What’s Wrong With Student Participation? (And How Do We Fix it?)

Photo showing empty rows of chairs

Image courtesy of “smokedsalmon” on FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Most of us want students to be engaged in class, but how do you:

  • Define participation?
  • Record and grade it?
  • Provide meaningful feedback on it?

Those are the questions addressed in an article on participation policies, written by Maryellen Weimer (professor emerita at Penn State Berks and editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter).

Problems With Participation

According to Weimer, most syllabi offer “vague descriptions that don’t functionally define participation.” Moreover, instructors often assess participation “at the end of the course with little or no mention of criteria.”

Clarity Counts

To address those issues, she recommends clearly defining what counts as participation and how it is defined.

That got me thinking about my own policy. In terms of defining what counts, I specifically state the following in my syllabus:

  • Attendance and participation are NOT the same things. You need both.
  • Participation grades consist of: expression skills, attitude, perception skills, and regular contributions.
  • Participation includes civility and professionalism.

The clarity I provide may be a good step; however, after reading Weimer’s article, I realize I can do better by providing feedback on those aspects (rather than just providing a grade for participation).

Who’s in Control?

In her article, Weimer also makes the case for giving students some control over their participation grade, such as asking students whether they prefer to be called on or to volunteer. She also recommends that students record their own participation to discuss it later with the professor.

She adds: If we believe the research that being in control increases motivation, maybe that and freedom from the fear of being called on might encourage some students to speak up.”

What About You?

We want to hear from you. Comment below to share your stories or your thoughts on the following:

  • Does Weimer have it right?
  • How do you define and grade participation?
  • Do you provide feedback about participation?
  • How much control should students have?
  • Should large lecture classes have different policies?

Remember: Your ideas may just help a colleague prepare for next semester.

About the Author: Emil Towner is Assistant Professor of Business Communication in the Marketing Department.

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4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Student Participation? (And How Do We Fix it?)

  1. I really enjoyed reading this blogpost. I was struggling with attendance is in my classes last semester, and was in the middle of changing my attendance and participation policies when I read this posting.

    I have yet to give an alternative feedback for participation other than participation grades. I have given informal feedback for ‘quiet’ students via email, letting them know that I am aware they are actively engaging in class although they are not as talkative as other students. I would definitely like to hear more from colleagues who have experimented with alternative assessments for participation.

  2. I prefer to create specific, topic appropriate in-class activities that are completed for participation points. This provides objective evidence that students are engaging/participating in class.

  3. As a new faculty member, this post definitely helped me. I remember faculty telling participation counts towards grade but not clearly informing how that would be evaluated. Most of the times it turned out that one of the guys at the back of the class was actually monitoring who answered the questions and so on. I will ask students what type of participation they feel is ideal and implement it.

  4. I grade attendance and participation in both my small and large classes. It helps to be clear up front about expectations for both, and to periodically remind students if either starts falling off over the semester. I try to frame my reminders positively and to reinforce students along the way to encourage them, although I’m not always convinced that that is working…

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