January 4, 2023
Students who enroll in William Altman’s psychology classes at the State University of New York’s Broome Community College sometimes find themselves hooked up to an electroencephalograph—a device that measures electrical activity of the brain—while driving simulated cars either with or without texting. Others in the class participate by monitoring the device’s output or the number of accidents or driving errors both for drivers who text and those who refrain.
“You don’t get the excitement of students driving at 75 miles an hour into a parked fire truck if they’re not in the room,” Altman said. At the end of every class, Altman asks students to reflect in writing about what they learned or what confused them that day. Those who are present and submit the reflection receive participation credit that, over the semester, typically constitutes “a couple percent” of their course grade—an amount Altman deems negligible but effective. That is, students generally comply, as “most of them can’t do math and getting any points is good.”
“I’m not going to tell a student they have to show up,” Altman said. “I’m just going to say, ‘Here are the consequences or benefits of showing up or not showing up. You get to decide.’”
But nearly three years into the pandemic, many faculty members have begun to question long-accepted notions of whether participation in live class activities—and the attendance it often requires—should count in a grade at all. Many instructors now teach both in person and online, which has made some aware that students may succeed in accomplishing learning goals without showing up.
Some, with heightened awareness of student struggles, see participation barriers that are not evenly distributed across student populations. In response, they have dropped policies that award points for participation. At the same time, they still value engagement, which is why many are experimenting with alternative incentives to participate. This incentivize-but-don’t-grade-participation effort is a delicate matter—and strikes at the core, in both good and bad ways, of what drives many professors.