It is the beginning of a new year and a new semester at colleges and universities across the world. Professors are finalizing their syllabi and lessons plans, and in the coming weeks we will be sending students important feedback on their learning and performance. We will administer problem sets, midterm exams, and send essay feedback. However, many of us will forget to provide feedback on one of the most important components of student academic performance: participation.
As more and more educators embrace active learning, flipped classrooms, and dialogic pedagogy, student participation becomes a critical component of learning and assessment. In some courses the participation component of a final grade can be 20% or more. And yet, educators often fail to offer constructive feedback—or any information at all—on the quality of student participation as the course progresses. We ink up essays and distribute solutions to problem sets so students can identify the gaps between their own performance and our expectations. But too often we fail to articulate 1) what we mean by high quality participation, 2) how students can meet those standards, and 3) whether they are achieving those standards in time to correct and improve.
This absence of formative, mid-semester participation feedback is especially problematic in multi-national and multi-cultural learning environments because “good participation” is such a culturally-bounded concept. It will vary professor-to-professor and student-to-student. Learner-centric pedagogy and active learning techniques—approaches that emphasize student contributions and co-creation of knowledge—are not intuitive for those inculcated with other educational norms. In one cultural context, being the first to raise a hand signals appropriate confidence and preparation. In another context that same gesture constitutes grandstanding. For students who are unaccustomed to highly participatory models of education, being expected to speak in class can feel more like a trick or a test than an invitation to stretch the mind.
To help students learn and practice the communication skills that their instructors value, we can also offer guidance for how to meet those expectations, and provide formative feedback along the way. In short, we should have the same iterative relationship between student effort and faculty feedback in participation that we do in other forms of assessment like essay writing.
Here are some suggested practices for assessing and offering feedback on participation, especially for faculty who are teaching in culturally diverse environments.
1. Be explicit about why participation matters
If you do emphasize participation, take some time to reflect upon and explain why you value participation. It may be obvious to you but not to students. Ensure your students know that discussing assigned readings during class will help them retain knowledge, identify areas of uncertainty, and maintain focus. At the very least an explicit explanation will signal to students that your expectations are thoughtful and well-intentioned, which may cultivate a more welcoming environment. Sharing scholarship on the relationship between participation and learning as an optional reading assignment in week one may help motivate them to speak and listen more actively.
2. Explain what participation should sound and look like
If you emphasize participation and active student contributions in your classroom, be explicit about what that sounds and looks like and how students can get better at it. For example, on the first day of class I often draw a diagram of the classroom and then overlay it with lines and arrows of different colors—blue for questions, green for statements, red for disagreements—going from professor to student, students to professor, students to students. This provides a visual representation of the kind of dynamic exchange of ideas I am hoping to see throughout the semester.
You can also provide students with a few concrete phrases for engaging in classroom conversation. These would vary depending on classroom culture and discipline. For example:
- I want to extend Marie’s interpretation of the passage on page 28 and use it to understand the passage on page 37.
- Gin, what I understand from your comment is that you think the author’s methodology was appropriate to her research question. But I have two remaining concerns about her data selection strategy. First…
This might feel formulaic or heavy-handed at first, but for some students who are unaccustomed to speaking in class, a significant barrier to participation is simply not having familiarity with the conversational moves involved. By not only modelling but outright suggesting these conversational devices, you are providing students with the building-blocks to enter what might seem like a daunting and alien conversational context.
3. Provide feedback early enough to make a difference
Students can benefit from feedback on the content and the delivery or mode of their participation. Feedback can vary considerably in terms of timing and tone.
Generally, the sooner you can offer feedback the better, even if this means the feedback is not as detailed as you would like.  Sometimes this can take the form of real-time feedback given during class:
- See the way Xolani anchored her critique in the specifics of what Deng said just before her. That was really helpful because it helped me to appreciate the relevance and importance of her comment and signalled that she had been actively listening to her peers.
When teaching smaller courses, I also try to send a one-liner to each student across the first three weeks of class, acknowledging just one good thing I’ve observed since the start of the semester.
- Hi Mae, I really appreciated the question you asked today about xyz. Keep up the good work!
- Farrukh, it really helped us move the conversation forward when you referenced specific passages from the text. I’m so glad to see you engaged with the material this week so deeply.
Quick and even sloppy notes of positive acknowledgement and encouragement seem to have a stimulating impact with little risk and let students know the kinds of behaviours that constitute “good participation” in the context of my class. However, I worry that rushed feedback regarding deficits or areas for correction could unintentionally damage a students’ self-esteem rather than showing the way to improvement. I therefore wait to give critical feedback and suggested improvements until students have had time to settle into the environment, and I have time to craft my language more carefully, usually a month or two into the new term.
Additionally, in the first few weeks of class I try—not always successfully—to send a brief email to the entire class once a week commenting on areas of collective strength and areas for general improvement in student participation.
- Hello everyone! I have been pleased to see how all of you reference each other by name and engage seriously with the comments that came before. This helps us build knowledge sequentially and synthetically as class unfolds. Now that we’ve developed this strong rapport, we can push ourselves a bit. In the next few weeks, I’d like us to work on not only extending each other’s remarks, but also voicing areas of disagreement and critique.
Even if I do not have time to send individualized feedback, this general feedback can help students identify what is working and what could be improved over time.
If you do not have time to provide feedback yourself, you can also assign students to do self-assessments using a participation rubric as a mid-semester activity. This can be as helpful as complementary, individualized feedback from the professor, since it can help students identify areas for self-improvement and prime them to be receptive to your suggestions. One starting point might be the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ Values Rubric for Oral Communication (available at http://www.aacu.org/value-rubrics).
4. Collect and share (anonymous) peer-to-peer feedback
For many students, even better than getting positive feedback from a professor is getting it from peers. In my own classes, I circulate a peer participation feedback form, where I ask students to provide only positive feedback and ideas for improvement on their peers’ participation both inside and outside of class. I direct students not to tear each other down, and instead to lift each other up. I can only see how students support each other’s learning in class, but not beyond. This is an opportunity to tell me if someone in the class has been particularly helpful at explaining concepts outside of class, editing essays, or otherwise supportive in furthering the class experience. I anonymize the student feedback, remove comments that might be damaging to class morale (hypothetically—this has never happened), and share it with each recipient. (I take ownership of any critical feedback I provide.) Often vocal student A will write something about quieter student B such as, “When he speaks, it’s really helpful. I just wish he spoke more.” Being able to share that with the quieter student is influential, as it signals to student B that far from sounding stupid or arrogant, his peers actually want to hear what he thinks. In my experience, seeing that their peers want to hear more from them is even more impactful than hearing that their professor wants to hear more.
5. Why aren’t students speaking? Ask, don’t assume.
Faculty often assume a student is quiet because they have not properly prepared for class or are simply uninterested in the material. Alternatively, professors assume that silence stems from fear of speaking and “sounding stupid” in front of the class. Rather than making assumptions about why students aren’t talking, ask. The answers can inform strategies for generating more student engagement and mid-semester is a good time for these conversations before it is too late to implement new approaches. For example, an instructor might think that it would be cruel to call on quiet students to get them to engage in the conversation. However, in my experience, if you ask quieter students if they would like to be more explicitly invited to contribute, they often say yes. You can just ask, “Would it help if I invite you to join the conversation every class or two?” This is often referred to as warm calling as opposed to cold calling.
Some students do not speak for fear of saying something wrong, but others do not speak because they feel it is arrogant to voluntarily enter the discussion without invitation. They may feel more comfortable speaking if explicitly invited to do so by the professor, e.g. “Jin, would you like to address Sally’s comment?” Inviting a student to join the conversation in this way allows them to try verbalizing complex concepts—which is good for learning—without putting them in the position of worrying that they will come across as arrogant or rude to their peers.
Some faculty worry that these gentle methods are too coddling and rob students of the opportunity to learn to join the conversation by themselves. I think this is a false juxtaposition because over time students often grow more comfortable with the sound of their own voice in the room and voluntarily contribute without needing the explicit invitation. Over the course of the term, you can even directly nudge students in this direction and tell them you expect them to rely less on the “warm call” and enter the discussion of their own accord. The “warm call” serves not as a crutch but as practice. The saying isn’t “practice makes complacency” for a reason.
Catherine Shea Sanger, PhD, directs the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Yale-NUS College, a liberal-arts college established in partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore. She is also a senior lecturer in Global Affairs and previously served as an instructor at the University of Virginia, where she received her PhD in politics. She is the author of “Inclusive Pedagogy and Universal Design Approaches for Diverse Learning Environments” and co-editor of Diversity and Inclusion in Global Higher Education: Lessons from Across Asia (Palgrave, 2020).
 For example, Klara Sedova, Martin Sedlacek, Roman Svaricek, Martin Majcik, Jana Navratilova, Anna Drexlerova, Jakub Kychler, Zuzana Salamounova, “Do Those Who Talk More Learn More? The Relationship Between Student Classroom Talk and Student Achievement,” Learning and Instruction, Volume 63, 2019 and relevant passages from James M. Lang, Distracted Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It (New York: Basic Books, 2020).
 Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 141-142.