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Student op-ed: Class participation grades are racist

That latest facet of college life to be dubbed “racist” is grading students, at least partly, on their participation in class.

In The Tulane Hullabaloo, Grave Chiong argues such grading policies do not “address the reality that students of color may not feel comfortable speaking up during discussions,” particularly those about race.

The selection of courses for Tulane’s “Race and Inclusion” requirement “fail to adjust their participation expectations,” Chiong says. These courses range in topics from “Critical Race Theory” to “The History of Mardi Gras.”

Choing also says participation grading puts pressure on minority students to “speak on behalf of their identity.” (Black students, for example, comprise only nine percent of Tulane’s student body.)

These might seem like rather odd takes considering college race courses and discussions overwhelmingly are critical of white people where white students feel uneasy about speaking up. And any feeling of “speaking on behalf” of one’s race or identity is a product of progressive identity politics.

If anything, participation grades can stigmatize introverts and those with anxiety issues. The issue is how participation should be graded, if at all.

MORE: School district scraps traditional ‘A-F’ grading system for kinder, gentler model

According to Assumption University’s James Lang, assigning a grade for participation makes it “subject to every kind of bias imaginable”: Was the student’s comment relevant? Thought-provoking? Just to get that participation credit?

Teachers and professors ask themselves “How am I tracking the quality of comments, as opposed to sheer quantity?”

As a teacher, Lang says he kept track of student participation which counted for 10 percent of their final grade. However, he now calls the practice a “poor pedagogical choice”: Making participation an “ungraded norm” is the “most inclusive” way to get students involved.

Lang begins his school year by telling students participation “is not ‘some optional extra’” — it “is as essential to the course as writing the assigned papers and taking the final exam. You can’t be a full member of our community without participating in class.”

But an “ungraded norm” is a better fit for college-aged students than those in grades K-12. Inevitably, middle and high schoolers’ ears perk up at the mention of “ungraded” and they’ll ask “So, we’re not graded on contributing to discussions?”

What does a teacher do then? One suggestion is using technology to allow for participation via alternative means such as shared Google Docs, Padlet and VoiceThread.

Read the op-ed.

MORE: Writing professors push for ‘labor-based grading’ and de-emphasis on writing errors

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 18 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.