Participation Marks: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

While participation marks are a common feature of the modern classroom, do they always encourage genuine discussion? Here, four of our Opinion writers speak up on where participation marks go wrong and how to make them better.

Speak DifferentAlex Petralia (Faculty of Arts, U3)

Here’s to the introverts. The shy. The private. The reflective.

We live in a society that celebrates the extraverted. We respect “the people person” as charismatic and assertive–the one who has the courage to say what he thinks and doesn’t think twice about it. Extraversion dominates the boardroom, the dining room and, most relevantly for us, the classroom.

For decades now, universities have made us feel like we should always be talking. Class discussions, group projects and constant hand-raising all socialize us into a culture that glorifies extraversion. For many professors, this is conveniently summed up into a participation mark.

But what about students that prefer to keep to themselves? Over a quarter of the population is introverted. Mandatory participation marks marginalize the shy and instead serve as easy grades for those to whom speaking comes most naturally. As a result, universities have forced introverts between a rock and a hard place: either participate in class or lose participation marks. To all introverts, “fake it ‘til you make it,” or else.

However, forced participation doesn’t only hurt introverts. When teachers make participation part of the grade, while not promoting a genuinely stimulating environment themselves, they encourage discussion that is not constructive.  While participation is designed to fix a lack of discussion, it instead promotes meaningless comments by students who exploit the participation grade.  After all, “there are no dumb questions,” but there are easy participation points.

I must be clear: in no way am I advocating the abolition of participation marks. Participation in class is not an unreasonable demand and is often highly constructive. Soft skills are essential to a life that is largely defined by social interaction—if we don’t develop them now, when will we? As well, participation promotes actually paying attention during class—it takes real skill to ask a relevant question while spending the entire class on Facebook.

Participation in class is a noble ideal but its implementation must be more thoughtful. Some introverts have a terrible fear of public speaking. Others fear their answers aren’t adequate and are not worth bringing up. Others yet may not see the benefit—if I can get an A without participating, then why participate at all?

Mandatory participation, then, does not solve the root problem. Students must be encouraged to participate because they find it genuinely worthwhile to discuss the topic, not because they just want to earn easy marks. This encouragement must come from professors. Are they ensuring that students come to class prepared? Are they ensuring that students feel comfortable speaking around their peers? Are they ensuring that students even know their peers? All too often, it is not sheer laziness that prevents in-class participation, but rather the social obstacles and academic discipline required to have open discussions. Thoughtful, stimulating discussion starts with the professor and ends with the student, not with a mandatory grade.


The 10 Percent Lost CauseChristie Wei (Faculty of Management, U1)

Here at McGill, “participation” takes on a wide range of definitions, ranging from mere attendance to clicker answers to actually talking. The real definition that fosters an interactive classroom experience though, of course, is discussion. We have some of the top, most intellectually curious students in Canada; you’d think everyone would be jumping out of their seats to deliberate and share opinions. Yet, discussions at McGill are ineffective at promoting critical thinking: even with participation comprising about 10 percent of final grades, hollow comments and awkward silences still find their way into the classroom. Something is wrong here.

For most students, 10 percent of a final mark is an insufficient incentive to give 100 percent of effort in participation. It’s easy to see classroom participation as a joke, a mandatory requirement to grab some airtime each class, instead of a reason to actively listen or prepare for discussions in advance. The focus is on quantity, trying to get the professor to recognize your voice amongst a class of 75, rather than quality. You compete with your peers for the grade, rather than focusing on learning from each other.


Within Desautels, quality discussion is neglected in the classroom. Given our entrenched “one right answer” assessment framework of multiple choice and short answer examinations, it is no wonder that to succeed (read: get good grades), we learn to prioritize blind memorization over critical reasoning. Rote memorization is the enemy of discussion; what’s the point if everyone regurgitates the same insights and opinions? I might as well just ask Siri, at least she could link me to Wikipedia.

Making participation 10 percent of the final grade is a misguided attempt at encouraging discussion. The problem is not the lack of incentives, but rather the lack of emphasis placed on creating a collaborative atmosphere within the classroom. Rather than being confined to one specific topic of the course, discussion-based teaching methods should underpin the entire curriculum. If discussion-based learning was valued beyond simply the grade in class but instead by the sense of curiosity and involvement in class, the 10 percent “incentive” would be completely unnecessary.

Changing students’ views towards participation from a necessary chore to something inherently valuable will enrich the quality of discussions. Classes need a better framework to foster participation and a 10 percent participation grade isn’t it. Without a well-constructed atmosphere of idea sharing and collaboration, McGill’s classrooms are still light-years away from reflecting our label as the Harvard of Canada.


The Conference System Is a Failing, Not a FixWyatt Hnatiw (Faculty of Arts, U3)

A popular statistic among people examining education is the student-to-teacher ratio. It’s a quick, easy representation of how personal each student’s education will be. In high school, these numbers were relevant because they rarely exceeded 40 to 1, but one would be foolish to apply this metric to university where, in some freshman courses, the number can easily climb to 600 to 1. McGill would like us to believe that this issue of instructor attention has been solved via the conference system, but in actuality, this creates more stress and pressure than meaningful dialogue.

The conference is a simple idea: near-personal instruction via weekly meetings analogous to a high school class. They are under 30 students, offering the ability to talk to the instructor and encouraging a question-and-answer environment. They would be a perfect counterbalance to the impersonal lecture if not for mandatory participation marks, thereby creating two difficult situations.

The first possibility: a student ignores the majority of conferences because “hey, it’s only a small fraction of my grade, so who cares?” and gain nothing from conferences. The second, more common possibility: a student hears “mandatory participation marks”, resolves to be the most talkative person in the room, and focuses on memorizing key terms and author names instead of critical thinking and application. When it comes time for the conference, this stressed student furiously answers questions in rants, making sure to drop buzzwords and authors every third sentence.

This is the opposite of what we want. By quantifying participation, student-to-student discussion and personalized instruction is replaced by a zero-sum-game where students fight to secure their participation marks before their classmates can steal their one cogent point. Unfortunately, this practice of scoring participation has become so institutionalized that there is no quick fix. Non-mandatory conferences are only attended right before a midterm and professor office hours are used mostly for extension requests and help on term papers.

Whether or not you believe direct education is more beneficial than lecturing, the current conference system is not the answer. The goal of conferences is to teach via dialogue and conversation; the result is one hour a week of pressure where the students learn just to pretend they have a functioning brain. We may not be able to have true discussion in a class of 300 students, but that doesn’t mean we should settle for a broken system that encourages meaningless discussion and wasted time. We already have student government for that.


Professing the Value of DiscussionAnthony Depatie (Faculty of Management, U3)

In the right context, participation marks can significantly – and positively – impact learning and in-class dynamics. Incentivizing students to pay attention and contribute to class discussions enhances the quality of interactions and can bridge some gaps in understanding. The issue with participation marks, however, is that their success depends on a rather idealistic context; without the right teaching style, such a grading system is ineffective and does not come close to achieving its purported aims. Though it would be foolish to suggest that participation hinders learning, or to dispute the merits of inquisitive and constructive discussions, far too many classes simply aren’t suited for participation marks.

Ironically, it is exactly these classes that have proven more likely than others to reward participation, but why?

raise hands

Among professors, there is little consistency in the goal of participation marks: while some use them to incentivize meaningful participation, others just use them as deterrents to skipping class. At Desautels, many lectures are dry and seem to be cut-and-pasted from the material covered in textbooks. What value do professors add when students can stay at home and study straight from the textbooks? As a result, too many students either go to classes to contribute irrelevant comments for the sake of receiving marks, or lose 5 to 10 percent off their final grade because there is no real incentive to attend. Such a system threatens to punish some students, while at the same time increases class time wasted on useless interjections. Neither outcome is positive, yet both stem from a participation mark.

Proponents of participation marks are quick to misguidedly argue that this reward system is essential to maintaining acceptable levels of attendance in such classes. While the threat of losing 5 percent right off the bat may indeed incentivize some to attend more classes, the students who do attend will often wind up on Facebook or some other webpage in search of entertainment. Too often there are little to no opportunities to genuinely contribute anything more than a token question to which the student either already knows the answer, or is simply indifferent. As with most of us, this student simply wants the attendance marks, not the answers.

While it is undeniable that some classes make good use of participation marks, this form of grading’s effectiveness depends largely on the material and the professor . Without the right teaching style, such a grading scheme is entirely counter-productive. Seen in this light, participation marks are less of a reward and more of a threat. It’s time we abandon this “one-size-fits-all” participation grade and begin allowing it only for those teachers who can actually use it.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the December print issue. The views expressed in this opinion piece are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.