August 4th, 2011

Participation Policies and Student Motivation

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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.