Every semester during syllabus week, I attend lecture, excited to determine my true schedule for the semester. This may, on the surface, exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding on my part of the student center’s available functions.
What I mean by “true” is that I sort my classes into a hierarchy based on the importance of attending, and some inevitably fall off the block. By the end of some classes’ first lecture, I know I’ll probably only need to go another two or three times over the course of the entire semester. For a typical class, my attendance throughout the upcoming months will wane depending on factors such as workload in other classes, sleep deprivation and the weather.
So during syllabus week, I discover which classes implement some system of mandatory attendance, reminding me just how much I abhor this policy. Sometimes, mandatory attendance has a minute impact in the form of clicker questions at the beginning of every lecture. Other times, to my dismay, a class has mandatory discussion sections, where my grade depends solely on physically attending.
Regardless of the level of grade-based coercion that goes into increasing attendance, evaluating a student’s knowledge of material based on attendance creates an improper distortion on an individual’s grade, and UW should ban this practice.
Grades are intended to reflect the level of knowledge a student has accumulated. For instance, a student who receives an A in Calculus 221 has displayed a mastery of the material taught in the course, while a student who receives an F in the same course has failed to display an understanding of the material.
Exhibition of a student’s grasp on the material is the purpose of having grades at all. Grades exist for this singular reason, and the administration of grades should find its basis solely from a student’s level of competency in regard to the material.
Classes which include a participation grade distort the information conveyed by a grade.
To be clear, active participation absolutely does enhance knowledge, and I am never opposed to grades based on participating in verbal discussion. In fact, students who are especially passionate in group conversation and routinely bring new ideas to the table should be rewarded.
But all too often, participation is used as a synonym for attendance on our syllabi, meaning a student who shows up to discussion and browses Facebook for 50 minutes is rewarded equally to a student who is actively participating.
For instance, in a class in which attendance counts for 20 percent of a grade, a student who scores 70 out of 80 on the exam, but receives 100 percent on participation will receive an A in the course. But, a student who scores 80 out of 80 on the exam, but receives 0 out of 10 on participation receives a B.
This represents the professor’s fundamental failure to display which students truly knew the material of the course better. If I’m the boss of a company looking for the best applicant in the field, it doesn’t matter to me that a student never showed up to class if they possess a mastery on the material. Further, it would absolutely matter to me if a student lacked a true mastery on the material.
Yet participation-based grades allow for this distortion of information. Thus, participation grades cause the university as a whole to fail in its responsibility to adequately display to perspective employers and graduate schools which students have a mastery over the subject material.
Classes in the humanities are the exception to this line of thinking, since discussing the readings makes up a large chunk of the class. But beyond that, I believe UW should abolish participation-based grades. There can be exceptions, but the burden of proof must be on the professor, who ought to demonstrate attendance is a vital component for mastering the course material.
The purpose of a grade is to represent which students mastered the material, not which students sat through every single lecture and discussion. The university has allowed this distortion of grading to exist for too long and now is the time for the university to remedy this misrepresentation of student ability.