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Participation Points: Making Student Engagement Visible

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
  1. Lead with preparation
  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)
  1. Students must score themselves against the Engagement Rubric

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)
  1. Re-direct garrulous students who don’t full engage with the content

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.