It’s time to rethink the student participation grade.

Every three weeks, our teachers gather after classes for professional learning meetings — a chance for us to share ideas, learn from one another, and improve our practice, all in the interest of serving our students better. The topic for this week’s meeting was student participation. What is our expectation for how students participate in class? How do we communicate that expectation? How do we assess participation?

The biggest takeaway was a consensus around the following reframing: Let’s stop talking about student participation and instead encourage student engagement. It’s a shift that many of our teachers have already made, and for good reason.

As adults, we have all been in meetings where somebody monopolizes the conversation without moving the group forward; in fact, that behavior can often detract from the enterprise. Encouraging and grading “participation” can, inadvertently, create incentives for students to do just that and learn the wrong lesson. “Participation” grades can also give the false impression that a student who is listening carefully and offers perhaps one thoughtful comment is not “participating” meaningfully. We know from our adult experience that the opposite is often true; many of the most effective voices are those that listen first and speak infrequently. When they do speak up, others take note.

What we care about — and should measure — is not the number of times a student raises a hand in class. We care about their engagement: a great post to an online discussion board; outside research diving deeper into the content; meeting with the teacher during a free period; helping out a friend with homework; partnering well on group projects; and, yes, making meaningful comments in a class discussion that move the group forward. The remote-learning world spurred by the pandemic taught us all that there are many ways for students to engage. Some students who are quiet in traditional classroom settings found ways to thrive and shape the conversation on Zoom chat and message boards. We need to pay attention to that. And we need to encourage what we value most.

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