The Mechanics of Class Participation


In one of the comments on the recent post about attendance, Chris requests a follow-up discussion on the mechanics of class participation. Some relevant questions:

  • What kinds of class participation do you ask your students for?
  • How do you encourage a wide range of students to participate?
  • Does participation count as part of your students’ final grade? If so, for how much?
  • How do you grade student participation? What qualitative and quantitative measures do you use?
  • How do you keep track of how the students are doing in participation? Do you grade them every class period?
  • How do you handle that guy?

Other questions, as well as some answers, are welcome.

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sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

Great question. I think about this a lot because I believe in active learning and having students work out philosophical issues themselves. I am always looking for new ways to approach this aspect of teaching.
1. I do a few things. I sometimes do in-class writing assignments, in-class group assignments, or just ask them questions about what we are talking about. The first two are designed to get the students thinking about the topic and share their ideas so we can have a starting point in terms of where they are at with the topic. For the third, I will try to begin with something relate-able: an anecdote, something in the news, or a graspable thought experiment. I teach a lot of ethics courses so I’ll also ask what they think is the right thing to do in XYZ situation.
2. Good question. I sometimes have classes as large as 45 students so I it’s not easy. Obviously grading is a factor and when I do midterm grades I add the class participation on the online gradebook. Some students take that seriously. Also, I try to find things to talk about in a way that makes sense to them and about things that they might care about. Lastly, I sometimes (although for whatever reason don’t often) call on people at random. Another post about laptops in class (I think) had a comment where the prof said he allows them but then the rule is they are more likely to be called upon if it’s open. I tried to adopt that.
3. Yes. 15 percent.
4. Qualitative is hard, but I also try to make less qualitative participation a learning moment so quantitative matters most. The grade breakdown is 5% for participating often, 5% for being ready and participating when called upon and 5% for not being a distraction with being late, texting, talking to others, etc.
5. I have an awesome memory and I don’t call attendance. My school let’s us see their ID photos as part of the class roster. I pass around a sign-in sheet and when they have their hands raised I ask for their name. My school also allows me to keep track of attendance so when I do that I look at the sheet and I look at the photos on the class roster. In a few weeks names and faces line up and I remember who participates and who doesn’t. I should try to do something a little more effective like keep a log of misbehavior (texting, etc. daily).
6. I don’t get him a lot, but when I do I do two things: (1) I call on him last when there are a number of hands up. I prioritize those who do not participate often; (2) if he is really bad I will talk to him after class or email him. Something short usually works: I appreciate your willingness to participate and how much you have to say about the things in the course, but I also need to make sure other students have the same opportunity and that we get through the material. Something like that.

Great post and I’m eager to see what others have to say!Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

I won’t repeat here things I’ve already posted – as comments on this blog as well as entries in my own blog – about my own use of problem-based learning in my courses in practical ethics and in political philosophy. Suffice it to say that my courses are pretty much all participation all the time and, at least anecdotally, they do seem to get a much wider range of students actively involved in the work of the class than any other approach I’ve used.

What I want to add here is a general bit of advice: If your aim is to boost student participation in class, whatever you do must be well and thoughtfully designed, and it must be carried out with confidence.

You may have to ask students to talk to one another, or work together in groups, or even (gasp!) to move furniture! If you are thus going to violate the conventions of lecture-based teaching, you’d better at least act as if you know what you’re doing, and why.

For many years, I avoided group activities and other forms of active learning because my experience with them had been, at best, tepid. What I came to understand is that the experience was tepid because my approach was tepid: I was unclear about my aims in setting up such activities, the design of the activities I tried was ill considered, the execution half-hearted and almost apologetic.

Such efforts could hardly help but fail.

I’ve done better since I decided to be bold – unapologetic, really – and altogether intentional about how I design projects and activities for my students.Report

Emerson
Emerson
6 years ago

A follow up question. What to do about students that are extremely shy or nervous about participating in class? Or students that have a documented anxiety issue with regard to public speaking? Whenever I’ve had class participation as a component of the course grade, or at least stressed that participation was necessary to developing a positive learning environment in the classroom, inevitably a student will email me or see me at some point and assert that they are terrified to speak in class. When participation is a component of the grade, I often allow participation via forum posts on the class website as an alternative, but might there be a better solution? And while this is anecdotal, it seems that over the years more and more of my students have documented anxiety issues. Thoughts?Report

Craigory
Craigory
6 years ago

I’ve also had many nervous students, as well as students with documented anxiety disorders. I try to make time for small group discussions and exercises, which seems to help take some of the pressure off anxious students. A conversation with three or four other students feels different then offering an opinion in front of thirty other people. I also encourage students to write down a question and bring it to class, and I tell them that they should feel free to read directly off the paper if they need to. I don’t have many students take me up on that, but the offer itself seems to set them more at ease.Report

SH
SH
6 years ago

I have students complete in-class writing exercises prior to discussion, and use these for most of the participation grade, so that students who are never going to speak in class can still receive some participation credit. Those who speak in class do get more credit, but it’s not that much – those who talk in class frequently might get 3-5 points more on their final grade, while the in-class exercises are worth more like 8-10 points on the final grade.Report

bez imeni
bez imeni
6 years ago

I let any students who don’t like to speak in public earn their participation grade by discussing the material with me in office hours. Some come, some don’t. Some might not be shy or anxious, but just unprepared or unenthusiastic.Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
6 years ago

Q: What kinds of class participation do you ask your students for?
A:Class discussion, small group discussion with summaries for the class, submit discussion questions, in class exercises, presentations, suggestions for short readings, videos, and other materials that can be presented to class that’s relevant to subject matter.

Q: How do you encourage a wide range of students to participate?
A: Through offering a variety of options so that students who are hesitant to participate in one manner of participation can compensate by placing more effort in other avenues of participation.

Q: Does participation count as part of your students’ final grade? If so, for how much?
A: Yes, between 10 to 20% depending on class.

Q: How do you grade student participation? What qualitative and quantitative measures do you use?
A: I keep a running record of instances when I believe each student has contributed some input that I believe was particularly helpful in promoting understanding and reflection of the subject for other students in the class. At the end of the term I count out all the ticks beside each student’s name and then rank the students. Then I divide the students into tiers that I believe map onto various grades. While the last step is unavoidably subjective, I aim to base the grades on relative performance within the class.

Q: How do you keep track of how the students are doing in participation? Do you grade them every class period?
A: I keep a printout of my class list when I teach and, as noted above, I place a tick beside a student’s name when I believe they’ve provided input that was particularly useful for the class.

Q: How do you handle that guy?
A: “I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t had a chance to participate yet, what do you think X?” (where X is a student that I believe is likely to bring the conversation back on topic).Report

Out of work young PhD
Out of work young PhD
6 years ago

A few years ago, I noticed a suggestion on the website http://insocrateswake.blogspot.com/ (which doesn’t get enough attention IMO) that we grade students not on participation, since the loud-mouthed students would get full credit, even when their comments could be uninformed by reading or having thought about the issues, but on preparation. I found this intriguing, tried it out, and have implemented it ever since. There are several advantages to this: First, it is a disincentive for the bull-shitters. If they haven’t prepared and they make comments that reflect as much, they could actually lose points. Second, because preparation can be demonstrated in ways other than speaking in class, such as emails and meetings during office hours, shy students have a way to attain points without having to undergo the pain of speaking in front of a large group. Third, it makes clear that what we are after is not just a set of talking heads, but real engagement. Fourth, because the preparation assignment requires continual demonstration of preparedness, students are motivated to attend class regularly. When the assignment is aimed at mere participation, some students feel that they can blow off half the classes, talk a lot in those classes they attend, and get full credit nevertheless. Finally, since we are after real discussion and not off-topic rambling, students who have not prepared generally keep their mouths shut, for fear of showing that they hadn’t prepared. Some of them still try to derail the conversation, but many don’t, unlike in terms when I implemented participation assignments. In short, I have found the preparation assignment far more valuable than participation assignments, and when I articulate the difference between the two for students on the first day of class, they too seem to find it more worthwhile. I wish I knew who it was that suggested this on insocrateswake, because I owe them some gratitude.Report

Mark
Mark
6 years ago

To address the problem of how to avoid unfairness to students who are shy or just less extroverted, I tell my students at the beginning of term that their participation grade covers all aspects of their participation in the class (including preparation like doing the reading, making good notes, etc.), and then have them write a brief “self-evaluation” of their participation at mid-term and at the end of term to give them an opportunity to reflect on what they’re doing and to let me know about things I might not have noticed (e.g. taking detailed notes on readings, discussing the issues outside of class with friends). It’s a fair amount of work to read through these evaluations (and respond to them, which is something I generally try to do when the size of the class makes it possible), and of course it’s totally possible for students to lie, but I’ve found these self-evaluations an incredibly helpful way of learning about how my students are experiencing (and participating in) the class in different ways.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

Participation counts for 20% of the course grade. I give students a fairly detailed rubric for participation grades (including evidence of preparation, engagement with and respect for other students, frequency of participation), and then grade them more leniently to offset the inherent imprecision of such a rubric. I jot down who is speaking with notes on quality, as well as sometimes even what they are saying, using a separate page of notes for each class session. I think it is good for students to see me actually make a note of their participation as they speak. I also encourage students to submit questions by email in advance of the class session for “extra credit” and I bring up these questions or ask students to repeat them for the class. Alternative modes of participation, such as office hours or email communication can be useful for nervous students. In my experience the guy who needs to STFU is usually also a bullshitter “winging it” without having prepared for class. I do ignore his hand or say I’d like to hear from someone else, but I will also sometimes confront him (it’s usually a him) in class by asking him to cite a specific passage of the text relevant to his comment, etc.
@Out of work young PhD Those preparation assignments sound like a great idea.Report

Griff
Griff
6 years ago

I make attendance and participation count for 5-10% of the final grade. (Mostly it can bump you up or down if you’re on the bubble.) I tell students at the beginning of the semester they can participate in different ways. Class participation and group work is one way, but I also encourage them to come to office hours (alone or in small groups), to post to the course website, to send me interesting videos/articles related to the course theme, and so on. I usually set up a discussion forum online and encourage students to participate outside of class there. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get them interested in the online discussions. I tried it with a facebook-style format on Edmodo once as well. Didn’t seem to make a difference. Maybe Twitter next time?Report

Will
Will
6 years ago

I want to just lend some support to something Mark said above. Allowing students to self evaluate is, I think, a great way to handle participation grading. They are often more critical of themselves than one migh stereotypically expect. They know if they’re not coming to class prepared or are slacking off.

I’ve recently moved to a clustering grade system rather than a traditional points or percentage system which is completion based. They get additional “tokens” that are good for completed assignments for if they participate to an exceptional degree.Report

Mavis Biss
Mavis Biss
6 years ago

I wonder if anyone shares my worries about implicit bias and participation as a component of a course grade. Do those who evaluate students’ participation without taking notes, keeping a record, etc. assume that they are not prone to underestimating and misremembering the participation of women and minorities (despite the fact that there is evidence that both male and female instructors tend to do so)? The practice of keeping a running tally of students’ comments would never work with my teaching style, but I also find it hard to imagine as compatible with a dynamic classroom. It seems entirely appropriate to assign students “preparation” tasks and to grade them on completing the written task. This is different from grading participation. I do not assign participation grades partly for the reasons I described above and also because I think the course grade should be based on the quality of the student’s work. Participation is very important to my classes and really matters to me, but I have not found it necessary to use participation points to motivate participation. I motivate participation by getting to know my students, helping them become invested in the questions we pursue, encouraging them to collaborate with each other and answer each other’s questions, calling on them without warning (at the beginning of a course I ask students to let me know if they have issues talking in class or being called on spontaneously), etc. My approach to participation also reflects that fact that I don’t believe in grading based on effort. Some instructors want to reward effort, but I don’t think of a grade as a reward (learning is a reward!). I think of the grade as an assessment of work according to a standard.Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

I think Mavis Biss is entirely correct: “I motivate participation by getting to know my students, helping them become invested in the questions we pursue, encouraging them to collaborate with each other and answer each other’s questions, calling on them without warning (at the beginning of a course I ask students to let me know if they have issues talking in class or being called on spontaneously), etc. My approach to participation also reflects that fact that I don’t believe in grading based on effort. Some instructors want to reward effort, but I don’t think of a grade as a reward (learning is a reward!). I think of the grade as an assessment of work according to a standard.”

Motivation matters a great deal. If students participate only from the external motivation of a grade, it becomes just another system they can game, or just another set of dreary hoops they need to clear on their way to their credential.

If they participate because the course and its activities have been structured in such a way that they care about it, or – heavens forfend! – because they are having fun, their engagement with philosophy is likely to be deeper, more genuine and more lasting.Report

Jeremy Henkel
Jeremy Henkel
6 years ago

One thing I’ve found success with is to assign one or more “questions for reflection” with every reading assignment. Students are required to come to class with a 1-page typed response to one of the questions. If I’ve provided good questions, they won’t be able to answer them effectively without doing the reading. I treat them as low-stakes writing assignments (either credit/no credit or check/plus/minus), and provide little or no feedback on them. I drop the lowest 3 or 4 such assignments when assessing grades, which gives students a little flexibility if there are a few days when they don’t come to class fully prepared. Of course it takes time to grade them, but not as much as I initially feared. In evaluations students have consistently said that they like this approach even though it takes a lot of their time, because it fosters much more productive class discussions. Students have told me that they like knowing that their classmates are coming to class prepared, and that it helps to motivate them to prepare more, as well.

As for the students who are uncomfortable talking in class, I like to begin class with 5-10 minutes in small groups, and when we return to the big group I’ll ask people to share something that a member of their group said that they thought was helpful/insightful/etc. Students sometimes feel more comfortable sharing what a classmate said, and when hesitant students hear classmates compliment their ideas it can help them to gain more confidence in themselves and their thinking.Report