Making participation count.

by Harry on September 5, 2019

Here’s my latest piece at ACUE, this time on class participation, what it is, how to make it happen, and why we probably shouldn’t grade it (if you read it it says that we shouldn’t grade it, but I doubt that’s true in all circumstances). Here’s a taster:

Unfamiliar with the practice [of grading participation] I started asking faculty why they graded participation and what they counted. The standard response was that you have to grade it, “otherwise students won’t talk.”

I was skeptical. Whereas we can provide students with a reasonable understanding of what is required when writing an essay, taking a test, setting up an experiment, or making a presentation, participation is vaguer. But let’s assume that participation is, as colleagues tended to say, speaking in class—an action that is, in principle, readily observable and gradable. A number of problems arise.

The first problem is obvious: It’s not just talking, but talking productively, that we care about. Saying things that are interesting and useful to the conversation is a sign of good participation; saying things that are off-topic is a sign of bad participation. If we’re going to grade students’ talking, we should focus on quality, not quantity.

Students need to know this. But once they do, some feel pressure to impress you with correct or pat comments. In setting expectations, it’s hard to overstate that quality includes getting things wrong—for good reason. As a recent graduate wrote to me, “One thing I’m especially grateful for: I’m more willing to risk getting things wrong in discussion and writing than I used to be because you made it clear in class that making mistakes is part of engaging rigorously with philosophy and not something to fear. That seems obvious now, but it wasn’t always.”



Matt_L 09.05.19 at 4:32 pm

Thanks Harry! Your posts on teaching are always enlightening and challenging. I gave up on grading discussion and participation in survey classes ten years ago, but I try to constantly improve the quality of my class discussions every semester.

It amazes me that some colleagues are still happy to blame poor quality class discussions on the students. Yes, individual students might be unprepared, but the class as a whole can still succeed if you prepare them to participate.


Chris Stephens 09.05.19 at 6:21 pm

I’m not sure this gets around all your concerns but I do sometimes grade participation in small classes (worth maybe 10% of total grade) but I do it in a very rough “pass-fail” kind of way, emphasizing that they can get full credit for participation on a given day simply by asking a question. So the grading, by itself, doesn’t probably do much to prompt “quality” discussions. Like you, however, I try to say and do other things to increase the chances that this will happen.
(In the education jargon I guess I treat discussion as a “low stakes” assignment).


ph 09.05.19 at 10:02 pm

My dad has been telling me for years that “You’ve got to work on your questions.”…

Thanks for another great post and links to others ( excerpt quoted above). We can and should grade for participation. However, if this is going to work we have to have some very clear metrics for analysis. Recording, monitoring, and otherwise playing close attention to students initial discussions is essential to form the base for term progress. And your dad is quite right – questions matter at least as much as answers – in many cases the most basic questions, the ones most easily overlooked because these seem so obvious and simple yield the most productive results. Then, there’s the second question, the ability to use one’s imagination to construct an abstract world in which people make decisions and form questions of their own, yields another layer of discussion. We work in pairs and groups throughout the class. Rather than discuss peer sensitive topics directly – we engage in simple exercises – for example – what are the interior dialogues of the hare and tortoise during their race? Or, does Cinderella’s “evil” step-mother really treat her so badly? And if so, why does she do so? The key here is that students unfamiliar with these kinds of “use your imagination” exercises need early success on question creation in discussions if they’re going to start taking risks. As I place a very high value on these sorts of exercises, I provide individual feedback to individual students and spend as little time as possible lecturing. Writing the simple questions on the board gives students a fixed reference point – and allows me to board second questions created by students for others to use as models.

The second part of grading engagement involves reviewing written revisions to notes. Much like “old-fashioned” math teachers, I want to see the process and steps used to frame and address a question, and do so using students’ notes. How did students initially approach the problem, where, when, and with whom? To this end, notes and amendments are dated, I/C – O/C (in class…) and initialed by peers at the end of each discussion. I monitor during class and review these notes regularly. These are done in pencil usually and collected in simple A-4 folders, or in the margins of text books, again lightly in pencil.

Depending on the class – their term grade comes almost entirely from their discussions and their folders. I’ve seen some fine online work from peers, but prefer paper-based work myself. The folder and emphasis on question-skills greatly simplifies student grading. Sharing folders during each class allows students to situate their own performance with that of their peers. Rather than complain about individual performance – everyone gets praise – but… I ask students to evaluate their peers critically as competition – “based on these two folders A and B, which person would you hire to do analysis?” “If you’re required to explain this topic to someone new, which folder best helps others understand the problem?”

Grading engagement and process almost entirely eliminates plagiarism. I expect students to use the arguments and answers of others, properly cited, as part of their own individual discussions. Getting the best grades, of course, involves connecting other student work with their own and with the larger conversations. It’s a fun, effective, and stimulating way to run a class. Preparation is essential, and students who arrive in class unprepared, or unwilling to contribute are invited to take the necessary time in the library and return with something of substance to offer. Or not. Most do a wonderful job and the quality of the work is very often impressive. Sorry about the long post. Great topic.


ph 09.05.19 at 11:44 pm

Oh yeah. And then there’s this:

Part of this can be factored into: “I always prepare for class by reading my teacher’s publication and recommended reading lists – and then parrot back as much as I can repackage as my own discovered truth.”

“Am I asking the right kind of questions, professor?”


anonymousse 09.06.19 at 4:36 pm

“Rather than discuss peer sensitive topics directly – we engage in simple exercises – for example – what are the interior dialogues of the hare and tortoise during their race? Or, does Cinderella’s “evil” step-mother really treat her so badly? And if so, why does she do so?”

Tangential question: do these types of exercises really have value? I am referring to the (in my mind) kindergarten level discussions (tortoise and hare, Cinderella discussion).
When I encounter this type of thing (from the target audiences’ perspective-not the teacher’s perspective), I internally roll my eyes and immediately tune out-I feel as if its a risk-free childish exercise that everyone has to pretend has value because it inherently doesn’t.
Note that it is not exclusive to teaching, or college, or this example. The same thing can be said about corporate leadership exercises that are mocked on Saturday Night Live (‘fall backwards into each other’s arms to establish trust’, ‘let’s get together and discuss how we can improve X-and everyone gets a stress card in case anything unacceptable is said’ etc etc). It seems as though 1/3 of the Office is devoted to mocking and deriding this type of training.

So, from the user’s (i.e. professors’ and trainers’) perspective: are they as silly as I, and our popular culture, seem to think? Is there hidden value that we aren’t seeing?



ph 09.06.19 at 11:15 pm

@5 That’s a fair question. The easiest way to answer this is to begin with the actual task. Complete the exercises. Construct an imaginary topography and the circumstances of the race, then start asking questions. Recall this is an exercise designed to force the comfortable out of their comfort zones as well as give the less-skilled a chance to excel.

With respect, you may find that giving good answers and generating quality and stimulating questions isn’t quite the cake walk you assume. I don’t at all want to derail the thread, feel free to complete either task. Both exercises invite indirect discussions of sensitive topics as well as narratives, sourcing. This is all quite obvious, of course, to anyone with a quick and curious mind.

If one thinks we have nothing to learn or discuss from fables, urban myth, Homer, the OT, oral histories, and finds the enduring efficacy of parable across cultures and time a dull and interesting topic, fair enough. In all seriousness and with the greatest respect, we begin with these sorts of “easy” topics to elicit precisely the sort of response you’ve just provided. Heck, this is just too easy.

Give it a try. You may even surprise yourself if you’re into that sort of thing.


ph 09.06.19 at 11:18 pm

Make that a “dull and uninteresting topic.” Favorite parables and comics and myths are topics many students enjoy discussing, btw, as well as their histories with gaming, and online shopping. Bad them.


SusanC 09.07.19 at 8:44 am

Or, does Cinderella’s “evil” step-mother really treat her so badly? And if so, why does she do so?

Well, that one will get you in deep water fairly quickly, especially if you have the kind of students who have had to read a ton of feminist literary criticism and psychoanalysis.

(See: Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment; various critics of Bruno Bettelheim; Marina Warner; for extra credit see if you can get in a nod to Delueze and Guattari Anti-Oedipus …)


SusanC 09.07.19 at 9:02 am

A ground rule for typical academic discussions: being on-topic, but wrong, is OK, it’s being off-topic that’s a bigger problem.

A local situation, likely replicated almost everywhere. A highly senior member of department is (a) very assertive in his opinions and (b) sometimes – maybe even often – wrong. Well, I’m going to tell him I think he’s wrong, but then I’m another venerable (arguably, past it:-)) member of department. Advice to grad students: if you’re thinking he’s wrong, you may very well be right. Go on, you can get away with saying it…


SusanC 09.07.19 at 9:06 am

A tip for chosing the topic for your doctoral dissertation, which is very subject specfic. (Departments can be categorized as those for which this is obvious, and those for which this is anathema). So, you’re sitting there in one of these seminars and said senior member of department is like, seriously wrong about something. Explain why he’s wrong, in detail, at book length, with chapter 2 summarizing the previous work in the area.


Philip 09.07.19 at 9:07 am

I never even knew this was a thing and it just seems like an obviously terrible idea to me. I’ve got a background in teaching English as an additional language and working with autistic people and both of those are about giving people the skills and knowledge to speak, making them feel comfortable to do so, and waiting until they feel ready to participate themselves.

I did my degrees in the UK and always had small seminar groups, some discussions worked well and some didn’t but I can’t see how grading participation would help. I think through things a lot in my head before speaking, to try and work through the problem then thinking is this worth saying, have I spoken enough already etc. Sometimes by the time I’ve done that the point has been made or the discussion has moved this would just give me an extra thing to worry about before speaking. It would also make things worse for people with social anxiety.

What is the justification for requiring participation, is it to promote learning within the group or to develop skills for other aspects of life? If it is for learning, well people learn in different ways, some by asking lots of questions and some by being more introverted and contemplative. Why should there be an obligation for those people to participate? If it is for life skills then a university discussion isn’t really going to replicate other power dynamics so I don’t know how useful that will be, although there will be a benefit from feeling comfortable discussing complex issues. Still, I don’t see how grading participation is the best way to encourage it.

In my experience to develop good group discussion the students need to know why what they are discussing is important or interesting an be given time to think of responses rather than being put on the spot. If that doesn’t work then is discussion the best way to learn about the topic? It also helps if students know each other and get used to discussing things outside of the classroom so that it feels more natural when they are in the classroom, but structural things make that difficult.


anonymousse 09.08.19 at 1:22 am

Non-tangential opinion:

I think participation, and public speaking, are a life-critical skill just as important as any other critical skill. I say that as a pretty awkward speaker in my youth, who has learned to be less awkward over time-and now, would have appreciated becoming less awkward earlier.

I don’t know if the answer is grade participation or not, but I don’t believe the answer is to simply let people participate as they wish, or at their own choosing, or based on their learning preference. It makes no more sense to me to let someone ‘choose to participate’ than to let someone ‘choose to learn math’ in a math class, or ‘choose to read assigned reading’ in an English class. Social anxiety, or discomfort, are things to be overcome-just as math weakness is a thing to be overcome in math class.



Miranda 09.08.19 at 3:57 am

I use a version of this system and it works pretty well! It removes the impulse to parrot back to the prof and it gives students feedback. They also call each other out on lack of classroom etiquette (phones, side convos, etc)


ph 09.08.19 at 6:13 am

@8 Actually, and forgive me please if you get this already – here are three issues that normally emerge. With second order questions coming to light once we open the door to maybe she’s not quite the criminal we believe, or that the mother is operating logically, not emotionally.

The most common discussion theme which emerges is that women and especially single mothers in most European societies have/had to negotiate their daughters futures in world without family planning, and one run by men. (see abortion discussions above) In an ideal world one places the children of others on the same level as one’s biological offspring. How often does/did this happen? Would you, as an individual? And where and why is doing so the “right” thing to do? What are the origins and foundations of behavior within families, and within societies, and how do these operate and can these codes be questioned? Why is marriage to a prince elevated to as the solution to all problems? What is the consequence of this kind of thinking?

The second topic is generally situated around knowledge systems, values, behaviors, and the stability of texts. Many may already know something of how myths and fables function in non-literate societies (where there is no written language system). The lack of a stable fixed text, as is usually the case in folk tales, means that the narrator can exercise a great deal of freedom in the telling of the fable. What happens when we start playing with events, identities, and genders. Would the tale be different if Cinderella were a boy? Or if age made the success of one sister more important than another? Then we examine real-life instances.

The third topic is connected to the second. In many iterations of the tale, the heroine learns nothing from her own experiences and abandons her former family. Is she right to do so? etc. What does the glass slipper symbolize, is the prince really a “prince,” how much of the tale is literal and how much is metaphor? Why magic as a solution? Can the tale be told without a fairy godmother? Who might that figure be in real-life?

Again, these are introductory exercises designed to demonstrate that any topic can be reworked to elicit questions which might not normally emerge if we simply skate on the surface of a tale. Once we start asking questions about evidence, authority, and assumptions, different possible interpretations and question sets emerge.

Finally, other examples, – Auerbach – Shakespeare, Homer, Moses, and the Three Stooges Cake Fight; the semiotics of magazine covers; giving back-stories and logic systems to two-dimensional characters, why symbols change with audiences. Marshall McLuhan: “I couldn’t see without believing.” I don’t use all these in every class. But I do want to force students, even in lecture classes, to start questioning their assumptions more vigorously.

Only a fool believes he/she is the finished article.


Philip 09.08.19 at 7:57 pm

anonymousse, I think participation and speaking in a group are useful skills that people should develop at university. It is different to not choosing to learn maths in a maths class as that is the explicit objective and it is also different to not doing required reading as that is essential for everyone to learn in an English class. I think there are lots of reasons why some people are less willing to participate and I think grading is too blunt an instrument. Maybe towards the end of the course when people have more experience and knowledge it could be helpful.


Carol 09.08.19 at 11:44 pm

I’m 81 years old. I’m not currently a student, or a professor and don’t expect to be either one any time soon. But if I were to enroll in a class I would love to find a professor like PH. The professors questions seem to be designed to take students out of their comfort zone and may seem silly at first, but they make you think even if your initial reaction is “seriously?”.

As far as grading class participation, I’m with Phillip @15.

I know you didn’t ask for my opinion, Harry, but here it is anyway.


Chris W. (merian) 09.09.19 at 1:21 am

I always enjoy the post-secondary pedagogy posts here.

This is the second semester I’m teaching a college-level class (other than as a TA, which comes with varying, but always limited, levels of responsibility). I’ve been thinking very hard about evaluation, and one thing I’ve come to believe is that it’s up to us (the faculty) to design evaluation in a way such that a student who has at the end of the semester achieved an understanding and skill level that compares sufficiently well with the course objective, should pass the class. Not with an A, necessarily, but there’s not much more frustrating than to have a student who performs at a mastery level expected from someone after taking the class who nonetheless fails it. Sure, sometimes that’s entirely on the student (like, they never showed up to be assessed…), but it’s rare that there is nothing that has to do with the instructor and evaluation set-up.

I’m ok, btw, to make “demonstrates that they are a member of a community of collaborating practitioners” part of these criteria, so I’m not talking about someone who just shows up for assessments. This is even though in my field (earth sciences, and in my teaching specifically geospatial data science topics) learning takes place a lot less via exchanging arguments in class discussions than, say, in a history class. I do incorporate active learning techniques, usually via a think-pair-share activity every class, but the instructional sessions have nonetheless a lot of lecturing. The actual learning happens mostly in the lab.

And I’ve been dissatisfied with how labs are graded. The classical process is, hand out weekly assignments, have students work on them during the lab hours (2h or 3h or so), and then they have another week or two to finish the assignment and hand it in. This works well in graduate level classes, where everyone has a research project and is used to autonomous work. It is I think pretty unfair in first-year courses, where students often haven’t seen anything like the material taught in the lab before, hand it in after 2h (because freshman level) and get graded right away.

The class I’m teaching this time is third-year (junior) level, on paper, with an extremely heterogeneous audience (at least 5 or so different undergrad programs, plus an adult education student polishing their job skills, plus a few grad students, plus a Fullbright exchange scholar…). Turns out, a pretty high performing audience! Which is great! But I still wanted to separate the (weekly) evaluation from the (weekly) lab assignment, because they should be free to explore and take the time they need. Which led me to keep my predecessor (who taught the class for literally 20 years until he retired…) approach of giving a small chunk of points to attendance and participation — to incentivize students to actually come to the labs and do them, even though they don’t collect points on them directly, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do the quizzes.

I’m sure I could have introduced my plan better, and if I ever teach the subject again I will. But for the moment it seems to be working.


ph 09.09.19 at 2:20 pm

@16 Wonderful! You sound like you’ve a great deal to offer to any class, really. I do hope you poke around for classes which may interest you. I know a number of great instructors who teach at community colleges, and I’m pretty sure you can audit many classes (with discounted fees). You’ve a wonderfully open mind which I find positively inspirational. If you’re willing to do the readings and preparations (mature students usually do!), you’d be a tremendous asset and example in any class. I’d certainly love to have more students like you. Academic advisors often have a very keen understanding of what courses are available. Explain your interests and topics you’re curious about and take it from there! Online learning is a viable option, too.

Many thanks for the kind words, Carol, and best of luck!


Kallan Greybe 09.09.19 at 9:50 pm

I get to say guilty as charged on being a verbose talker. I’m aware of it, so I tend to do a lot to manage myself and consciously try to bring in people who talk less (which is a pitfall of its own), but in our MA Research Methodology seminar group we were graded on participation and had two professors moderating over the two terms.

The first called me to one side about mid-way through the first term and I knew what she was going to ask me to do before she said anything. She seemed happy with me volunteering that I knew it was about me talking too much and I was consciously moderating it and so on. The second on the other hand actually congratulated me on the way I participated after the fact.

The same student, the same seminar group, similar texts but two different lecturers and two different grades for participation even within the same department. Sounds like a minefield alright.

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