Professors, students discuss participation grading in the era of ‘Zoom U’

Thursday, October 15, 2020 - 8:37pm

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Illustration by Claire Yang

After the University of Michigan announced more than 70% of undergraduate classes would be held virtually this semester, professors, graduate student instructors and administrators had to adjust grading policies to a new learning environment. Some students said new participation grading policies increase their in-class engagement while others said the logistics of virtual learning made virtual participation grading more harsh. 

While the University has no uniform policy for participation grading, classes frequently offer points for answering questions, completing assignments and collaborating with others in class. These points provide a more robust way to assess and reward students for demonstration of learning outside of exams.  

The Michigan Daily spoke with administrators, faculty and students to understand changes to participation grading throughout the University amid unprecedented changes to learning. 

LSA has no uniform participation grading policy and allows faculty and staff to determine how and whether to assign points for participation. Political Science professor Charles Shipan teaches Introduction to American Politics remotely and said he began grading for participation this semester to keep students engaged while learning online. 

“Learning online is hard,” Shipan said. “Because of that, I thought even a small incentive to be more engaged is going to help (students) pay more attention. One way to do that is to give them the option of asking questions and getting some credit.” 

Students can earn participation credit in lecture for submitting questions through a Google Form throughout the semester. Shipan said student questions have helped him adjust his lessons to student needs, and students responded positively to the requirement to submit questions in a mid-semester survey he sent to the class. 

“(Students) are super engaged,” Shipan said. “For me, at least, it’s been a big benefit. I did an informal survey of the students and a lot of students really appreciated it too from what I can tell.”  

Like LSA, the Stamps School of Art and Design gives its instructors leeway in crafting grading policies. In an email to The Daily, Veronica Falandino, Stamps Interim Assistant Dean for Admissions and Student Services, said Stamps told instructors to emphasize student health and safety this semester as they construct grading schemes.

“We give latitude to instructors to define how they will acknowledge and/or grade class participation, based on the content, modality, and intentions of the course,” Falandino wrote. “For the 20/21 academic year, faculty members have been given guidance that health and safety is the leading priority in how we conduct our classes; this includes honoring any/all needs for students to quarantine.”

LSA freshman Ava Bentley takes Spanish 231, which grades participation by giving points for answering questions in class and responding to activities. She said she feels her professor graded their participation too harshly given the difficulty of participating virtually.

“I think participation grades are fair, however, especially with the Zoom format, teachers aren’t really realizing how it changes to participate and how it’s more difficult to get in your time,” Bentley said. “If you raise your hand, they don’t always see it, and we have a lot of kids blurring out with their microphone. I think participation grading is fair, but I don’t know if it’s fair to grade in class, answering questions.” 

Bentley said besides difficulties with technical glitches, her professor seems to call on some students repeatedly and others not at all, perhaps because not all students can be seen on screen at one time. She said participation grading in general, especially in a language class, is necessary, but should not be required in virtual learning. 

“The online format does make (participating) difficult, and I think the participation grades should reflect the changes in the online format,” Bentley said.

Nursing sophomore Morgan Kmety takes a nursing lab that grades for participation, which she said was necessary given the class requires collaboration and hands-on learning. 

“I think grading off of participation is fair because I’m more of an outspoken person, and they tell you as long as you’re active, engaged, and make one or two comments, you’ll get the full participation,” Kmety said. 

Kmety also takes a nursing lecture, which removed participation from its grading scheme and now will grade entirely based on three exams. She said because nursing is such a difficult program, students should have opportunities outside exams to demonstrate their understanding. 

“Last year, we had opportunities to get extra points, and this year, especially because it’s only based on three exams, if you do poorly on one, that can affect your grade pretty significantly,” Kmety said. “I have a friend that did really poorly on her first exam, and now is really stressed and worried about improving her grade, because there’s really no other way to fix it. Even if she’s being more attentive in the lectures and paying better attention, that’s not accounted for at all.” 

Kmety said she believes classes should include a mix of exam and participation grading to best assess students’ abilities. 

“I understand the importance of exams and testing because when you learn material and you don’t get tested on it you might not be able to show how well you know something,” Kmety said. “But I also think it’s important to include participation because some students might not be great exam takers, they might be having a bad day, or have poor connection. I think the best way for grading and to show a student’s all-around talent would be by having a class that’s exam and participation based.” 

LSA senior Liora Koenig said participation points in her lectures and discussions keeps her engaged in class. Her Communications 307 class is totally asynchronous, but participation points are awarded for discussion posts uploaded to Canvas weekly. 

“I really like the total freedom and flexibility of this class just knowing that I have discussions due every Sunday,” Koenig said. “Without the discussion, I don’t know if I would watch the lectures.”

Koenig’s Communications 271 class includes asynchronous lectures uploaded weekly and synchronous discussions where attendance is taken for points and participation assignments are announced randomly in the middle of some lectures. Koenig said the class with consistent participation points keeps her more focused than the class that only sporadically awards participation points. 

“I like to show up and do (work) on my own time, and I think these points keep me engaged,” Koenig said. “I think more so the class that has two points every week than this class that does random checks.” 

Koenig said between her work schedule and Zoom fatigue, the flexible timing on posting weekly discussion posts in her Communications 307 class encourages her to pay attention without adding another stressor on top of this semester. 

“I like it because I can do the class in my own time, and I’m not as tied down to getting onto Zoom on time, and I feel like Zoom is exhausting,” Koenig said. “This is definitely my favorite class.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at julrubin@umich.edu


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