Promoting and Assessing Student Participation

What is Student Participation?

When we think of student participation, we typically think of activities such as students asking and answering questions during class or engaging in group work. In fact, participation can take many forms, including active listening, taking part in instructor-led activities, taking notes during small group discussions, and reaching out to an instructor with questions. Varied forms of participation can make substantive contributions to course objectives and improve the classroom environment.  

There are a variety of reasons why a limited perception of class participation may not be suitable for every course context, whether due to the course material or student characteristics. For example, first generation students (first in their family attending college) and international students may not inherently know the expectations in a U.S.-centric university course. Expectations for how students will act during a class session vary widely among different countries and cultures, with some areas actively discouraging student interaction in class and others barely having the instructor speak, except to pose questions. 

Therefore, it is important to both define what participation is in your course context and to think of participation as a combination of different types of interaction and communication. Specifically, participation can take the form of student to student, student to content, or student to instructor interactions. Below are some examples of participation within each of these categories.

Student to Student: 

  • Students work together during in-class collaborative activities.  
  • Students actively contribute new ideas or refine what they originally proposed. 
  • Students engage in responsible technology use and contribute to shared documents, media, etc. 

Student to Content: 

  • Students complete all assigned course materials prior to coming to class. 
  • Students complete reflections, exit tickets, and other assignments after new content is introduced. 
  • Students review, study, and engage with materials outside of class. 

Student to Instructor: 

  • Students meet with the instructor during office hours. 
  • Students answer questions posed by the instructor during class. 
  • Students ask the instructor questions about assignments or course content. 

Participation is a critical part of the learning process and can take many forms. There is an abundance of scholarly evidence that tells us engaging students through active learning activities (i.e. participation), increases their ability to process and retain information. Participation and engagement with the material, instructors, and other students is a vital part of the learning process and should be a component of any course.  

However, how that participation manifests will change from course to course, and it is advisable to always have multiple ways and modalities (i.e. speaking, writing, silently reflecting) for students to engage with course content. 

Strategies to Promote Student Participation

Start before class begins!

Promoting student participation begins at the design stage before a course has even started. Once you have developed the learning outcomes for your course, consider what forms of participation might help students achieve one or more of those outcomes.  

Your goal is to compose a definition for participation in the context of your course that you can share with students, both orally and on your syllabus. It is also advisable to include instructions on the syllabus for how students should prepare to participate. These might include advice such as notetaking strategies or tips on effective cooperation during group work. You can find a sample participation policy on our downloadable syllabus template, which you can adapt for your specific course context. The aim of including participation guidelines in your syllabus, and explicitly discussing these with students, is to provide them with a transparent set of expectations that will enable them to participate in your course in a manner that is both accessible and beneficial to their achievement of the learning outcomes. 

Tip: Consider setting aside time on the first day of class to discuss with students how they feel comfortable participating and incorporate these insights into a definition of participation for the course).

A diverse approach to participation enhances equity

When it comes to the day-to-day attendance and participation of students, ask yourself: Why should students come to class? What will they get out of attending that they wouldn’t receive from simply reading lecture notes or the textbook?   

For many students the answer is personal connections and relationships. You can foster those associations by getting to know your students and what they care about (through class discussions, polls, one-on-one conversations during office hours, or other means) then using that knowledge to enhance their interest in and motivation to engage with the material. This learner-centered approach to instruction benefits from variety, and thus keeping a balance of multiple forms of participation is essential to retaining student engagement. 

Unfortunately, participation is often mistaken for one action: speaking aloud during class. While this is indeed an important form of engagement, it should not be the only option available to students for showing their learning and interest. Students who are aligned with certain privileges (neurotypicality, extroversion, more familiarity with the language or content of the class, or access to aspects of the hidden curriculum , etc.) are likely to thrive, while those in marginalized positions are less likely to be able to participate in this one specific manner.    

To ensure that students are not penalized for not fitting a participation norm, you can offer students a variety of ways to show engagement: 

  • Taking notes during class
  • Showing attention by watching the instructor and classmates when they speak
  • Participation in small group activities
  • Taking part in class polls and surveys (preferably including some anonymous opportunities)
  • Journaling about class content and/or completing a minute paper at the end of class
  • Writing down questions or comments that can be shared with the instructor or peers before or during class
  • Speaking aloud during class

Assessing Participation Equitably

As you think about how to increase student participation in your courses, consider that assessments of participation should be aligned with your course learning outcomes. What learning outcomes have you developed, and how can you leverage participation to help your students achieve them? What types of assessments will help you determine if your students are meeting the goals, and why did you choose those assessments? How does “participation” manifest in these assessments?  

As you’re thinking about these questions in your own teaching context, consider: 

Are you assessing compliance or learning?

Another way to phrase this question is whether you are interested in students   participating because they are motivated to learn, or because they are afraid of losing points.  

Some instructors rely on policies such as, ‘every student must speak at least once each class session to earn full participation points.’ Such a policy is more likely to put students on edge and leave them fixated on making their ‘one comment’ to avoid a bad grade, rather than provoking thoughtful contributions. They may also be so focused on making that comment, that they miss the great content of the class session that day!   

To avoid these concerns, you can reward learning by creating participation opportunities for students to troubleshoot with ideas, make mistakes, and share their ideas anonymously. Keep in mind that any assessment of participation should align with your learning outcomes, so avoid giving participation “points” simply to track attendance or measure student compliance.  

Are you assessing product or process? 

In other words, are you grading for accuracy or effort? Are you providing feedback to students on a finished product or on how they can improve?   

If grading for accuracy, consider using a rubric or checklist to assign each student a score based on a specific activity that measures the learning they achieved through participating in class (e.g., problem set, quiz, summary questions). Ensure that you are providing students with useful feedback on their participation and how they can improve throughout the rest of the course.  

If grading for process, use a rubric or checklist to assign each student a participation score with criteria such as preparedness and engagement with learning activities. Grading for process can be a great scaffolding opportunity to help students learn how to participate in a low-stakes environment. 

Are you tracking each instance of participation or holistically assessing all of a student’s contributions? 

This question is essentially a choice between whether participation grades are based on a sum of individual classes or an average across classes.   

Generally, assigning grades based on an average over time allows students more opportunity to learn from their early efforts and improve. However, grading each instance of participation individually can have a similar effect if you allow students a certain number of drops or exemptions.  

Regardless, it is highly recommended that you utilize a spreadsheet or Canvas to keep track of scores for each class or each week. This can also help you track students’ performance over time and identify students who may need more guidance on how to participate effectively. 

Have you considered using student self-assessment? 

Asking students to evaluate their own participation over the course of the semester can support students’ reflection on their learning habits. It can prompt students to learn what works best for them to help them engage with course content and retain material.  

Student self-assessment falls under the broad “metacognition” field, which is essentially thinking about thinking. You can ask your students to reflect on why they participate, how they participate, and what they gain from participating. You can also use other self-assessment techniques, such as exit tickets, journals, or quizzes. 

Finally, there is also the fundamental question: Should participation be graded at all?

There are many approaches to this question with some instructors feeling that students don’t need to be micromanaged and that grades should not be used to solve classroom management problems, while others believe participation is evidence of learning, and therefore should be graded.  

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, as each course and each cohort of students will require a unique approach. However, regardless of the form your assessments take, be transparent with students about why you have selected a particular approach, ensure they understand what they should do to meet the expectations for participation, and be flexible and open to a variety of expressions of participation.