October 2nd, 2013

An Intriguing Participation Policy

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I was looking at participation policies in a collection of syllabi this week. I wouldn’t give most of them high marks—lots of vague descriptions that don’t functionally define participation and then prescribe instructor assessment at the end of course with little or no mention of criteria. But I’ve voiced my concerns about participation policies previously, so I won’t do again here. Instead, what I would like to share with you is a policy that’s impressive in its specificity and in the intriguing idea it contains.

Here’s an excerpt from the syllabus:

Participation counts for 15% of your grade in this course. Here are the behaviors that count:

  • asking questions
  • answering questions
  • making comments (extra points for comments that relate to material in the text, and for sharing relevant experiences)

Here are the value-added behaviors—the ones the put your contributions over the top:

  • responding to something another student says (including answering a question asked by a student)
  • constructively disagreeing with something in the text or said in class by me or another student

And there are behaviors to avoid:

  • not listening
  • pretending to be listening while texting or cruising online
  • speaking without being recognized
  • making fun or otherwise berating something said by another person.

May I call on you? Send me a note if I may. Send me a note if you prefer to volunteer. My preference is to go with volunteers.

Here’s how your participation is graded: I regularly write notes about who’s doing what. Every day after class (or during) you should write down what you contributed—the question you asked, the answer you gave, the comment you made, etc. At mid term I’ll ask you to send me an email that lists the dates and the contributions you made. I’ll compare your record with mine and send you an email indicating your grade if your current level of participation continues. I’ll also make some suggestions for improvement. At the end of the course, I’ll ask you to send me a second note which summarizes your contributions across the course. Be welcome to say what grade you think these contributions merit. I’ll respond to your note with the grade and my feedback.

Giving students some control
I found intriguing the idea of letting students decide whether they want to be called on or prefer to volunteer. Do you think that’s a good idea? I rather like it. It gives students some control and if we believe the research that being in control increases motivation, maybe that and freedom from the fear of being called on might encourage some students to speak up.

I can imagine getting a note back from someone saying they’d rather not contribute period or, more likely, getting no notes from those who don’t participate. Is that a big deal? Those folks earn participation grades of zero. No participation policy gets every student contributing—at least not in my experience or based on regularly reported research findings.

The approach does invite a conversation about making contributions in a group. In most professional contexts, you can expect to be called on. For example, you might be asked to speak about an area of expertise or provide a status update on an important project. And in most work contexts, you need to be able to contribute voluntarily—adding value to the conversation, sharing views of those you represent, offering relevant information, and asking pertinent questions. College classrooms are great places for students to develop those skills and this approach better reflects that the responsibility for this skill development ultimately belongs to the students.

I read an article in the paper yesterday highlighting a study that found that when you tell overweight people that they need to lose weight, it has the opposite effect. They eat more. People must decide for themselves that weight is a problem they have to address. Could participation be like this as well? Maybe we ought to be spending less time forcing the contributions, and devote more time to showing why they’re important, and what they can do to make classroom interaction something that stimulates thinking and learning. Maybe giving students a choice about being called on or volunteering is a step that moves us in this direction.

Maryellen Weimer, professor emerita at Penn State Berks, is the editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter.