March 13th, 2017

Participation Points: Making Student Engagement Visible


male professor calling on student

As I contemplate my syllabi for a new semester, I possess renewed hope for students eager to discuss anything at 8 a.m., yet I have taught long enough to know that I will simply appreciate clean clothes and brushed teeth. As reality sets in, I add to my grading criteria an element that I hope will encourage engagement from even the most timid learners.

Often labeled “participation points,” this topic has been explored from myriad perspectives in any number of books and articles published in the last 20 years. Some approaches to participation include using discussion to facilitate teaching and learning, implementing standard-based grading to eliminate participation points, or creating rubrics for participation to make standards visible to the students.

Here I must acknowledge that my 8 a.m. courses are usually populated by freshmen; many of these students, educated during the NCLB era and fresh from standardized tests and state-mandated EOCTs here in Georgia, struggle to adjust to rigorous college expectations. Most can’t comprehend or articulate our expectations for participation and thus often don’t participate fully.

And here’s the rub—first-year students often don’t know why engagement is important either in their classroom or their learning. They’ve yet to learn that participation is an investment in themselves. We know that engaged learners are active learners, but how do we help our students shift from grade seekers to knowledge seekers? Even college students need to be reminded that they are building intellectual and personal skills that will serve them well in all future professional and personal endeavors.

In order to help students become aware of the need for a new level of academic performance, let’s change our own strategies concerning participation points.

  1. Use a new moniker
    • Instead of participation points, call them engagement points
    • The goal is to move students from grade seekers (passive regurgitation of information—written or verbal) to knowledge seekers (independent, engaged learners who see, reflect on, and share their thoughts on the complexity of problems/situations)
    • Balance preparation and participation
  1. Lead with preparation
    • Engagement = Preparation + Participation
      • Create opportunities for students to share homework or research
      • Make homework vital to class conversation and student learning, not simply a formative check preceding a summative assessment
  1. Share and review your Engagement Rubric from Day 1 (below is a version of the rubric I created for my 2000- and 3000-level students)
    • Make the balance of preparation and participation part of your classroom routine in independent daily writing or group work by encouraging students to reference their notes and research.
  1. Students must score themselves against the Engagement Rubric
    • Metacognitive exercises help students understand their responsibility in their own learning
    • Make this a quick two minute monthly activity
    • Repetition allows students to reacquaint themselves with the desired behavior
    • A monthly check allows you to praise, schedule conferences, or recommend tutoring while the semester is still salvageable.

Engagement Rubric


(outside of class)
(in class)

I am fully engaged

Exemplary Preparation

I read carefully and research background information on the author/topic ahead of time.

I research social, cultural, historic, economic, political connections to the text/topic.

I consider the course’s Essential Questions as I prepare.

Animated Participation

I attend class and I speak daily.

I try to advance the conversation by presenting evidence to support my ideas.

I present related research, implications, or complexities in the text/situation/topic.

I am occasionally engaged

Novice Preparation

I read assignments ahead of time.

I do basic research to understand the material, but I do not go beyond the obvious.

Sometimes I consider the course’s Essential Questions as I prepare.

Occasional Participation
I attend class daily.
I speak occasionally—mainly when called upon by the professor.
Sometimes I present general evidence to support my position.

I’m not sure how to be engaged; I need some direction

Inadequate preparation

Sometimes I do the reading.

I don’t research to understand the material, nor do I go beyond the obvious.

Inadequate participation

My attendance is inconsistent.

I participate only when prompted.

I am 

No Preparation

I neither read nor research before class.

No Participation

My attendance is inconsistent.

I do not speak in class.

  1. Recognize quiet learners (during and after class)
    • Accept e-mail responses from quiet students
    • Accept reflective e-mails—after class discussion has occurred
    • Ask permission to share their ideas (with attribution) in the next class session
  1. Re-direct garrulous students who don’t full engage with the content
    • Reinforce preparation by encouraging “talkers” to support their ideas with research, articles, quotations from the text as hand, homework, etc.

Engaged students are agents in their own education. Of course, the sole responsibility for engagement mustn’t fall squarely on the students’ shoulders; professors can prepare the classroom and create daily activities to support knowledge-seeking, engaged students. Take a look at your syllabi and lesson plans to ensure that you provide opportunities for students to share their preparation, research, and new knowledge gleaned, even early in the morning. 

Dr. Stephanie Almagno is a professor of English at Piedmont College, Demorest, GA.

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    If participation is so important (and it is), you should not be giving “quiet students” a pass. I used to tell my philosophy classes that shyness was not a quality except in romance novels. Your basic point is correct. The quality of work produced by a group of participating students is far superior to that of other groups. But a rubric and all that is making it too complicated. I used to make attendance mandatory, to begin with. And then I would begin asking questions about the assigned material. In their answers the students had to point out exactly places in the book that supported their interpretations. Normally I would first call on those who had their hands up. In the second half of the meeting,though, I would begin calling on those who had said nothing so far. If a student was clearly not coming prepared, then we would have a private talk. If it happened again, I would give the student a choice between coming prepared and dropping the course, for there was no chance of get a passing grade in a paper without understanding the material very well; and no way to come to understand the material very well without adequate class preparation and having the result of that preparation challenged in class. Few ever dropped. Few ever failed. Few did not do well, actually. And many did very well. As for keeping track, it was clear to all from the interaction in the classroom. To help my memory, I would simply put a – or a + in my class list after the student’s name. Simple and smooth for all concerned.

  • Cesar Ortega-Sanchez

    All that works very well in small (50 or less students) classes. It is very difficult to encourage full participation with 300 students sitting in front of you. Are there alternatives for this scenario?

    • Janet Larsen Roberts

      Yes, there are. The strategies are called Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures, and there are over 200 ways to structure interactions. Dr. Kagan says, “Why call on one student when you can call on everyone?” He’s leading a revolution to change the way we conduct teacher-led discussions. You can transform them into student participation that engages all students by putting them in pairs or teams of four and use structures to get equal participation. The shy students can’t hide. The high achievers can’t dominate. Read this article and change the way you teach forever:
      Yes, I’m biased. That’s because it works!

  • Laura Shulman

    I think students do not participate (in discussion) because they do not trust themselves to be able to provide valuable insights or fear revealing incorrect information (making themselves look stupid in front of peers and their teacher).
    They seem more comfortable just sitting and listening to the teacher lecture. They want and trust more what the teacher has to say than what they or their classmates have to say.

    Love your rubric! I will be sure to try this next time I teach in the classroom (mostly it is just online that I do). I do have students do an “end of semester” self-assessment for their attendance and participation. But reminding them and having them take stock on a monthly basis seems like a better approach to get them to IMPROVE. I also like calling it “engagement” rather than “participation” and I think it is just as valid to have the more quiet/shy students “engage” via email – at least to start with. Once they see that their written “engagement” is valued by the teacher, they may then be more brave later in the semester and actually share verbally in class.

  • Cathryn Brooks-Williams

    I also believe–from my experience–that there is a culture among students that fears failing. They are simply afraid to make a mistake, equating “mistakes” as failure. For many students, this fear is ingrained rather deep. I practiced what Mr. Munevar did–calling on those who hadn’t answered anything–and discovered the students thought I “was picking on them” or had psychic abilities to know “when they came unprepared.” I used to bring the techs in on the discussions or class activities to show my students that it was ok to make mistakes and obviously–I wasn’t “picking on them.”

    But I do like calling it engagement points. I think with clearer expectations that are well presented, the students will like the rubric as well.

  • Harold Katcher

    I teach an online course (UMUC) and there students are graded on the materials they post – a minimum number of posting are required each week, and are graded by a published rubric. I think it does help with student engagement but the instructor has to be there to make sure they don’t take the ‘easy way’ and copy and paste answers they found via Google.
    I have noticed that in some classes there are very smart students who none-the-less are very quiet, but know their stuff. They can go through the entire class unnoticed yet get the best grades. However, in an online (asynchronous) course, there’s really no such thing as being shy, or humble when you are required to post. In that case it’s not unlike any other ‘homework’ assignment.
    Much harder to do in a face-to-face class, there is the ‘shyness’ factor – some people are totally intimidated to speak before a group and for the instructor, you’d have to be grading while talking and thinking – couldn’t be done by most I think. (You could record the classes…)

  • Dr. Mark Simpson

    Many years ago I had read that participation as a graded item was being challenged by students in the courts. The rationale was some students are uncomfortable with talking, some by culture upbringing have been taught to listen to the expertise of the instructor and not talk, and others may have difficulty with communication skills. To avoid that possibility Participation for points was being discouraged. As a result, I started using Engagement as the expectation rather than Participation.

    Sometimes Engagement is evident in the body language of the learner and not just what they say in the classroom. In a class like Philosophy, the longer a student does not talk the harder it may be for them to do so, i.e., the easier part of the discussion has passed and the subject is now deeper than they feel they can respond to. But the student who is quiet may be truly engaged in thinking about the topic. Body language like leaning forward to listen, eyes focused on those commenting, etc. are clues to engagement.

    As a result, like the author, I do not just look for raised hands. A technique Dr. Ted Ward (MSU; TEDS) taught us to use was to ask students to think for a moment before responding. The faster thinkers’ hands always shot up first even with that request, so he repeated it. Then he would ask a usually more quiet student what they thought before the faster thinkers monopolized the conversation. It really made a difference in terms of encouraging engagement opportunities for all learners and not just those who think fast on their feet or who grasp a concept more quickly than others.

    In this day and age of rubrics I liked the example the author shared with us! Obviously we all adjust rubrics to our context, but it is food for thought!

  • Jill Nissen

    I love the rubric as a tool for self-assessment, and it can be tailored for peer evaluation and instructor evaluation as well. I believe once a month is too infrequent, however. I would suggest using it as a closing activity every day for the first two weeks, with teacher commenting on at least the first one or two assessments. After that you can shift to weekly, bi-weekly, and eventually, monthly. Utilizing small group discussions and peer evaluations makes this a tool that can be used even for large classrooms.