How Grading Participation Makes Behavior Worse

In past school years, I gave participation grades. Lest you think that I logged every raised hand and rated comments as insightful or banal, understand that in my school, ‘participation’ is a code word for ‘behavior.’

It sounds so simple and fair. Five points a day — just for showing up, looking interested, following directions. Two points off for being tardy, talking out of turn, sleeping, being off-task. Five points off for unexcused absences, bad behavior. Kids who behave are rewarded, and kids who don’t pay the penalty.

My school has discipline issues. It is not unusual for five or six students to arrive five minutes or more late to class, or for several students to skip class altogether. Many students have no self-control; they talk whenever they feel like it, grab one another, use profanity. Fights are not uncommon.

When students are ‘written up’ for these offences, nothing may happen for several days, sometimes more than a week. Then the offending student will get an after school detention or a couple days of in-school suspension. By then, he has forgotten why he’s being punished.

While I can’t do much individually to improve school climate, I thought that if students understood that they were lowering their grades, their behavior would improve.

Instead, nothing changed – except that I had one more thing to keep track of.

Here is what I finally learned: Grading behavior does nothing to change behavior. In fact, it may even make it worse. That sounds like a paradox, but I have seen it happen over and over.

Here is why: It’s not as if students can check their points on their iPhones and see an instant reflection of their poor behavior. Maybe once every two weeks I give them a grade printout.

At the moment when they feel like talking or swearing or cutting class, however, they don’t see their grade. If they realize that they are only losing a couple of points, they may (paradoxically) find it easier to misbehave. Did I really expect impulsive kids to suddenly develop the ability to patiently wait for a week to realize that they shouldn’t have cut class?

It’s hard to justify participation grades. It’s a ‘soft’ grade, and therefore likely to be challenged. The fact is, we are not supposed to grade students on their attendance. If a B+ student is unhappy, the participation grade is going to be challenged. I don’t like arguing.

Participation grades punish the wrong kids. I don’t like penalizing kids who have chaotic homes and can’t always get to school. I don’t like taking points away from an otherwise good student who has to work and can’t stay awake at 7:30 in the morning. It feels unjust to dock points when a student is doing math homework instead of English, when I know that they will get my work done by the following day.

Participation grades don’t help students who behave well. I failed several students who have good attendance, know how to behave, and are pleasant people. Is it any consolation to them that they got an A for ‘participation’ when that participation didn’t help them learn anything?

I began to realize how ineffective these grades are when I noticed how often I was using them as a threat. “If you don’t stop talking, you’ll lost all your points!” “If I see your phone one more time, I’m docking you ten points!” It’s pretty much an empty threat; they don’t miss the points until they get their report cards; they don’t remember the report card when they’re having a bad day and behave badly.

My students’ lives are full of inconsistencies; many have parents who don’t know how to control them and resort to empty threats or unfairly harsh punishments. A participation grade changes none of that.

Grades should be based on skill and knowledge. You can argue that promptness, attentiveness and appropriate behavior are important social skills, but schools can’t fix all society’s ills. Teachers can’t make students’ homes more supportive or stable. We can’t go back in time and read to our students before they started kindergarten. We can’t give their parents jobs and college educations.

If participation grades don’t change behavior, why give them?

How much more powerful it would be if failing students could figure out for themselves that they need to get to class on time and stop talking to the kid across the aisle.

As we often say, “Telling isn’t teaching.” Reminding a student that he is losing points for being late or misbehaving isn’t teaching him anything — except that school is all about punishments and rewards.

That isn’t what I want them to learn.

When I finally let go of participation grades, nobody noticed but me. Students still misbehave, but now the conversation I have with them is different. Instead of warning, “You’re losing points for talking,” I can ask them, “What behaviors are making it hard for you to learn?”

Their answers tell me that they do understand. As long as I was making it a points game, though, they just played along.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. theteachingwhore
    Feb 13, 2011 @ 14:04:07

    Your school sounds eerily similar to mine. What I am thinking more and more is that we have raised a generation of kids to defy authority and now it’s time for a school design that reflects that. I don’t have any easy answers, but I just keep trudging on doing what I can. Thanks for your always thoughtful posts.


  2. Carissa
    Jun 19, 2012 @ 22:51:44

    You make goo dpoints, and I understand them, but I think grades hold students accountable. If you are graded on showing up and being poite then you are accountable for that. I even have my students do self assessments on their grades We talk about any issues they may have after that. It seems to work pretty well (for my stduents at least)


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