October 23rd, 2009

A Novel Approach to Encouraging Class Participation


Most instructors attempt to encourage class participation by making it part of the overall grade. But evaluating individual contributions and promoting a substantive, intriguing discussion at the same time is no small task. Consequently, many instructors end up evaluating participation subjectively, relying on an intuitive sense of who spoke, how often, and saying what. Besides worries about the objectivity of such a system, this approach “forces the instructor to adopt two fundamentally incompatible roles simultaneously: the support role of creating learning opportunities in the classroom, and the evaluative role of grading participation every time a student verbalizes his or her thoughts.” (p. 24)

Mainkar, the author of the article referenced below, uses this problem and the work of others to identify two more problems that are frequently a part of student participation grading schemes. First, students contribute not because they have something to say, but because they want the points. They craft these contributions in their minds as other students are speaking. As a result, what they say rarely follows from what has just been said, thereby making the discussion disjointed rather than a series of exchanges that flow in the direction of some logical conclusion. And finally, not all students are equally ready to contribute. For some (frequently those from other cultures or of ethnic minority backgrounds), having to participate in class may cause much stress and anxiety.

Mainkar has developed (and used successfully for four years now) a system that tackles these problems. “Students are the primary evaluators of discussion participation on a daily basis.” (p. 24) Here’s how the system works. Every day one or two (usually two) students evaluate the contributions of the rest of class (between 20 and 30 other students). They do so using a sheet (a sample of which is included in the article’s appendix) that lists all students by name and differentiates contributions into three categories: attendance (awarded for listening and not engaging in disruptive behaviors), straightforward comments (adequate contributions), and insightful comments (superior thinking).

One point is awarded for attending but not participating in class, two points for one or two straightforward comments, and three points for three or more straightforward comments. Insightful comments are worth more, but students cannot earn more than three points per day. Evaluators earn three points on the day they evaluate their classmates. Each student evaluates only once during the course. Mainkar has found that the two evaluators’ scores agree to a high degree.

Mainkar admits that the system does involve more administrative work for the instructor. Students’ participation is scored daily, and those scores must be recorded, averaged, and shared with the students; but given the system’s effectiveness at overcoming some fundamental problems associated with the grading of participation, the extra effort seems justified. The article also contains some useful suggestions on how the system can be streamlined and used in smaller classes. It is an interesting approach with many potential adaptations.

Reference: Mainkar, A.V. (2008). A student-empowered system for measuring and weighing participation in class discussion. Journal of Management Education, 32 (1), 23-37.

Excerpted from Class Participation Evaluated by Peers, The Teaching Professor, June-July 2008.

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