Seminar participation marks are a debated issue in higher education.
While they are common practice across the USA and in some disciplines in the UK, there are clear pros and cons to this form of assessment. Whilst we must be aware of the potential limitations of participation marks, we should also be conscious that they can make significant contributions to teaching as a postgraduate.
I have used seminar participation marks on one specific module (Europe and the World, University of Kent) to great effect. This blog-post discusses what I consider the pros of seminar participation marks, and suggests some possible ways to address their potential cons.
Why introduce seminar participation marks
I asked for seminar participation marks to be introduced for a module on EU external relations three years ago. Seminar marks may not be suitable for all modules; it depends on the topic and the aims of the seminars.
For the Europe and the World module, students’ initial reluctance to speak and share their ideas in class was problematic because the seminars for this module were all about debating the EU’s policies. The main aim of the seminar mark was therefore to stimulate everyone’s participation, thus helping encourage vivid small-group and class discussions. Moreover, students spent a lot of time and effort on seminar preparation and attendance, and it seemed only fair to have this reflected in their final mark.
Therefore, we introduced a 15% share of students’ overall mark for their presence and participation in the seminars Indeed, allocating participation marks is a rather subjective exercise. Therefore, to have some objective criteria for marking (as with essays and exams) I created a detailed description of the marking criteria, with clear expectations for each of the five scales.
This roughly broke down as follows:
- A 0 if someone was absent without any valid reason;
- 42 for being present but unprepared and/or not participating;
- 52-58 for average participation (able to discuss the topic, but not able to refer to scholarly approaches or current affairs);
- 62-68 for good participation and preparation (able to formulate arguments based on the readings, lecture and current affairs; constructive engagement in the discussions);
- 72+ if students were also able to move beyond the basic discussion and demonstrate they had done broader readings and researched current affairs in-dept.
Marks were awarded weekly, and students received updates on their average mark throughout the term, so they could ask for additional feedback on how to improve their participation if they so wanted.
The pros and cons of seminar participation marks
The feedback on the participation mark was overwhelmingly positive. Nearly all students indicated that the mark motivated them to participate;; that it encouraged them to overcome their shyness; and that they became more comfortable formulating their ideas as the term progressed.
The atmosphere in the classroom was consistently lively and amicable, and I could see a stark contrast with seminars from previous years and other modules. The majority of students also improved their marks week after week, suggesting the introduction of seminar participation marks was also effective in encouraging a greater level and quality of student engagement with the module’s content.
Naturally, there are also some downsides to participation marks. While many students saw the introduction of participation marks as an encouragement, there are also students for whom speaking in the group simply causes too much discomfort . This is the main reason why participation marks are criticised by some . It was not my aim to make any of my students feel anxious, and it would be highly unethical to ‘punish’ students for being less vocal than their peers.
I would suggest three practices for overcoming this challenge:
- It was emphasised that marks would be allocated on the basis of the quality, not quantity, of someone’s contribution;
- Each seminar would consist of full-group and small-group discussions, and particular attention was paid to everyone’s contribution in the small group tasks;
- Students for whom public speaking was a serious issue were given the option to opt out from the seminar mark, and to have a greater share allocated for their written assessments instead. This was done in coordination with our student support team, and in line with the 2010 Equality Act.
A second problem with seminar marks is that not everyone can always attend seminars. Expecting students to be at every seminar irrespective of their personal or working commitments clashes with the notion of widening participation (see also Brooks et al. 1999: 225).
Where possible, I always tried to be flexible and in individual cases I’d be happy to make exceptions for the mark. For instance, students who couldn’t attend classes because of work or family commitments were allowed to submit a weekly report on the readings as an alternative.
Lastly, some would object to the idea of introducing even more standardisation and assessments. Indeed, having a seminar mark may seem somewhat high-school-like, and it was one of the aspects I was most worried about when introducing the mark. However, many students indicated that they do prefer some structure and clear expectations to the seminar, as it helps them to stay motivated and enhances their selfdiscipline.
There are thus a few issues that need to be taken into careful consideration when introducing seminar participation marks, most notably students’ possible discomfort at speaking in public and their other commitments that may prevent them from attending seminars altogether.
It should also be recognised that those students who are more comfortable with public speaking have an advantage and may obtain higher marks. The measures mentioned above are aimed at mitigating this potential obstacle. Participation marks also require additional effort from the seminar leader to ensure that everyone is given an equal chance to speak. This may mean giving extra encouragement to quieter students, and daring to kindly cut off others who may otherwise dominate the discussion.
Its worth remembering, however, that such hindrances exist for any form of assessment. For many students, sitting an exam or writing a large essay can be equally stressful. For me as a seminar leader, the seminar marks added extra commitments: allocating marks on a weekly basis and communicating the outcomes to students is a time-consuming affair. However, it made the classes so much more effective, making it worth the effort. My role changed from a teacher who had to fill the silences to a genuine facilitator of debate. Judging from the feedback received from three cohorts for this module, it seems that the participation mark has been very beneficial for the majority of students and is something you may want to consider introducing, if possible, into your seminar provision.
Eske van Gils is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Kent. She has taught different modules and was shortlisted for the Kent Union Teaching Awards in 2016. Her research focuses on changing power dynamics between the EU and non-EU states in the post-Soviet region.
 The mark was explicitly awarded for participation; not just for attendance, as this practice has been criticized for discouraging students from engaging with their studies (Attwood 2009).
 Dancer and Kamvounias (2005) suggest to involve students in the setting of criteria as well, to make the process more fair and reliable. In similar fashion, Ryan et al. (2007) ran parallel self-‐assessments by students and compared the difference between marks given by peers and teachers to assess the validity.
 See Anker et al. (2000) for a detailed description of students’ concerns.
 See for instance: http://bullandbear.musonline.com/2013/12/participation-‐marks-‐the-‐good-‐the-‐bad-‐and-‐ the-‐ugly/
Anker, K., C. Dauvergne, M. Findlay and J. Millbank (2000). ‘Evaluating a change to seminar- style teaching’. Legal Education Review 11: 97-144.
Attwood, R. (2009). ‘Students get marks just for turning up. Universities accused of ‘bribing’ undergraduates.’ Times Higher Education. Published on 10 September 2009 at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/students-get-marks-just-for-turning- up/408081.article.
Brooks, J., M. Farwell, K. Spicer and F. Barlow (1999). ‘Seminars and examinations: Students’ perceptions of the seminar in their examination revision strategy’. Innovations in Education and Training International 36 (3): 224-235.
Dancer, D. and P. Kamvounias (2005). ‘Student involvement in assessment: a project designed to assess class participation fairly and reliably.’ Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 30 (4): 445-454.
Ryan, G., L. Marshall, K. Porter and H. Jia (2007). ‘Peer, professor and self-evaluation of class participation.’ Active learning in higher education 8 (1): 49-61.