How to Use Student-Created Rubrics for Participation Grades

How to Use Student-Created Rubrics for Participation Grades

One challenge of teaching face-to-face courses is how to grade in-class participation. Participation grades often can seem opaque or subjective, both to students and to teachers. As an undergraduate, most of my courses did not include a rubric for participation (although I attended college back in the days when a one-page syllabus was commonplace!), and when I started teaching in the second year of my M.A. program, participation grades were based largely on my general sense of how engaged, prepared, and vocal each student was. I don’t want to assess each student on their participation in each class session (that way lies a micromanaging morass!), but I also want my end-of-semester grades to represent more than a vague overall impression. How can we grade participation more transparently and consistently, without losing some of its holistic nature?

One method that’s worked for me in the past couple semesters is using a student-created rubric for participation. Here are the steps I've taken to involve students in creating and evaluating their own participation:

Syllabus Guidance

In my syllabus, I initially include an open-ended section about participation with just the weight of the participation grade, general guidelines for the types of behaviors included in the participation grade, and a statement that the class will work together to create a participation rubric. Here’s an example syllabus section that I used in the past spring semester:

Participation (15% of final course grade)

This course depends upon you to help make it truly exciting, by creating a friendly, stimulating space to develop your ideas about the literature you’ll read. You have a lot to teach each other, and all of your voices and perspectives are so important to building our collective understanding of the texts and themes we’ll discuss. To that end, your participation grade will be based on:

  • Contributing frequently, thoughtfully, and respectfully to class discussion
  • Listening actively to others
  • Being a valuable participant in group activities
  • Coming to class prepared, which means you’ve done the reading and brought assigned texts and notes to class with you
  • Remaining focused during class meetings

Together, we will create a rubric for holistically assessing your in-class participation.

In-Class Activity: Rubric Drafting

During the first or second class session, I set aside about 20-30 minutes for an in-class rubric creation activity. In this activity, students work together in groups to come up with descriptors for each participation grade (A, B, C, and D – realistically, no one can “fail” participation, particularly since attendance is graded separately from participation in my classes). The groups receive specific instructions for what they’re supposed to generate, and then after groups have done their work, the whole class convenes to share and discuss. During the whole-class discussion, I take copious notes, and I also collect the notes produced by each group.  

During the whole-class discussion phase of the activity, I try to ask penetrating questions that reveal students’ ideas about gray areas in participation grading. For example: What grade would you give to a shy person who hardly ever speaks, yet who seems to be listening thoughtfully? What grade would you give to someone who speaks all the time (and is on-topic), yet who tends to dominate the discussion? In fact, student-generated answers to these questions have caused me to rethink some of my own ideas about participation; I’m now a bit more generous with quiet people who are reserved-yet-focused, for instance. For the most part, I find that students’ notions of what constitutes excellent participation also reflect my own inclinations.

On a side note, the rubric–drafting activity is also a great icebreaker toward the beginning of the semester, and I think that this activity helps students feel more comfortable with each other and with me.

Here’s the sample lesson plan for a 20-30 minute activity that I used last semester. This particular class consisted of 35 students (hence 8 groups of approximately 4-5 each), but it could easily be adapted for other class sizes:

Share behaviors that are evaluated in the participation grade (p. 5-6 in syllabus). We’re going to create a grading rubric for participation together as a class.

Divide class into groups (8 groups, 2 groups each for A, B, C, D). For your assigned grade, come up with:

  1. A list of characteristics describing the behavior of someone who earns that grade

  2. A word or phrase summing up that grade

Choose one member of your group to act as a scribe recording your ideas.

Groups share their descriptions with the class, and we discuss how to adapt the descriptions so that they mesh together and provide a consistent rubric for participation.

Synthesizing Student Input and Creating a Rubric

After in-class activity, I use my own notes in concert with the student’s groupwork notes to create a participation rubric. Writing the rubric entails several tasks:

  • Synthesizing the students’ ideas to create parallelism among the grade level descriptors
  • Accurately representing the students’ ideas while also making sure that I think it’s a high-quality rubric, too
  • Turning rough notes into more polished language

The completed rubric is added to the syllabus and then shared with the class. Here’s an example of the participation rubric that resulted from the same spring 2018 class.

Mid-Semester Followup

The final important piece of using a student-generated participation rubric in my class is to follow up at least once during the semester. To that end, my students last semester completed a Mid-Semester Participation Self-Evaluation (using this form), in which they rate themselves on a variety of behaviors that contribute to the participation grade and then give themselves a participation grade, using the rubric that the class created. This self-evaluation doesn’t factor into their grade, so what students say here doesn’t have any repercussions for their grade.

Even though it’s ungraded, the self-evaluation accomplishes two important purposes:

  1. Lets me know how the students’ perception of their own participation matches up with my own preliminary assessment
  2. Encourages the students to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of their own participation (and make changes, ideally!

When I started doing this, something that was initially surprising to me is how clear-sighted and realistic most students actually are about their own participation. In most cases, students’ estimates are right around where I would score them on the rubric, and where there’s a mismatch between my own estimate and theirs, it’s helpful for both me and the student to think about where and why.

Wrapping Up

One final step that I have not taken (yet) is asking students to assess their own participation at the conclusion of the course, too, and perhaps to ask for more reflection on their participation strengths and weaknesses as a whole. I think that would be a good way to conclude the student-created participation rubric system, though, and I plan to do it next semester.

The biggest philosophical benefit of a student-created participation rubric is that it gives students a voice in setting the criteria on which they are evaluated. With standards that are generated by the group rather than imposed from above by the teacher, students may feel more invested in the class. In general, student-created participation rubrics have been working really well for me, and this is one teaching strategy that I intend to continue in the future.

If you’re a teacher (at any level), how do you grade participation?

Using a Combined Weekly/Daily Bullet Journal Spread

Using a Combined Weekly/Daily Bullet Journal Spread

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