Prioritizing participation

Prioritizing participation
Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph / Unsplash

This post originally appeared at Grading For Growth on December 4, 2023. It's been slightly edited and I have included some additional thoughts at the end.

What does your ideal classroom meeting look like? Take a moment to visualize it.

If you're like me, you envision students energetically focused on some learning task, either by themselves or in small groups or as an entire class. They are going through the full range of thoughts and feelings common to people who are learning something that's somehow larger than themselves. You can see and hear them learn. As for you and me, insofar as we play any role at all, we're conducting the traffic to make the engagement as energetic and focused as possible. This is a gathering of students who are not just "in attendance", they are present in all the rich fullness of that term.

How do we instructors get this to happen? An approach that many use is to assign a participation grade. By making participation an explicit expectation with rewards for doing it and consequences for not doing it, the thought is that students will participate. But whether this is actually the case is far from clear. Many instructors who grade participation report students only superficially "participate" by giving the bare minimum needed to earn a grade, for example replying to a discussion by saying "I agree". (Research on motivation told us this would happen.) And trying to elicit higher levels of participation through standardized rubrics is tricky at best, and downright harmful and inequitable at worst, and a royal logistical pain in any case. We definitely don't end up with what we'd envisioned.

So how might we incentivize energetically focused participation without assessing or grading it? One of the secrets of teaching is that we cannot make students do things, with or without grades. We can only give them things that they will want to do and then clear any obstacles in the way of doing them. So it's not about "getting students to participate" but setting up a class environment where active participation is a more attractive choice than the alternatives. Here are three concrete ideas for doing this.

Create direct connections

One of the basic tenets of backwards course design is to start by designing learning outcomes, then design assessments that are aligned with the outcomes, and then activities that are aligned with the assessments. That notion of alignment works well with participation. Even if you don't assess participation directly, if there is a direct line of sight from classroom participation to the things that you do assess (or, in an ungrading setup, to the creation of artifacts that students can use to justify their course grade) then you've incentivized active participation.

For example, in my discrete structures course one of the major topics -- and by far one of the hardest concepts -- is proofs that use mathematical induction. One of Learning Targets in the course is I can set up the framework [a structured outline] for a proof by mathematical induction and there's an assignment that asks them to write a full proof using an outline. Both of these are hard tasks for students, most of whom are quite unfamiliar with the concept of a proof or any kind of verbal explanation. So we have classroom activities where students discuss the flaws of written proofs and set up their own frameworks. Their participation isn't graded, but it's energetic and focused, because they know that it's practice doing the kinds of things they'll eventually be assessed on. However, again, I don't have to assess the participation itself (nor do I want to).

Assess with participation

Rather than grade participation, take the things you do grade and make them participatory. For example, you might consider using group quizzes or two-stage exams in class meetings. In these forms of assessment, students work individually on a timed assessment for a portion of the time allowed, then work on a similar (sometimes identical) assessment in small groups, where they can get instant feedback from their peers on the questions where they had trouble and leverage the social setting of a small group.

I have used two-stage exams before in an alternatively graded course but I had some issues: Students never felt like they had enough time to complete the individual portion; there wasn't a great way to handle reattempts and resubmissions; my methods for determining a student's mark were clunky and complicated; and I had questions about whether neurodiverse students were being disadvantaged. But the group portion of those exams still represent some of the best participation I have ever seen in a math class, and I'm curious myself how these might be made to work.

Ungrade your participation

Finally, you can grade participation without grading it, by having students grade themselves. If you are clear with students about what constitutes good participation, perhaps by giving some verbal descriptions of what excellent versus "just OK" versus "not OK" participation look like, then at the end of each class meeting (or each week, etc.) you can ask students to grade themselves. Just ask them: At what level (excellent, just OK, not OK) was your class participation? Why was that? What might you do differently next time? You might also consider having students contribute to the criteria themselves, since it solicits buy-in from them, and students often come up with useful suggestions for participation that instructors would otherwise miss.

What you do with the student responses is up to you. Maybe you don't "do" anything with them other than read them, look for red flags, and follow up with students who need help. Or maybe your whole class is ungraded, and "consistent participation" is one of your criteria for a grade; in this case the daily/weekly self-reports would be used by the student to make their case for a grade at the end of the term. Maybe it's something in between. But the idea is that you make the standards clear, then ask students to check in with you about how they are doing. Since there's no incentive to exaggerate and no risk in falling short on the standard, you can expect students to be honest about it, and you can step in if needed.

You don’t have to grade something in order to motivate students. Participation in the way we’ve envisioned here is perhaps more likely to happen when there is not an extrinsic motivator driving it. We hope to create an environment where active learning takes root organically. With the pressure and allure of grades removed, students are free to explore, experiment, and immerse themselves in the kind of deep learning that alternative grading systems support.

Bonus thoughts

  • I'm still curious about two-stage exams. Shortly before I published this post in its original form, I asked about these on Twitter and BlueSky and the replies contain some interesting ideas. To me, two-stage exams in an alternative grading setup sound like they cause more problems than they solve. But I will keep thinking about it.
  • I think there's often an inverse relationship between engagement and structure: The less structure a class session or office hours session has, the more energy it has – and conversely, when we set up a class meeting with a million activities designed to elicit participation, we end up with no engagement, possibly because students (and the faculty member) are overloaded. Isn't it true that many of our most memorable learning experiences happened either outside a planned class meeting, or in a class meeting where the plans went off the rails one day? So maybe there need to be more "planned unplanned" days – i.e. the class meeting is on the schedule but you don't enter into it with a preconceived idea of how to spend it. I'm doing this right now in our last week of classes; the class meetings are just open drop-in times for students, and Wednesday's "class" was really great. Small group, highly dialed in.
  • And yet, you can't not plan every class meeting. There's a balance to be struck between setting up a well-thought-out framework for what you plan to do in class, and then keeping a very loose grip on it. (I could jump from here to an extended analogy from my experience as a musician.)
Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.