August 4th, 2011

Participation Policies and Student Motivation


A number of excellent comments were posted in response to the July 7 post which raised questions about how much participation should count. Thank you to those of you who contributed and a suggestion that those of you who read the post early might want to revisit the comments section.

The participation issue that seems as perplexing and less resolved than the how-much-should-it count question is the practice of trying to motivate participation by offering credit for it. If there aren’t points involved, most faculty seem pretty well convinced that no or very little student participation would occur. So the points end up being a kind of default position which prevent us from having to do all the talking. Yes, I know, students benefit when they participate. Participation policies are for them, not us—at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

When students participate to get points, that taints their motivation and can compromise the quality of what they contribute. I remember a history course I took once where you got all the participation points if you said something every day. I kept track and made sure I commented every day—didn’t matter if I had anything of value to contribute, I said something. Part of the problem lies with the design of that policy. Most faculty I know wouldn’t use one that so blatantly ignores the quality issue.

But any policy that rewards participation with points gets students talking for the wrong reason, doesn’t it? And participation policies don’t show students that they too are responsible for the climate in a classroom. They should be helping to make the classroom climate one that promotes their learning and the learning of others. What happens in the classroom is determined by what everybody does, not just the teacher.

Research is pretty clear about why students don’t participate—they’re don’t want to look stupid in front of their peers and the teacher, or they don’t think they know enough about the subject to contribute. I also get the sense that students often find classroom discussions boring. They don’t see how the topics relate to them. They have limited background knowledge. They don’t think the issues are interesting.

Here again, I’m wondering if participation policies aren’t part of the problem. Think about what those policies imply if you’re a student. Teachers have to require students to participate, because that’s the only way they can get students to talk about topics that aren’t all that interesting.

If students experienced the kind of lively academic exchange that is routinely a part of most of our professional lives, would they feel differently about participation? I remember the animated interactions that occasionally occurred in my classroom. People were on the edges of their seats. There were more hands raised than I could call on. Even those not verbally participating were attentive and engaged. The problem, of course, is that most exchanges in my classrooms were not like this.

So here’s what I’m interested in: How do we get students participating in class because they want to, not because they have to … or because somebody calls on them … or they need the points? I not ruling out policies that require and reward participation but I think all of us should have in our repertoire at least some strategies that show students the value of participation, that allow them to experience first hand all the thinking, insights, new understandings and intriguing questions that good interaction can generate.

Imagine a classroom situation where points can’t be awarded for participation. How would you get students talking? Could you get them talking with good questions, interesting scenarios, maybe pithy quotations? What about a short discussion during which we ask students to identify what motivates them to participate in class and what makes them wish the teacher would just lecture? How about short debriefs after an exchange? Could we get students to identify something another student said that helped them understand, or was something they’d never thought of before or caused them to question a belief? Could we somehow make our exchanges with students more like conversations and less like participation?

Your ideas on how you’d get students involved without points would be most welcome, as well as your opinions on participation policies and motivation. Please share in the comments section below.

  • I agree that participation for points is bad policy. Here are a few things I do in class to generate participation (most taken from other teachers):

    1. Think-pair-share. Ask students to respond to a question or prompt individually in writing, then share their response briefly with a neighbor. The act of sharing first with one other person helps mitigate the anxiety of sharing with a larger group.

    2. Just-in-Time-Teaching (JITT). Like Ellen's practice above, I sometimes ask students to respond to a prompt in an on-line discussion form prior to our class meeting. Sometimes this includes providing their own response and commenting on one other classmate's response. As I look over the results before class, I can decide what has confused or stimulated students about the prompt and tailor a discussion to those needs. I might start by asking students in class which discussion post they thought was most controversial, correct, etc.

    3. One of my favorite activities to elicit student creativity and participation is to hold a mock trial. For example, in a literature course we might read a story in which one of the characters commits a violent act due to oppressive social, economic or family circumstances. I assign roles to students, creating a prosecution and defense team, a series of witnesses, a jury and one student to play the main character. A mock trial ensues to determine the main character's innocence or guilt regarding a particular charge. Each student plays a role that requires verbal participation. I find role-playing to be a great way to develop students' reasoning skills in addition to creating lively class participation.

  • J. Turner

    I vacillate about this issue. As an undergrad, I initially tended to be one of the quiet students (I was considerably older than almost all of the other students – in my 30s – and wanted to fade into the background). Then I took a course on Shakespeare that required relevant comments every single class meeting to pass. Boy, did I start participating. After that course, speaking up in class never really bothered me again. So I can see the value, for at least some students, of forcing them to speak in class.

    As a TA while in my PhD program, I was required to use participation as part of my discussion section grades, and I came to realize how difficult it is to implement. You have to learn the students' names ASAP so you know who has spoken and who hasn't. You have to constantly monitor who is speaking, which takes your focus off of the discussion and onto some kind of paper or electronic record. You have to figure out who offered valuable comments and who just said anything to get the points. It was a huge amount of extra effort for me. More important, though, was that it didn't seem to motivate the students much. It certainly didn't get the truly unmotivated to become more engaged; they would simply do the bare minimum to get the points, or decide to forego the participation points altogether.

    Now I'm an adjunct, teaching history. Most of my class is devoted to lecture, but I do use discussion, as well. I don't give points for it, but have wondered off and on whether I should give it a try again. I'm heartened to see that others also feel that giving participation points is not necessarily effective for most students. I do many of the usual tricks to get students to talk: have them write down an answer first, pair them up, put them in small groups, etc. This year I'm going to start having them answer questions online over the readings, too.

    I'm also going to try to stress, as I usually have in the past but perhaps not as strongly, that they will gain enormous benefits from participating – they will learn more, they will get more comfortable communicating in front of groups, they will stay more awake and engaged. I often relate the story of the Shakespeare class and how just a bit of participation can make you much more comfortable speaking in public. But I've decided I'm not adding participation points back into my grades. I tend to take the attitude, and I tell them as well, that they are adults and what they put into the class is their decision. The grade at the end of the term is not the grade I give, but the grade they earn. Participation helps them learn, and so gets them a better grade. It's up to them to take it from there.

    • molion

      Turner makes an interesting point from his TA experience which required him to use participation as part of the grades–he had to learn the student's names ASAP. I wonder if he feels the same need to learn to students names without the policy. And I wonder if knowing students names and thoughts (whether those we acknowledge from the online pre-class discussions or inclass discussions) encourages student participation. Maybe the participation policy should be a requirement for the faculty member so that he/she is encouraged to engage all students and make a record for him/herself that the goal of engaging all students is being accomplished. Give points to the faculty members who document this rather than to the students.

      • J. Turner

        Yes, I learn all of my students' names. But my classes meet just once a week, for just ten weeks. It takes me at least a few weeks to learn all of the names, which would mean a few weeks of sketchy data on who is or is not participating. And yes, I engage them just as much as if there were no points awarded for their participation. I'm sure that my students would say that I use more class discussion than other history professors they've encountered, and that I use a variety of approaches to discussion.

        As I said, I see the argument for giving participation points. But, no, giving points would not provide an added incentive for me to engage with them; I already do that. And I don't have a problem with getting participation overall, but with getting participation from every single student. Oh, and it's "she," not "he."

  • Jennifer Knott

    it seems to me that offering points for participation is not the problem in itself. That is in a lack of guidelines about participating. For example: Students get 10 points for participating v. Students get 5 points for quoting someone else's post, and 5 points for explaining what part of it is relevant to their own learning. You have to break it down for them. No one likes being faced with an empty text box and an uncertainty of what to say. But, everyone loves points!