I have a problem with classroom participation.
I have a problem with grading classroom participation.
This problem has been brewing for a long time. Even back when I was in undergrad, I found it a bit strange to be graded on participation. And once I began teaching (first at the secondary level and then the college level), I incorporated participation into the assessment because it was something I believed I was supposed to do, not because it was something I actually knew I wanted to do.
To me, it’s always seemed bit fuzzy (even when you provide specific things you’re looking for), and I have a hard time making it fit in my head next to student work when I think about the learning that takes place in the classroom. I also know that my perception of what “good” participation looks like is somewhat colored by my own behavior as a student as well as the types of student behaviors typically privileged by the educational system.
(Sup, fellow extroverts?)
In the past few semesters, I’ve actively started to pull away from more traditional methods of assessing participation. Last fall, I had my students complete participation logs, which I mostly liked because they allowed students to take the opportunity to be thoughtful about their experiences. And they gave me an insight into things I may not have recognized. In the spring semester of this year, I didn’t grade participation at all, and in case anybody is wonder, I didn’t notice any discernible difference in how much students participated (lol) in the class.
This semester, I taught Intro to Film, which is a big lecture class here. The lecture meets twice a week, and then recitations (discussion sections) are taught by grad students on Fridays. This was my second time teaching the class, and one of the things I knew going in this time is that it can be quite difficult to foster community when you only see each other for 55 minutes per week. And without that community foundation, typically important elements that folks designate to participation, like discussion, become even more challenging.
The course’s professor included participation in the assessment, and so I spent some time thinking about what I could do with that this semester. Of course, I’m always observing them throughout the class, but I wanted to hear more from them about participation. But I knew that our recitation meetings wouldn’t necessarily afford the same level of detail as what students pulled out in the course in which I used that method. So this time, I decided I’d just have students complete a relatively simple form at the end of the semester that would give me a sense of how they understand “participation” and how they saw themselves participating in the class. Here’s what I asked them to respond to:
- Describe what “participation” means to you within the context of the class.
- Describe how you participated in lecture throughout the course of the semester.
- Describe how you participated in recitation throughout the semester.
- Describe ways that you think you could have participated more effectively in the course throughout the semester.
- Are there any other factors or details related to your ability to participate in the class that you think I should know?
- If you were responsible for giving yourself a letter grade for your participation in this course, what would it be and why?
While these produced an assortment of interesting responses, I think the most useful to me came in response to #1 and #5. Regardless of what we might perceive, students know what participation is generally expected to look like. Responses to #1 included points such as, read/watch the material before class, answer questions, pay attention (which is a whole other soapbox I have, but I’ll leave that one for another day), complete work on time, etc. I don’t think any of these responses are bad, but when I read them together, they make me feel pretty…blah.
Now there were some responses to that question that I thought hit on really important points like developing your understanding, knowing that your answer doesn’t have to be “good” or “correct,” being generous while listening to other people sharing, and thinking critically. Some of these items are not the easiest to measure, but if I think about why participation might be important, these are things I care more about.
For #5, students often to took the opportunity to explain why they might not have participated much (in the conventional sense). Many students expressed shyness and anxiety, some noted depression, some pointed out that sometimes they literally just didn’t have anything to say, some felt more inclined to discuss material they felt strongly connected to, some felt that my choice to ask specific questions made them more likely to speak up, and some noted that since this was their first film class, they would much rather listen to what others had to say.
There’s a lot going on here, but my key takeaway is that there are several factors intersecting with a student’s participation. And if participation doesn’t look the way you think it should, maybe it’d be worthwhile to think about some of those factors and ways to work with them. I didn’t do a midterm eval for this class (that’s my bad), but if I did, I think I could have addressed some of these issues earlier.
But do you want to know what at least half of the students noted as something that made them more likely to participate?
Small group work.
I think a lot of us already believed this, but it was nice to hear it from the students. I often incorporate such work into my teaching, and I will continue to do so going forward.
(even when I fully stop grading participation :D)