Creating a Class Participation Rubric

After years of stating my expectations for tutorial participation orally, I have developed a rubric that I think both improves my accountability as an assessor and provides my students with a clear sense of my expectations for class discussions. It also makes clear my focus in the small group setting: creating a “learners-centered,” as opposed to a “learner-centered,” environment.

The rubric was first used in a third-year Canadian external relations course. (I have since incorporated it into a number of undergraduate and graduate courses at three different universities). Tutorials were held bi-weekly and were made up of 12 to 15 students plus an instructor-facilitator. The students were assigned approximately four readings (60 to 80 pages) per session.

The rubric is accompanied by a preface explaining my philosophy of the roles and values of class participation as well as a post-script (which I call ‘Beyond the rubric’) that provides students with additional information that does not quite fit within the rubric format. Both of these sections are included below.

On class participation
Unlike some of the other forms of learning that take place in this class, participation in the small-group environment is not an individual activity. How and what you learn from listening to a lecture, reading a textbook, doing research, or studying for an exam is quite different from what you can gain when you have immediate access to approximately 15 different, informed points of view on a single issue. In tutorial, if you do not prepare effectively and contribute positively, other students miss out on one of those points of view, and their learning experience suffers.

For this reason, my evaluation of your performance in tutorial will be based in large part on how you have improved the learning experience of your peers. Supporting, engaging, and listening to your peers does not mean that you must always agree with them. Rather, you should make a sincere effort to respond to their comments.

Playing an active role in discussions involves volunteering your opinion, asking questions, and listening carefully. The best discussions are the ones that move beyond the simple questions and answers. You will be rewarded for bringing up more challenging ideas and for trying to deal with them collaboratively with your classmates. To do this effectively, you must have read all of the assigned material carefully. If you haven’t, it will become clear quite quickly.

Beyond the rubric
Additional Factors that May Affect Your Grade Positively:

  • If you show measurable improvement as the year goes on, you will be rewarded significantly. Becoming more active and/or making more effective comments not only raises the overall level of discussion in the room, it also sets an example for the rest of the class. By trying, you encourage others to do the same.
  • If you are naturally shy, or have a day when you are not yourself, you may e-mail me relevant comments, thoughts, and questions after the discussion. While this method of participation is not ideal (it does not engage the rest of the group), it does demonstrate that you have been preparing for the class, listening carefully, and responding to your peers.
  • If you miss a session completely, you can submit a one-page (single-spaced) typed argumentative summary of the assigned material (this means you must analyze and critique the readings, not summarize them). Again, while not ideal, this will confirm that you have engaged and responded to the material.

Additional Factors that May Affect Your Grade Negatively:

  • Not attending tutorial will have a significant impact on your final grade (regardless of the quality of your contributions during weeks when you are there). Obviously, you cannot contribute if you are absent. More importantly, not attending sets a poor example for your peers and encourages them to do the same. Finally, a cohesive and supportive class dynamic is most easily developed and maintained in a relatively predictable and consistent environment. Your peers must know you and trust you to feel comfortable; it is much more difficult to build this trust if you do not attend tutorial regularly.
  • Dominating class discussions is not helpful. It denies other students the opportunity to contribute and therefore restricts the number of ideas that might be considered. Dominating also prevents you from listening, and from building effectively on the comments of your peers.
  • Speaking directly to the teaching assistant / tutorial leader is also highly discouraged. Tutorial is supposed to be a dialogue among peers, not a series of individual one-on-one conversations. Ignoring your peers — and/or not referring to them by name — risks alienating them, and creates a much less supportive group dynamic.
  • Negative, offensive, and disrespectful comments and actions can do serious damage to the learning atmosphere. Such behavior will necessarily result in a substantially lower grade.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an assistant professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Excerpted from A Participation Rubric, The Teaching Professor, March 2005.