February 13th, 2013

Student Comments: Moving from Participation to Contribution


student engagement

A colleague and I have been revisiting a wide range of issues associated with classroom interaction. I am finding new articles, confronting aspects of interaction that I still don’t understand very well, having my thinking on other topics challenged, and learning once more how invaluable and personally satisfying a pedagogical exchange with a colleague can be. My colleague recommended an article I had forgotten. The article is old but the point it makes is just as relevant today, if not more, than when it was made in 1987.

“The notion of participation is so well entrenched in the collective mind of the teaching profession that I wonder if we have not consciously stopped considering what we are after when we work with a class.” (p. 15) Dennis Gioia thinks that most of us are after lots of different students answering and asking questions. “It really feels good to see a substantial portion of the class joining in. Indeed, success at achieving class participation is a seductive sort of accomplishment—so seductive that it often leads to a de facto presumption that the class is successful simply because so many people are more actively involved in it.” (p. 15) He’s got a point. Sometimes it’s so difficult to get anyone to participate, that on those days when there’s a good amount of discussion, we can’t help but feel the class is going well. But if our concern stops with the number of students who speak, we may be valuing quantity over quality.

Gioia makes an interesting distinction between participation and contribution. “Participation connotes involvement, sharing and simply taking part. . .” Contribution, on the other hand, implies much more, including “. . .intellectual involvement and sharing of knowledge and knowledge construction.” (p. 16) “Concentrating on contribution causes people to think about what they are going to say, instead of simply blurting out ill-considered opinions, superficial observation, and irrelevant personal examples.” (p. 16) And haven’t we all heard some of those types of comments in our classes?

So how do we encourage students to go beyond participation and make contributions to class discussions? Gioia starts us off with a list that describes what students do when they make a contribution:

  1. provide recapitulations and summaries;
  2. make observations that integrate concepts and discussions;
  3. cite relevant personal examples;
  4. ask key questions that lead to revealing discussions;
  5. engage in devil’s advocacy; and
  6. disagree with the instructor in ways that promote further exploration of the issue. (p. 17)

His best suggestion is a bit more challenging to implement. He recommends that the instructor’s “agenda” for the day shouldn’t take up more than 50 percent of the period. Students are responsible for generating and sustaining the rest of the class discussion and no, they don’t get out early if they fail to do so.

Gioia encourages contributions with “think breaks.” These are short periods of silence during which students “think through a comment just made to see if it makes sense or constitutes a worthwhile observation.” (p. 18) He also hands out awards: the Reader’s Digest Award when a contribution ably sums up or succinctly positions a point, and the Monopoly Award if an answer is rambling, disjointed and difficult to follow. He doesn’t hand out the latter often. It functions more as an incentive to encourage thinking before speaking. I wonder if it might also discourage over participation. Maybe it’s something that could be “awarded” privately.

Encouraging contributions is harder than getting students to talk. It requires that teachers move among a constellation of roles: facilitator, coach, cheerleader, iconoclast, questioner, integrator, supporter, referee, Socratic muser, occasional anarchist, and feigned dunce, according to Gioia (p. 19) That’s quite a list, but then good discussion requires sophisticated leadership.

I do think that many of us (especially readers of a blog like this) have a good repertoire of strategies that encourage participation: persistent patience, wait time, the three-hand rule (don’t call on anyone until there are at least three hands up), think-pair-share before participating, and giving time to jot notes on a possible answer, for example. If we are getting good participation, it’s time to start working on raising the caliber of what students say, so that in addition to participation we are hearing contributions that promote understanding, develop knowledge, and result in discussions where student voices dominate.

Reference: Gioia, D. A. (1987). Contribution! Not participation in the OB classroom. Journal of Management Education, 11, 15-19.

  • Elizabeth McGann

    Thank you for this interesting recap of participation vs. contribution. I have been making efforts to move towards more student contribution to learning. I have found that in my undergraduate research class having collaborative groups give verbal reports unsatisfactory for a lot of reasons -other students do not listen, answers are superficial, there is no capture of the learning for the day. As a faculty, I became concerned about misconceptions being presented in which there was insufficient time for me to facilitate helping the rest of class arrive at the proper understanding. I went to WIKI postings, which I found to be an improvement, but kept the same day "reporting" structure. This offered some improvement, but students were still too rushed to complete the assignment and report. .

  • Elizabeth McGann

    Comment continued…
    This semester I clicked it up a notch, there is a brief lecture, students work in groups with rotating roles, the recorder has until 10 PM of the class day to post the answer. I put in substantive comments, which are often more questions. Each group presenter "reports" on the groups's WIKI posting the following week. I also have a grading rubric, so each group receives a grade. One of the items states "Contribution to Class Learning." All posts are averaged and contribute to 20% of the course grade. If a student is absent, his/her grade is computed based on the number of WIKIs contributions. Their is no penalty, but indiviudal group members might earn different grades.

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  • Elizabeth McGann

    Comment continued…
    I feel like I am on the right track. Generally, the quality of the contributions is very good; some are still superficial, but others are really quite thoughtful and deep. The contributions are visible to all, so students can see a range of depth, and exerts a modest amount of peer pressure to do well. At the outset, the posting activity was framed as way to help students learn together and as a study aid for exams. I will do a formative evaluation at mid-semester. I have not had any negative feedback so far. From my perspective, I can see learning happening — what concepts are clear, what are muddy. It helps me as a teacher immensely, and students seem to be participating and contributing to their own learning. I would be delighted to hear about other faculty experiences or suggestions.

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  • What a valuable perspective! Especially in light of the ever-expanding MOOCs, those of us in online education should look for effective and efficient ways to both stimulate and measure the contributions (not just participation) of students. Thanks – even "old" articles still hold useful insights!

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  • It was good that I read this post because I don't think I've every thought about participation in these terms. I do require participation of my students as part of their grade, but I've always conceived of it as contribution instead. Perhaps I should just switch out the words. Looking over the Gioia list, I do think I rely on these strategies quite a bit anyway, so maybe I'm just using the wrong term to describe what I want from my students.

    Another aspect of my own teaching philosophy, particularly in writing-intensive classes, that I think encourages "contribution," is the emphasis I place on conversation in academic writing. I really don't even dare count the number of times I talk about conversation as the model for the kind of research-writing I'm asking them to do. But that makes contribution all the better choice of words, doesn't it? It's one thing to "participate" in a conversation and an entirely different thing to "contribute" to it. The latter is a much more empowering concept when it comes to education.

    Thanks for the post. I will implement these changes immediately!

  • Billy Strean

    Student sues university for $1.3M after getting mark of C-plus

    By: The Associated Press, Published on Wed Feb 13 2013
    EASTON, PA.— Pennsylvania graduate student Megan Thode wasn’t happy about the C-plus she received for her internship, saying the mediocre grade kept her from getting her desired degree and becoming a licensed therapist.
    Thode is suing her professor and Lehigh University in Bethlehem, demanding that her grade be changed. She’s also seeking monetary damages.
    A judge is hearing testimony on the case this week in Northampton County Court.
    The Express-Times of Easton reports (http://bit.ly/VUdwAU ) that her professor, Amanda Eckhart, stands by the grade. She says Thode earned zero out of 25 points in class participation.
    Lehigh attorney Neil Hamburg says it would be unprecedented for the judge to order that her grade be changed.
    Thode contends the C-plus cost her $1.3 million. She says that’s the economic value of a master’s degree in counseling psychology.

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  • Lisa

    Thanks for the run-down on what sounds like a great resource. I've given out awards for tutorial discussions for a literature class with what I think was fair success. The awards? They included…

    "Best Intertexter": for the student(s) who connect the reading or topic at hand to other texts & resources from the course
    "The Grand Inquisitor" for students who ask other students questions
    "The Builder": for students who build on others' comments
    "The Close Reader": for the student who refers the class back to a particular part of the text
    and "The Relevantator": for the student who makes an attempt to connect course concepts to broader issues

    I came up with this idea when I was struggling to figure out a way to encourage students who speak less frequently in class, but who still made the effort to contribute. Explicitly naming the many diff. types of contributions possible in a tutorial, while praising those contributions at the same time, allowed me to communicate to students that there are many ways to "participate" and that you can do so without being the student in the room who always seems to know just what to say, or to interpret a text just as the prof. might. So in effect, it was both encouraging and educational; it allowed for positive feedback, and as feedback inevitably does, it taught students what my expectations were.