My colleague, Lolita Paff, has been exploring student attitudes and beliefs about participation. Most of her beginning economics and accounting students describe themselves as “limited” or “non-participants.” They say they don’t participate because they don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers or they learn better by listening. At this point, she has gathered some rather compelling data that grading isn’t motivating her students to participate more. “I had been pretty strongly in the if-you-grade-it-they-will-do-it camp. The evidence surprised me and made me rethink grading participation,” she writes.
Many instructors will argue that student participation in class is important. But what’s the difference between participation and engagement? What does good participation or engagement look like? How can you recognize it? And how can you tell if a student is not engaged?
Is there a way to motivate and improve student participation without grading it? I raise the question because I think grading contributions gets students talking for points, not talking to make points. Verbal students make sure they say something, but often without listening to or connecting with the comments of others.
I was looking at participation policies in a collection of syllabi this week. I wouldn’t give most of them high marks—lots of vague descriptions that don’t functionally define participation and then prescribe instructor assessment at the end of course with little or no mention of criteria. But I’ve voiced my concerns about participation policies previously, so I won’t do again here. Instead, what I would like to share with you is a policy that’s impressive in its specificity and in the intriguing idea it contains.
A recent classroom observation reminded me that student participation can be encouraged and supported by attention to small but important presentational details. In this article I have highlighted these details in the form of questions, and I hope that you’ll use them to reflect on the behaviors you’re using when seeking, listening, and responding to student contributions.
“What did you think about the reading?” can serve as an acceptable discussion prompt if your class is reading a novel, but a question like that doesn’t generate much response when the assigned chapter is in an engineering mechanics book or a principles of accounting text. For those who teach “technical content” — and by that I mean material with “right” answers and preferred ways of doing things, like problems with specific solutions or checklists of procedures — it can be doubly difficult to get students talking.
A colleague and I have been revisiting a wide range of issues associated with classroom interaction. I am finding new articles, confronting aspects of interaction that I still don’t understand very well, having my thinking on other topics challenged, and learning once more how invaluable and personally satisfying a pedagogical exchange with a colleague can be. My colleague recommended an article I had forgotten. The article is old but the point it makes is just as relevant today, if not more, than when it was made in 1987.
Grading participation presents a number of challenges. If instructors rely on their sense of who participated, how often, and in what ways, that can be a pretty subjective measure. After all, besides noting who’s contributing, the instructor needs to listen to what the student is saying, and frame a response while keeping the larger discussion context in mind. Is the discussion staying on track? Are there points that have yet to be made? If instructors opt for a more objective system, they face the cumbersome task of comment counting during the actual discussion. While listening to the student, the instructor must find the student’s name and record the comment. It requires a challenging set of multitasking skills.
In the typical college classroom a small handful of students make the vast majority of comments. As a teacher you want to create a classroom environment that helps students of various learning styles and personalities to feel comfortable enough to contribute as well as understand the importance of class preparation and active participation. To reach this goal requires a constant balancing act of encouraging quiet, reflective students to speak up and, occasionally, asking the most active contributors to hold back from commenting in order to give others a chance.
I’ve been doing some presentations on classroom interaction and thinking yet again about how we could do better with our questions — the ones we ask in class or online. Good questions make students think, they encourage participation and I think they improve the caliber of the answers students give and the questions they ask. To achieve those worthwhile outcomes more regularly, I’d like to recommend three actions that have the potential to improve our questioning.