From the Editor

Townhouse Notes: One Take on Class Participation

Allison Miller | Jan 1, 2018

AHA TownhouseMy lifelong aversion to being graded on anything didn’t serve me in my teaching career. It wasn’t simply that grading written work required intense bursts of critical thinking, which I was told should take no more than 20 minutes per research paper and even less time for bluebook exams. It was also that I couldn’t understand what students were saying and why they thought as they did without immersing myself in their worldview, as captured in the words on the page. This took time, and a great deal of reading inside the grain.

But this wasn’t how most people I knew graded. There seemed to be a governing principle that you looked for ways to take “points” off. Docking papers one-third of a letter grade for each day late seemed harsh, but it was de rigueur. A common policy was to mark down for “unexcused” absences (those not accompanied by written documentation, which for some colleagues included memorial service programs in the case of family deaths). One syllabus threatened to fail any paper whose pages weren’t stapled together.

These policies all rewarded behavior that came naturally to those colleagues who were good at school when they had been students. When I thought about how I would have responded to these rules when I was a student—smart but also struggling with my grades—I knew they would have struck me as arrogant and patronizing.

The same apprehension came with grading class participation. I’d read pedagogy about student-centered teaching, but its descriptions of magical students who blossomed under charismatic tutelage fell short of reality. Student engagement was essential to student learning, but the equation of engagement with talking in class (or even in small groups) seemed wrongheaded. Not only would grading class participation penalize the reticent, it would treat a quiet student the same way it would treat an absent student. Additionally, keeping track of the quality and quantity of student contributions interrupted the flow of discussion, for me and for them. (There was also corruption: class participation grades could be quietly inflated at term’s end to give justice to students who wrote good papers and tested well but weren’t noisy.) Like other policies, class participation requirements were all stick and no carrot.

But encouraging students to participate for a grade, and then grading their efforts fairly, is something most teachers must figure out how to do. Emotionally engaged students learn more and learn it better. The four authors in our special section on class participation (as well as Mary Beth Norton, in her first AHA presidential column) have hit on strategies to ensure this, and their contributions as a whole convey not only the practical but also the idealistic, including the thrill of witnessing student learning.

Perspectives has published articles on class participation before. In “Should Class Participation Be Graded?” (November 2009), Bonnie M. Miller weighed the issue from students’ point of view as well as teachers’, urging the latter to consider “providing alternatives to traditional ways of measuring participation that acknowledge different personality and learning styles.” In that spirit, I hope this special section serves as a starting point for people whose job is to communicate history.

Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.

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