In her dissertation, Critel identifies “assessment” as a commonplace of participation. [9] She explains the commonplace as it comes through across her research sites (a syllabus archive; fifty years of CCC articles; and her national survey of composition instructors): “Participation needs to be assessed for students to participate, even though assessing participation is a devalued practice” (194). Critel makes note of various challenges to assessing participation, from the practical to the ethical, and she astutely questions whether grading participation makes a difference. I will let the interviewees speak—powerfully—toward Critel’s questions about this issue.

Fig. 7. Video of interviewees discussing grading participation.

Grading Video Transcript

  • Kris - KS
  • Lauren Obermark - LO
  • Marche - MS
  • Christian - CF
  • Anastasia - AS

KS on Grading Participation

LO: For you, like, does a grade for participation matter? Is that gonna encourage you to participate, whatever that means… [cut off by KS]

KS: No.

LO: [Continuing] More?

KS: Because I like participating.

LO: Right.

KS: I like being part of [thinking] conversations.

LO: Right.

KS: I like exchanging ideas.

LO: So the grade for something like that would just be… [cut off by KS]

KS: It would not, it’s, it’s not really relevant.

Marche on Grading Participation

LO: Is like, does the grade motivate you? Are you someone that’s motivated by the grade for participation? Does that mean you’re going to participate more, or is it for, or is it, participation for you just more, like, you just kind of want to do it?

MS: Cause I want to do it.

LO: Okay, so the grade doesn’t make a difference?

MS: No.

Christian Fox on Grading Participation

LO: Do you, if you know that there’s like this, that you are graded, that you are graded on your participation…

CF: Yeah.

LO: Does that change how you participate or what does that mean to you, when there’s a grade attached?

CF: I guess, um, for me personally it really doesn’t change how much I participate because I enjoy that participation.

LO: Right.

CF: And I like, you know, I like [thinking] um, I like to talk…

Anastasia on Grading Participation

LO: When you know that participation is a req [cuts off word]…is a graded component of the course, when that’s like, there’s this participation grade, does that make you participate more or in different ways?

AS: No.

LO: It doesn’t? [laughing from AS] Okay.

AS: Cause, like I said, the AP Language course, um, the participation was talking, that was pretty much all it was, and even then I didn’t really want to talk [Prolonged silence] I mean there’s things I thought about and I kind of thought about saying but, I don’t know, I was never [thinking] motivated to like, open my mouth, you know, talk.

LO: You knew it was a grade, but you just…[inaudible agreement from AS]…still didn’t push you to actually be able to participate in this traditional talking way.


As you can see from the video, each of these students stated, without hesitation, that the grade for participation did not matter to them, motivate them, or in Kris’s words, “…it’s not really relevant.” This assertion from each of the interviewees is striking. Even in the case of Anastasia, a student who struggles to participate in the required (Critel might say "normative") ways and who has previously had her grade lowered for lack of oral participation, the grade still does not serve as the “carrot” for participation that so many instructors—myself included—assume that it would.

Another key element and difference in the interviewees’ experiences is that Anastasia and Marche were in a class where I did assess participation as a separate category, and Christian and Kris were in a class where participation was not assessed as its own category. In my FYC class, because I used a standard program syllabus, participation was worth 5% of the total grade and included “attendance” and “in-class activities”; in my Advanced Writing class, while I did not include a separate participation category, participation manifested in categories like “discussion posts and responses” and “peer review.” So the students here represent both ends of the spectrum, a course with the (well-intentioned if somewhat nebulous) “participation grade” and a course without it. From both sides, the students' claims remain the same: the grade for participation does not matter to them nor does it encourage participation.

A recent longitudinal study by a team of educational and sociological researchers shows a correlation between a heavy, narrow focus on grades and less meaningful and in-depth academic engagement. In “‘What Would Make this a Successful Year for You?’: How Students Define Success in College,” the authors of the study explain, “We find that themes related to academic achievement—primarily ‘getting good grades’—predominate over themes related to academic engagement—the loftier aspirations voiced in our mission statements, such as developing a love of learning or a breadth of knowledge” (Jennings et al). [10] In other words, one key finding was that the more students focused on grades, the less they focused on learning. Many teachers and students might assume that grades and learning always go hand in hand. But Nancy Jennings, Suzanne Lovett, Lee Cuba, Joe Swingle, and Heather Lindkvis, who followed students across their college careers, found that when a "good grade" in the course is the primary goal, students learn less, especially in terms of retention of material and a desire to continue and transfer that learning.

I think in high school, I had one English teacher who tried to facilitate meaningful classroom discussion, but I remember it as being a pretty one-sided conversation, with the teacher doing most of the talking and most students reluctant to speak.

– Kris, Interview Prewriting

If participation is considered a way of tracking or encouraging engagement in a course, the comments from these student interviewees corroborate this recent research. Each student emphasized that participation as a form of meaningful engagement mattered to them. But the grade? For these students, the grade had no effect on how they participated. Moreover, in the case of Anastasia, a self-identified shy student, grading participation sometimes came across as punitive or threatening since it typically aligned with oral contributions, and she knew she did not excel in that mode.

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[9] I use the term grades rather than assessment because I am using the language my students relied on in their interviews. I recognize grading is a much more narrow concept than assessment more broadly, but grades remain a key component of Critel's larger assessment commonplace. [Return]

[10] Interestingly, this research has recently shaped the grading of freshmen at Wellesley College. Starting in the fall of 2014, Wellesley will use “shadow grading,” and freshmen will receive pass/no pass grades during their first semester. As Wellesley’s Web site states, “The more time students spend thinking about getting an A, the less time they’re spending thinking about what they’re really learning.” Wellesley also notes that this is already a policy at MIT and Swarthmore College. [Return]