students in lecture hall April 6

Participation Policy Examples

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Here’s a collection of five different participation policies. I encourage you to use them to stimulate thinking and conversations about how a participation policy's content and tone can influence learning and classroom climate. Which policies work best—given the course, its content, the instructor, and the students? The objective is to use these examples to stimulate reflection on participation policies, in general, and on your policies, specifically.

At the end of the article is a set of questions to encourage reflection, discussion, and analysis. For example:

  • Which policy aligns most closely with your thinking about participation?
  • Which policy would you not use? Why?
  • Do these policies reveal something about the teacher? If so, what?

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student raising hand in class March 27

How Do Students Learn from Participation in Class Discussion?

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Despite numerous arguments favoring active learning, especially class discussion, instructors sometimes worry that discussion is an inefficient or ineffective way for students to learn. What happens when students make non-value added, irrelevant, or inaccurate contributions? What about comments from non-experts that may obfuscate rather than clarify understanding? What about students who speak only to earn participation credit rather than contribute substantively to the discussion?


student participating in class January 10

Learning More about Student Participation

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A lot of good research has been done on participation in college classrooms. Here are some key findings and references that provide excellent background and reasons why working to get more students participating is so important.

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smiling students in large classroom January 10

Classroom Participation Strengths Inventory

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Understanding temperament is very helpful in understanding the learning styles and approaches. So extroverts tend to prefer very high levels of external stimulation, tend to be energized by social activity, may avoid solitude, and are oriented to the outer world. Whereas introverts may easily feel overstimulated in social settings or exhausted by social activity. So they may seek solitude to recharge their batteries, and their orientation may be more likely to the inner world of thoughts and ideas.

Let's make the next connection to learning. In terms of preferences and in terms of the conditions in which students perform best, extroverts tend to prefer to work with others and learn with others, so project work, collaboration, group work, these are all preferences of the more extroverted students.

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class discussion December 1, 2016

Online Forum Posts Improve Discussion in a Face-to-Face Classroom

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Jay Howard’s new book, Discussion in the College Classroom (a book that is well worth your time), lays out the research showing that cold calling on students is one of the best ways to get past their “civil attention.” It’s clear to me that once cold calling becomes the norm in a course, using that technique can increase the quality of in-class discussions.

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in class group work March 2, 2016

Clear Criteria: A Good Way to Improve Participation

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I continue to be impressed by the need for teachers to clarify common aspects of instruction instead of assuming that students’ understanding of what they entail are the same as ours. Participation is a good example. How often is it defined in the course syllabus? How often is it characterized beyond the basics when it’s discussed at the beginning of the course or at different times throughout the semester? We do probably agree on the essentials—questions, answers, and comments—but much more than that is needed if classroom interaction is to realize its potential as a student engagement strategy. Here’s an example of the degree of clarification I think we should be after:


October 8, 2014

Is It Time to Rethink How We Grade Participation?

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My colleague, Lolita Paff, has been exploring student attitudes and beliefs about participation. Most of her beginning economics and accounting students describe themselves as “limited” or “non-participants.” They say they don’t participate because they don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers or they learn better by listening. At this point, she has gathered some rather compelling data that grading isn’t motivating her students to participate more. “I had been pretty strongly in the if-you-grade-it-they-will-do-it camp. The evidence surprised me and made me rethink grading participation,” she writes.


March 24, 2014

Daydreaming or Deep in Thought? Using Formative Assessment to Evaluate Student Participation

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Many instructors will argue that student participation in class is important. But what’s the difference between participation and engagement? What does good participation or engagement look like? How can you recognize it? And how can you tell if a student is not engaged?



October 2, 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.