For years, I struggled with these three conundrums: it turns out they have the same simple solution.
Class Participation Grade
CONUNDRUM 1: Homework Accountability
Scenario: “Madison and Maximillian” come to class without their homework. Let’s say the homework is a series of questions designed to prep the students for discussion. To what extent are Madison and Maximilian accountable to “make up” that particular homework assignment?
Damned if you DO, Scenario 1: Madison was busy with college apps last night and did not complete the writing prompt, but she is a conscientious student. She does not like the idea that she will a have a zero in the grade book for missing work, and she is generally attentive during class discussion. She is cagey about why she isn’t turning in the assignment. Five minutes before the end of class, during group work time, she comes to me, using a technique perfected by hack archaeologists; like an Ikea Sarcophagus, banged around to look old, and then “unearthed” in Giza, last-night’s homework suddenly pops up at the end of class.
“I found it. It was in the wrong folder,” she says, holding up the allegedly day-old homework. Do I really want to argue about whether she did it during class?
Damned if you DO, Scenario 2: Maximilian did problems 1-3 on the preparation sheet, but at 10:45, he got into an IM conversation with Midge, who he has been planning to ask to prom since the second grade. He did not finish problems 4-235. Being overtired from the four hour IM sesh, he doesn’t have the wherewithal in class to “locate” the homework during discussion, so it never gets done. He has a zero. A month later, he has three missing homework assignments. But he’s decent in class discussion, does well on tests, and helps his classmates when their computers break down. Without grading daily homework, he’d have an 89%. If the three homeworks receive a zero, his grade in class is 64%. These homeworks were simply introductions to material for class. Is he a victim of averages? How much is homework worth, anyhow?
Damned if you DON’T: Without homework accountability, exactly one student will do the homework, and he’s the one who will one day turn himself in to the authorities for cutting the tag off the mattress. Most students – most humans – wouldn’t do it. The world’s classrooms will sink into a state of unpreparedness for class. Mass hysteria.
CONUNDRUM 2: Class Discussion
I place a premium on discussion. Many students participate. Madison is the first student to make a point, congratulate a classmate on a good idea, and take a risk, sharing a personal anecdote. Class without her would be a lifeless husk – like most Hollywood movie sequels.
Maximillian, on the other hand, raised his hand on the first day of class to ask to use the bathroom.
Said hand was never seen again.
Damned if you DO:
Madison hasn’t done so well on quizzes and missed some of the homeworks we mentioned above. She has an 89%. Well, NATURALLY, class participation must count for SOMETHING? I decide it’s worth 20% of the grade. She now has an excellent grade, and will certainly now be able to attend an excellent university.
Damned if you DON’T:
But what about Maximillian? He never raises his hand, but he gets all his work in. He also earned an 89%. Does his discussion-invisibility status in discussion earn him a 90%? 80% Zero% What is his discussion grade? If I count it, his grade plummets. That strikes me as punitive, so I decide not to count it, you know, just for him.
As a result, he never learns how important it is to participate in class. He goes to college never having raised his hand.
He’d hoped one day to work for the Defense Department designing Stealth Jets to fly under enemy radar, but he does not pass his courses because the TAs never notice his existence.
CONUNDRUM 3: disruptive behavior, checking phone in class, tardiness, and communication
Damned if you DO: Now, it gets complicated. Madison chats with her neighbor constantly, but furtively. It’s not particularly disruptive.
Maximillian sits alone and never talks to anyone, but once a week, he tips over in his chair – “accidentally.” The crowd goes wild.
Madison peeks at her phone and sends surreptitious texts during class, but Maximillian is late to class about once a week.
Madison, when she misses a deadline, asks for an appointment, comes in and explains the situation, and makes arrangements to catch up.
Madison can’t be bothered to give her classmates a bit of help, though she grasps concepts quickly and is always one step ahead.
Maximillian will sooner help his struggling classmates than finish his own homework.
Maximillian hopes you won’t notice, and since you were behind on grading, you don’t realize how behind he is until its a week before the end of class, he has zeroes on the assignments, he has 24% in your class, and you’ll spend hours in the hours looking for him, in between classes.
Class Participation is 20% of the grade: HOW DO YOU GRADE MAXIMILLIAN AND MADISON?
Damned if you DON’T: Mayhem.
SOLUTION step 1:
You need a tool to help you record instances of all these things: great class participation. Interruptions. Students helping one-another. Tardiness. Missed daily work. Reaching out to you for help. You could make an ugly spreadsheet, scribble it in a notebook which you start four times and lose four times, or use a tool like classdojo.com to quickly tag positive and negative behaviors. Here’s a screenshot of some of the negative badges for my class. Some are very class-specific, and some are universal things that teachers worldwide seek to eradicate. My positive badges include: “Proactively seeks help” and “assists struggling classmates.” Classdojo syncs with iphones, Androids, laptops, iPads — so it’s easy to jot notes, even during class.
SOLUTION step 2:
LET GO of percentages. Yes. Let ‘em go. Breathe deeply. And say YES to the +3/-3 STUDENT ETHIC MODIFIER. In my classes, I orient students on day two that a Student Ethic Modifier will boost their grade, at the end of the quarter, as much as to 3% – or drop it down. This is enough to motivate someone, and not enough to exert unbalanced weight on a grade. For example, 89 percent can go up to 92% (“GREAT JOB, Madison, on these specific things!”) or down to 86% (“I’d like to strategize with you, Maximillian, how to improve your class conduct for next semester with these specific notes” )- using feedback from my ongoing notes (click here for a screenshot): If a student is sort of “meh” in class but gets his work in, fine. No modifier, no punishment, no reward! Students know what is expected and encouraged, and I feel empowered to notice trends and make a professional, thoughtful, informed call. The 3% Student Ethic Modifier addresses many conundrums at once.
While ClassDojo gives students access to their ongoing reports, I haven’t felt ready to show this to students, yet. Currently, I curate and comment at the end of the semester. One day, with proper introduction and framing, I may ask students to review their ClassDojo badges. They will assign themselves their own Student Ethic Modifier, along with an explanation of what Student Ethic Skills they’d like to work on. That sort of reflection would help them set and reach goals for themselves.