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October 12, 2017

Teaching at Pitt

Questions to Consider Before Assessing Student Participation

When it comes to student participation, instructors and students tend to agree: It’s hugely beneficial to, if not a requisite for, student learning. Research suggests that student participation may increase active learning and motivation, help students learn and retain more and enable students to practice important life skills like critical thinking and communication (Rocca, 2010).

Grading participation is more controversial. Some instructors wonder:

  • Would a participation grade penalize introverted students?
  • Will attaching a value to participation result in students just commenting for the sake of earning points?
  • How can I grade something as subjective as participation?
  • Wouldn’t it be time consuming?
  • Is it possible to grade participation in an online course?

These questions are valid, but the challenges of evaluating participation can usually be addressed by thoughtful design and clear communication of expectations.

If you’re thinking about grading participation, here are a few questions to consider:

Are you interested in an attendance policy or assessing participation?

Start by investigating your goals. If you are primarily interested in your students showing up and doing the work in your course, you can communicate that via policies on your syllabus. When one of your principal objectives is to improve the quality of student participation over time, assessing participation is more appropriate. Regardless of whether you want to compose an attendance policy or assess participation (or both), avoid conflating the two.

What type of activities count as participation?

Depending on your course, participation might include:

  • Completing pre-class activities like answering questions related to assigned reading.
  • Contributing to whole class or group discussions.
  • Completing in-class activities.
  • Visiting during your office hours.
  • Posting to discussion boards or engaging in other online collaborative activities.

Adopting a broad definition of participation that includes a varied selection of activities lets learners with different styles and preferences to contribute in different ways.

What does high-quality participation look like?

In order to focus on participation that enhances learning, think beyond the type or quantity of student involvement and consider the quality (Paff, 2015). A question about a homework due date does not contribute the same intellectual value to the course as an insightful comment or a question on a journal article, so your evaluation should account for that difference.

Consider engaging your students in a conversation about characteristics of high-quality participation early in the semester and using their feedback to shape your grading criteria. This conversation will help you dispel confusion about your expectations and will generate student investment in the participation assessment process.

How much should participation be worth?

The value that you attribute to various assessments in your course communicates how you prioritize them to your students. Whether student participation is vital or just helpful in your course, the weight of the participation grade should correspond to its value.

How should you evaluate participation?

If you teach a small class, you may want to evaluate students yourself using a tool-like checklist or rubric. Here’s a simple holistic checklist that could be completed in minutes for a smaller class (Click for full-size view):

checklist to evaluate the assessment of student participation

If you teach a large class or are concerned that grading participation would be time consuming or could distract you from teaching, you may want to ask your students to self-assess or complete peer assessments. You can ask students to reflect on their contribution to the course at a few points during the semester citing specific examples, then evaluate and offer feedback on their self-assessment (Zaremba & Dunn, 2004). You also can distribute checklists or simple rubrics prior to a lesson or activity and ask students to evaluate their peers. Though you would still have to issue a grade based on self or peer assessments, involving your students in the process will help them reflect on their participation, reinforce that their input matters and remove some of the grading burden from you.

How often and how will you provide students with feedback on their participation?

Too often, participation grades are issued at the end of the semester with little or no feedback, making it impossible for students to improve. You don’t need to provide your students with a paragraph of feedback after every class session, but you should plan for regular check-ins during the semester. This could mean holding brief conferences with students at the mid-semester point or it could mean offering a few sentences about their performance, where they excel and where and how they could improve via Blackboard every few weeks. How often and how you deliver feedback is up to you, as long as your students have the information and opportunities they need to improve.

If you teach online, what does participation look like in your online course and how can you assess it?

Though involvement looks a little different in an online course than it does in a traditional course, online discussion boards, group work, chats and virtual office hours all offer avenues to evaluate participation. Pitt Online created this video, which covers what and how you might grade if you would like to assess participation in an online course.

How can you communicate and clarify your participation grading plan to your students?

Regardless of how you decide to define and evaluate participation, publish your grading criteria on your syllabus, share your grading tools with students and discuss your expectations with the class. The clearer you are, the likelier your students are to meet your expectations and less likely they are to be confused or resistant. If you feel comfortable taking it one step further, try involving your students in the participation assessment process.

For resources or help, see the participation grading tools below. For individualized assistance, contact the Center for Teaching and Learning at to schedule a consultation with a teaching consultant.

Participation Grading Tools

Sample Rubric
Sample Rubric for Online Discussion Boards
Sample Student Self-Assessment Checklist/Rationale


Paff, L.A.  (2015).  Does grading encourage participation?  Evidence and implications.  College Teaching, 63(4), 135-145.  doi: 10.1080/87567555.2015.1028021

Rocca, K.A.  (2010).  Student participation in the college classroom: An extended multidisciplinary literature review.  Communication Education, 59(2).  185-213.  doi: 10/1080/03634520903505936

Zaremba, S. B., & Dunn, D. S. (2004). Assessing class participation through self-evaluation: method and measure. Teaching of Psychology, 31(3), 191-193.


Lindsay Onufer is a teaching and learning consultant at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.



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