A Useful Strategy for Assessing Class Participation

One of the changes we have seen in academia in the last 30 years or so is the shift from lecture-based classes to courses that encourage a student-centered approach. Few instructors would quibble with the notion that promoting active participation helps students to think critically and to argue more effectively. However, even the most savvy instructors are still confounded about how to best evaluate participation, particularly when it is graded along with more traditional assessment measures, such as essays, exams, and oral presentations. Type the words “class participation” and “assessment” into www.google.com, and you will get close to 700,000 hits.

Providing students with a clear, fair, and useful assessment of their class participation is challenging for even the most seasoned educator. Even when I provide a rubric that distinguishes every category of participation from outstanding to poor, students are often still confused about precisely what it is that I expect from them. It is not unusual, for example, for students to believe that attendance and participation are synonymous. On the other hand, when we attempt to spell out too precisely what it is we expect in the way of contributions, we run the risk of closing down participation. In one online site that offers assessment guidelines, for example, the course instructor characterizes “unsatisfactory” participation as follows: “Contributions in class reflect inadequate preparation. Ideas offered are seldom substantive, provide few if any insights and never a constructive direction for the class. Integrative comments and effective challenges are absent. If this person were not a member of the class, valuable airtime would be saved.” The language used in the description—”inadequate,” “seldom,” “few,” “never,” and “absent”—hardly encourages positive results. The final sentence is both dismissive and insensitive. Shy students are unlikely to risk airing an opinion in a classroom climate that is negatively charged. Certainly, the same point can be made by simply informing students, in writing, that infrequent contributions to class discussions will be deemed unsatisfactory and merit a “D” for the participation grade.

While there are a number of constructive guidelines online for generating and assessing participation, the dichotomy between the students’ perception of their contributions and the instructor’s assessment of participation is still often a problem. One tool that I have found particularly effective is to administer a brief questionnaire early in the semester (as soon as I have learned everyone’s name), which asks students to assess their own participation to date. Specifically, I ask that students do the following: “Please check the statement below that best corresponds to your honest assessment of your contribution to class discussion thus far:

_____ I contribute several times during every class discussion. (A)

_____ I contribute at least once during virtually every class discussion. (B)

_____ I often contribute to class discussion. (C)

_____ I occasionally contribute to class discussion. (D)

_____ I rarely contribute to class discussion. (E)”

I then provide a space on the form for the student to write a brief rationale for their grade, along with the option to write additional comments if they so choose. Finally, I include a section on the form for instructor response. I collect the forms, read them, offer a brief response, and return them at the next class meeting.

This informal self-assessment exercise does not take long, and it always provides intriguing results. More often than not, students will award themselves a higher participation grade than I would have. Their rationale often yields insight into why there is a disconnect between my perception and theirs. For example, a student may write, “I feel that I have earned a ‘B’ so far in class participation. I know that I’m quiet, but I haven’t missed a class and I always do my reading.” Using the “Instructor Response” space, I now have an opportunity to disabuse the student’s notion that preparation, attendance, and participation are one and the same. I also offer concrete measures that the student can take to improve his or her participation.

When this exercise is done early in the semester, it can enhance both the amount and quality of participation. It helps to build confidence and reminds students that they have to hold themselves accountable for every part of their course grade, including participation.