March 24th, 2014

Daydreaming or Deep in Thought? Using Formative Assessment to Evaluate Student Participation


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?

Typically, instructors see a student who willingly participates as one who is engaged, and research shows that students who are engaged often take active roles in their own learning (Weaver and Qi, qtd. in Rogers, 2013, p. 11). However, research also debates whether we can actually see engagement: there isn’t always a clear relationship between mental and physical engagement. Meaningful engagement may be happening, even when it isn’t visible (Mayer, 2009, qtd. in Rogers, 2013, p. 12).

This is just one of the many challenges that faculty face while trying to evaluate class participation. Other factors can also make this difficult:

  • Difficulty in assessing engagement or participation by observation alone;
  • Attendance issues, particularly in large classes;
  • Varied emphasis on participation from course to course;
  • Varied types of participation;
  • Difficulty of documenting student participation in a reliable way;
  • Concern about biases; and
  • Concern about unfair penalization of shy or introverted students.

With all these challenges, some instructors opt not to assign grades to participation at all. In fact, Bean and Peterson (1998, p. 33) note “assessment and measurement scholars almost universally advise against grading participation” (Rogers, 2013, p. 11) because of the difficulty in creating consistent methods of evaluation. Other complicating factors include the fact that the promise of a higher grade does not necessarily ensure greater participation, and some forms of participation are more desirable than others. Some kinds are even disruptive: students who speak simply in an effort to achieve high participation grades are not always assets to classroom discussion.

Formative assessment strategies
So, then, how can instructors facilitate student engagement and helpful participation? There are a few strategies that can help, many of which you can find discussed in more detail in other Faculty Focus articles, such as the creation of a supportive classroom environment that is skilfully facilitated and discussion-based, the creation of clear expectations around student preparation and student roles in the classroom, and creating student buy-in (Czekanski and Wolf, 2013, p. 11-12; Weimer and Walvoord, 2013). All of these strategies are helpful, but the most useful method I have found to evaluate student participation is the inclusion of formative assessment techniques in my classes.

Formative assessment may take a variety of forms (such as practice quizzes, one-minute papers, clearest/muddiest point exercises, various kinds of group work in the class, etc.), but it provides students with opportunities to practice skills or test knowledge in a “safe” way. It usually consists of low-stakes and/or ungraded (or peer- or self-evaluated) activities, and these can be combined to comprise all or part of a participation grade. You can make it do double (or triple or quadruple) duty by allowing the formative assessment activities to scaffold into your summative assessments, by using formative assessment activities to provide you with student feedback about how the course is going, and by using it to create a reflective culture of assessment that is focused on learning rather than solely on grades.

So how does it work? When I use formative assessment strategies to assess student participation, I allocate a certain number of points to each formative assessment activity; this allocation depends on the percentage I’ve allocated to participation in the course and how many assessments I use. For some activities, I give full points for completion; for others, I actually grade the activity itself. The formative assessments are all subject to my regular assignments policies, and students must be in class to participate in the activities.

My results have been overwhelmingly positive. By no longer relying on attendance and my observations in class to grade participation, these formative assessment activities have delivered a number of benefits for both my students and me:

  • They encourage attendance;
  • They allow even very shy students to earn participation grades;
  • If I design the formative assessment to scaffold into summative evaluation, students see the value of it and are likely to participate in a meaningful way;
  • Because most of the formative assessment activities are worth points, students are more likely to take the activities seriously and put forth the effort;
  • They allow learners to demonstrate knowledge in multiple ways;
  • They provide tangible evidence of student engagement (or not) and learning (or not);
  • They encourage students to reflect on their own learning, especially if the formative assessment techniques require any self-evaluation;
  • They tell me about how well my students are learning the material, and provide me with feedback about how my course is progressing.

Participation can be a challenge to grade because it often contains many different elements that instructors need to consider, sometimes on the fly. Many strategies can help, including the creation of clear expectations in the form of a rubric, as well as other other classroom techniques as mentioned. However, of all the options I’ve tried, I have found the use of formative assessment my best option for assessing engagement and participation as it can help to create a culture of self-reflection and assessment that is focused on learning rather than on only grades.

Czekanski, Kathleen E. and Zane Robinson Wolf. (2013). Encouraging and evaluating class participation. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 10 (1). Retrieved 7 July 2013 from ERIC database.

Rogers, Susan L. (2013). Calling the question: Do college instructors actually grade participation? College Teaching, 61, 11-22. Retrieved 7 July 2013 from ERIC database.

Weimer, M. and Walvoord, B. (2013). Grading Strategies for the College Classroom. Madison, WI: Magna Publications.

Carolyn Ives is the Curriculum Planning and Development Coordinator at the Centre for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at MacEwan University, Canada.

  • Walter Lowe

    One of my English 101 students wrote an interesting essay on introverts for her definition essay. Being an introvert herself, she was concerned about her apparent lack of participation not only in class but in socializing in general. In her paper she referenced research showing that brain structure has been found to be different for people considered to be introverts vs. extroverts. Her understanding is that introverts tend to note many layers of stimuli related to events going on around them and they often feel overwhelmed at trying to process it all at once. Thus, they tend to be slow to respond and they tend to migrate to corners and edges of social groupings in order to manage the data input. Thus, in class they may appear to be uninvolved, when in fact they are struggling with the absorbing of too many details at once.

    In my classes I give my students a chart to help them determine their participation as I see it. I divide it into three categories: preparation (25%), behavior (50%), and body language (25%). Most of them can relate to the sports analogy of what athletes are doing when the referee blows the whistle – are they are just arriving at the field? Thus, just as an athlete arrives prior to the game to allow time to warm up and get in position, when the instructor begins the class, the students should have already arrived, seated themselves, reviewed the material from the previous class session, and prepared the materials (these days a device) to take notes. I tell my students I don’t expect them to be seated like a lump of coal waiting to be ignited – I expect them to come to class already on fire! Teaching is my responsibility; theirs is learning.

    I teach composition and literature classes with 22-30 students per section, so this may not be practical in large lecture classes. However, grading on participation in such large courses doesn’t seem so practical either.

  • Laura S

    this would be a good idea for hybrid or flipped classes where we want to be sure students are reviewing video lectures and other required resources outside the classroom. Use the formative assessment as an "entry pass" to the classroom to verify that they have read/viewed the advance. Might have them complete the assessment online at least an hour before class (in the LMS or via email) so the teacher can be prepared to address any common misconceptions, misunderstandings, and address any questions.

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  • Mick

    Participation is not something that can accurately measure a students understanding of the topic being delivered. However, when students participate it generally means interaction and at least a point of view of a particular subject matter. As we generally teach in groups, active participation I would deem is very beneficial for the whole learning experience.

    Some students attend few classes but write excellent assignments and yet other students engage and participate to a high degree and do score the highest end of grades but I venture to say they had a more enjoyable learning experience.


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  • Tangie

    Gauging participation vs. engagement in an online classes is different. I my past math classes I can see "Doe in the headlights" glazed over eyes but what about online/hybrid classes. Students can submit homework and respond to discussion topics but knowing their level of engagement with the material and classmates is trickier. I'm researching how to do this effectively in an online class with freshmen.