October 2nd, 2013

An Intriguing Participation Policy


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.

  • Sydney Brown

    I like this a lot, and I second your motion about emphasizing the "why." Students need to understand that their courses are opportunities to practice behaviors that will make them good team members and, and as you noted, contributors in their professional communities in the future. Sometimes those who are reticent to speak need the extra push and those for whom speech flows easily require guidance as to what is substantive. This plan seems to support both of those aspects. I would certainly not ask about student preference regarding being called on. That is a given. Of course it can be an uncomfortable experience, that's why it's important to prepare well. To ease anxieties, perhaps recommendations for "how to prepare well" and other tips could be explicitly provided and maybe even practiced in class.

  • Kevin Mahaffy

    I agree with Sydney's response and the concept of helping students understand why we do class participation in the first place. It is not to waste time or act as a filler when content runs out! How would this approach adapt to an online course environment? We encourage and even grade participation (discussion boards for the most part), but how can the "why" concept be adapted in an online environment as Dr. Weimer suggests?

    Thoughts, anyone?

    • Sydney Brown

      As far as online, I think you just do it the same way, except it could be made easier by employing the underutilized tagging systems in most LMS discussion boards. I think to save time grading and save students' time in posting, I might be inclined to be pretty explicit in the training such that everyone was clear on what counted as substantive and moved dialogue forward as well as being rather strict in terms of maintaining and cultivating coherence in the discussion board postings. This last bit seems to get routinely omitted.

      For example, online discussion archives can be fabulous collaboratively developed content resources, but only if they are coherent. Does the subject line encapsulate the content of the post? Does the post stick to one issue so the thread doesn't get muddy? Etc. These are the types of courtesies that are often omitted, not intentionally, but because participants don't really understand what they're building through their participation.

  • Dale Rogers

    All good ideas. I wonder how many classes you are teaching and what your current grading load is? I know I'm busy just staying up with returning emails, answering forum questions, and grading assignments for my 5 classes/semester.

  • suebecks

    I like the idea of students taking ownership of recording their contributions and could see value in this approach being built into reflective blogs. A recorded (audio or video) summary could help them voice how they have developed as critical thinkers and confident communicators by the end of the course.

  • Sydney Brown

    That's a heavy load, Dale, and an issue that came to my mind when I read it. Perhaps that is why the syllabus author emphasized the need for the students to track their own participation. How might we make it even smoother? What if the class session was more like a meeting where someone was assigned to be the 'scribe' and capture what happened. And by that, I'm talking more about something akin to design meetings I've been in where there's a projected screen, on person shows, types, etc. and the group discusses and agrees on what should be captured. I don't know if I've explained that well, and it might not work in a large class, but a rotating assignment like that could be beneficial for students and it would be active in that the all students would be responsible for the artifact (notes, creations, ideas, etc.) that came out of that class meeting and which were subsequently distributed. This probably wouldn't be awesome with a standard lecture though. 😉

    • Laura S

      I like the idea of rotating student "scribes" to track a given class discussion. The scribe can get credit for participation, even if they are only listening and not actually sharing. Over the course of an entire semester, each student might play the role of scribe just one time.
      One issue I have with trying to track student participation myself is dividing my attention between this administrative task and actually listening to and facilitating the discussion effectively. My tendency with grading participation has been to do so subjectively rather than scientifically/objectively – just my own sense, at the end of the semester, as to who has participated more or less and with what quality. I combine this with attendance (excellent participation from a student who is only present half the time does not get an A for participation). At the end of the semester, I also distribute a self-assessment sheet for students to evaluate their own level of participation and attendance.
      What I like most about the suggestion in this article is the specifics of what constitutes good and bad participation – clearly stated expectations.

    • Emily D

      I love the idea of a rotating scribe and it gives students agency.

  • Denise

    Thank you for a thoughtful article with clear examples of a participation policy grounded in research. I agree that giving students a clear defiition of what participation means is an important step in encouraging and inspiring student contributions in class. I also appreciate the connection between participation in class and participation expected in a professional setting- I think this is right on.

    However, I think an important point has been overlooked. What about introverts? You may have a student who is fully participating, paying attention, thinking about the topics, generating questions and answers… all inside the comfort of her own mind and heart. Some students need a little bit more time to process the information in order to generate their own opinions and responses. By the time his response has been formulated, he may have missed the boat in the conversation… yet, that doesn't mean he's not participating. I'm not talking about a shy student. I think of shyness of someone who wants to speak out but doesn't for fear of embarrasment. Those students should be supported to contribute and overcome their shyness.

    Continued in next post…

  • Denise

    We talk about teaching to different learning styles. By asking if students prefer to volunteer or be called on, the teacher is not really giving them a choice to talk. But not all students learn by talking. I propose we take it one step further and include participation by writing or journaling. Or perhaps sharing thoughts with a single classmate rather than having to speak out loud in front of an entire classroom. Susan Cain's book Quiet, the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking gave me some great insights for recognizing that introversion can be a very positive trait. Introverts may have a lot to contribute- but not always in the form of talking.

    • Laura S

      Thank you for your comments about introverts and participation. I too have used journaling as a way to supplement active participation. Though I sometimes feel it is a shame that some of these great journaled thoughts are not shared with the rest of the class. Several ways around this: after review of journaling, the teacher can share the most interesting comments (not mentioning student names) with the entire class – perhaps to spark some responses from others. The introvert/reflective learner might also be encouraged to share orally if the first minutes of the NEXT class session asks for thoughts about anything from the previous session before moving on to new material. Perhaps that is when the reflective learner will be more likely to share orally, after having written in their journal and/or thought about it over a few days' time.

      • Denise

        Hi Laura, I really like your idea of giving students a second opportunity to participate and share after they've had some time to process the information. And, I like the idea of having the instructor read student comments without mentioning students by name- I think this is a lovely way to include thoughts and ideas from students who may not feel comfortable sharing them out loud. I imagine this practice helps them to feel valued and will encourage their verbal participation for next time.

  • Kelly Mutter

    I have always been leary of participation grades because they often require us to evaluate something that really isn't directly part of our course. In a way they are akin to bonus marks and some students will take every advantage of these marks to pad grades. In the end, does the mark we submit for the student's transcript represent the actual knowledge and skills that are the heart of our course or does the grade represent a subjective social skill? Furthermore, if I evaluate participation (even with stated criteria) I will find it difficult not to assess highly the participation that represents me (a middle-aged male instructor) and my culture (white, middle-class, Christian, Eurocentric). What is appropriate participation for my young, female, First-Nations, poverty-stricken student?

  • Akilah

    My students participate by being in class because the way my class is structured forces participation. Lots of think, pair, share or writing responses, etc. So, really, I just give an attendance grade to track participation.

    If we're doing a specific assignment that they need individual credit for, like peer review, I assign points to the activity and factor it into their assignments grade. It all balances out for me.

  • Richaed

    I like the idea of giving students more control in the class, especially in giving the student the choice of volunteering or being called upon. However, I do have one minor issue. I am currently in college and I would consider myself a contributor in class discussion. I think it would detract from the class discussion and be harder for the students to pay attention if they are required to keep track of when they respond in each class. Instead of being able to follow the conversation and contributing when the student has an insightful comment, the students potentially could just be thinking of any random comment to say so they don't get docked a grade, or instead of paying attention to the conversation the student is trying to think of something to say without really knowing where the conversation is going. For example, have you ever had a one-on-one conversation with somebody and you know they aren't listening but rather they are just thinking about what they are going to say? I think if you took the part out of the syllabus about having to record and email their responses then the class would be much better.

  • Annie Riley

    I think that this is a good idea for giving the students some control and it would be a great thing to have in a college setting. I do not think that I would use this idea though at least not specifically. I will give the students some control just in a different way. I dont think that if I do this that people will want to participate and it will result in me having to give bad grades. I would rather call on people or have them do a different activity so I know that they know that the material.

  • Rachel

    I like the idea of giving students control in the realm of participation. In the college setting, I feel like giving students the control of participation will greatly succeed in learning. The student knows how he/she learns and what helps them the most. So, some students feel comfortable participating other do not. Perhaps a great idea, is to start the following class period asking students their thought and questions on the previous lecture. This will enable students, who like listening and spending extensive amount of time thinking through the material, add value to the classroom. Participation is important in the classroom, but if the student does not feel ready to participate calling on them can actually hinder learning.

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