January 17, 2018

Know how class participation points are calculated. Here’s how to ask.

Know how class participation points are calculated

Does your prof give points for participation? If so, do you know how that grade is calculated?

I know when I’d see “participation” mentioned in my college syllabi. . . with no clear explanation of how those points happened, I always wondered if the prof made little checks next to my name every time I opened my mouth in class. Or, did my mere presence in class presume my participation? Or, was there an entirely different, more objective formula for calculating those points that I didn’t know about?

(Did my professor scream, “Muhahahahahaha” when figuring up those points? I wonder…)

From your prof’s perspective, participation points can be derived a number of different ways:

  • How often you open your mouth in class and constructively contribute to class discussion
  • How much you attend class
  • How actively you participate in group and partner activities
  • How many times you ask questions and propose answers (not to mention the quality of those questions and answers)
  • How substantively you write and respond to others on an external discussion forum, Wiki, blog, etc.

These are just some examples; there are countless others. Bottom line: If your syllabus talks about a participation grade, those points should not be a mystery.

So what’s the communication lesson here? Ask questions about how your participation relates to your overall grade! How do you do that? Here are tips:

1) Go back and look at your syllabus. If participation points exist, are they clearly explained? Hopefully the prof discussed what he/she expects on the first day, but if you are unsure and the syllabus doesn’t define the requirement, say, “I noticed on the syllabus that 20% of my grade is based on participation. I want to make sure I understand what to do to earn those points.”

2) If there are not distinct participation points mentioned in the syllabus, but other statements allude to interaction in class (think attendance, contributions to discussion, participating in activities, etc.), then your prof may not actually give you points for participation, but could take it into consideration later if you are close to getting a higher grade. You certainly can ask your prof, “I don’t see participation counted in our overall grade, but does it make any difference when you are determining my final grade?”

If your prof has an attendance policy and you can lose points for not being there, showing up is a measure of participation. However, being there in body isn’t all that your prof expects from you, so find out what you need to do.

3) If your syllabus does state that you need to show up to class, speak up in class, and play the prof’s reindeer games in class in order to earn your participation grade, find out how those points are tracked. Does your prof give you a check mark every time you utter a word? Is your attendance a declaration that you are participating? First, ask: “Can you tell me how I’m doing on my participation points so far? My goal is to earn full points in this area.” Or “Am I meeting your expectations for participation?”

Then, you can add, “Is there a way I can keep tabs on my participation to make sure I’m meeting all the requirements?” If your prof is using BlackBoard, Angel, or another course management system, maybe you can view these points in the gradebook yourself.

If the prof tells you that you need to speak up more or contribute in class differently, say: “Can you give me an example of what you expect?” If you feel you are doing more than you are getting credit for, then ask, “How are the points tracked? I’m concerned that some of my participation is being missed.”

4) If your participation involves online work, such as discussion board posts/responses, and you are not receiving full points, there’s specific advice on how to expand your writing.

5) If you are unable to participate in class in the way that is expected of you (channeling this post with Melvin whose cultural norms did not support him speaking openly in class), then you need to tell your prof specifically, “I am struggling with speaking out in class and I know it is expected. I am worried about earning my full participation points. Do you have advice for something else that I can do?”

You can ask: “Can I submit questions to you ahead of time?,” “Can my participation in paired or group situations count more fully?,” or “Can I do additional work in another area?”

Your prof may or may not agree, but talk about it so you aren’t blindsided by fewer points. You may also want to consider speaking out in class even once or twice just to see how it feels to share your thoughts openly. Maybe you’ll find a new found confidence in sharing your voice!


About the Author: Ellen Bremen (17 Posts)

Ellen Bremen is tenured faculty at Highline Community College and the author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success (NorLights Press, April 2012). Ellen stops at nothing to help students strengthen their communication skills: Peanut butter and jelly to illustrate problematic messages, pipe cleaners to teach communication models, and Post-it notes to reduce speaking anxiety. Ellen holds degrees in Post-Secondary Education and Communication. As an interpersonal communication expert, Ellen has watched students struggle to navigate their classes, especially their communication with professors. Ellen's goal? To help students correctly--not cluelessly--speak/deal with those who teach them. The outcome? Better student-prof relationships, improved grades, and confident and competent communication skills for college and beyond. Ellen's philosophy: College is THE safe training ground for students to practice and hone assertive and professional communication skills. Then, students can transition this sought-after skill to their professional and personal lives. Ellen looks forward to answering students' simple and complex questions about communication in college, and particularly professor-related challenges.


  1. Most teacher’s aren’t cruel I promise 😛

    As a student I also remember being anxious of this unknown grade. I often overtalked and visited office hours to be sure they knew who I was. I teach smaller classes (35 tops) so I normally know all my stduents, btu what I like to do is pass out a self assessment sheet half way through(http://eslcarissa.blogspot.com/2012/06/self-evaluation-for-participation.html). I explain that I already know the answers so they don’t need to lie and they can fill it out and guess their grade.

    They also have a chance to add a comment, “Teacher I am sure you’ve seen me texting, I am really sorry its just my girlfriend and I are having problems…” or whatever

    Then I can respond sometimes it is to bring a student up, “Janie your participation is much better than you think. Don’t count yourself short and keep it up!”

    Othertimes I have to let them know I am not deaf or blind, “Susie you take 15 minute bathroom breaks every class and hardly speak in English….”

    I find it a good tool!

  2. This is an excellent post. Participation points are often very mysterious. Anything that students can do to understand how they are calculated will be helpful. Students should remember that quality usually trumps sheer quantity, but understanding what a professor expects is key. Some professors are very specific and may even keep a track sheet of class comments while others rely on a general impression of how engaged a student is. Knowing the difference will certainly help the student. Great class participation is definitely a skill that can be learned and improved.

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