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Class participation

Assessing class participation to promote / support learning

Introduction

Assessing class participation to encourage and develop student engagement in learning activities is sometimes used in the HE Sector. This might include involvement in face-to-face activities such as seminars, discussions, debates, group work activities, experiments, simulations or placements. Participation in online activities such as discussions in chatroom, posting on bulletin boards, online forum or webinars could also be taken into account.

We are not suggesting rewarding attendance, rather we aim to identify those characteristics that we expect ‘effective’ learners to exhibit [preparation, participation, collaboration, etc.] and by rewarding demonstration and achievement of such behaviours both promote and emphasise their value. This is something of a ‘marmite’ method of assessment: some colleagues value the approach and feel that it is necessary to encourage (through grades or marks, however small) good study characteristics; whilst others consider that students should already have these approaches or realise that by developing them they will achieve better learning gain and hence enhanced assessment results.

What can we measure by assessing class participation?

A starting point here is that only that which is ‘visible’ can be assessed. It is not possible to assess directly attitudes or dispositions, for example. Whilst it may be easy to assess attendance, number of questions asked, time spent on an activity, involvement in debates, etc., there is a tension between what can be readily assessed and what it is desirable to assess. Easily assessed characteristics tend not to be associated with higher order thinking or deep learning.

Some of the aims of assessing class participation are to:

  • encourage students to participate in discussion
  • motivate students to engage with background reading
  • prompt student to prepare for a learning session
  • encourage and reward development of communication skills and group skills such as:
    • contributing
    • interacting
    • cooperating
    • collaborating.

Participation can take different forms: face to face; online; written; spoken; as groups; as individuals; or a combination of these.

Design

Assessing participation indicates to learners the behaviours and attitudes that are seen as important (Bean and Peterson, 1998). By assessing involvement in a group activity, for example, students will be given the signal that the process of undertaking the task is important, not just a final outcome or product.

It might be beneficial to consider these questions during the design process:

  • which of the module intended learning outcomes will be assessed through participation?
  • which of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) related verbs (such as analyse, evaluate or create) found in the intended learning outcomes will this assessment ‘method’ focus on?
  • what sort of behaviours are desirable in the learning contexts? For example: speaking, listening, making a contribution online, being part of a team, leading a team, taking a part in a role play or completing a particular ‘hands-on’ activity in a laboratory? Can all of these behaviours be observed or can evidence for them having taken place be obtained?
  • is it necessary to distinguish the quantity of participation from the quality of participation? For example, whether it is desirable that students should ask questions (and perhaps the more the better) or is there concern for the type of question asked and whether they support higher order thinking in line with the intended learning outcomes
  • how will meaningful feedback (judgemental) and feed-forward (developmental) opinion be given during the class?
  • if the participation in group work is to be assessed then it may only be possible through the use of self- or peer-assessment; how will this be implemented?

Bean and Petersen (n.d) provide a Holistic Rubric for Scoring Class Participation and the table below is adapted from that source:

 

6

· comes to class prepared

· contributes readily to the conversation but doesn’t dominate

· makes thoughtful contributions that advance the conversation

· shows interest in and respect for others’ views;

· participates actively in small groups.

5

· comes to class prepared and makes thoughtful comments when called upon

· contributes occasionally without prompting:

· shows interest in and respect for others’ views;

· participates actively in small groups.

4

· generally comes to class prepared

· participates in discussion, but may talk too much, make rambling or tangential contributions, continually interrupt the instructor with digressive questions,

· bluff their way when unprepared, or otherwise dominate discussions

· not acknowledge cues of annoyance from instructor or other students

3

· comes to class prepared

· does not voluntarily contribute to discussions

· gives only minimal answers when called

· shows interest in the discussion, listens attentively and take notes

2

· comes to class but has not prepared

· does not voluntarily contribute to discussions

· unlikely to be able to contribute usefully even when called to do so

1

· comes to class but has not prepared

· may be disruptive

· may have a negative impact on others in the group

Thinking about the quality rather than the quantity of participation, they usefully add that:

  • a 5-score may also be appropriate to an active participant whose contributions are less developed or cogent than those of a 6 but still advance the conversation
  • an award of 3 may result from the student being shy or introverted. The tutor may choose to give such students a 5 if they participate fully in smaller group discussions or if they make progress in overcoming shyness as the course progresses.

You may, like us, be surprised that a student should gain any mark for the sort of behaviour described by a 1-score; the grid is given as a starter rather than an example of good practice. The important point is that as well as a clear rationale for assessing participation and reflecting this in the learning outcomes, we should develop and publish the criteria by which we will assess our learners.

Bauer (2002) and Penny & Murphy (2009) advocate the use of rubrics to inform learners what they should be doing in order to signal the kinds of learning and thinking that are expected for success. A rubric normally comprises three main features (Reddy and Andrade, 2010):

  1. evaluation criteria: which are usually mapped to the learning outcomes or competencies that are to be measured
  2. quality criteria: qualitative descriptions of what is expected for a given grade or mark
  3. scoring system: grade ranges or degree classifications mapped to the quality description.

The following example, Hack (n.d.) illustrates this:

criteria

fail

pass

merit

distinction

Introduction / conclusion.

7 to 9 points

 

The introduction provides a background to the topic. Some evaluation and synthesis of key issues and material presented in conclusions.

10 to 11 points

 

The introduction provides a brief background to a challenging topic, e.g. why is it relevant and why does it raise ethical issues?

The conclusion provides critical evaluation and synthesis of key issues and material.

12 to 13 points

 

The introduction provides a brief background to a challenging topic, e.g. why is it relevant and why does it raise ethical issues?

The conclusion provides critical evaluation and synthesis of key issues and material. Both intro and conclusion should demonstrate and original and reflective approach.

14 to 20 points

 

The introduction provides a brief background to a complex and challenging topic, e.g. why is it relevant and why does it raise ethical issues.

The conclusion provides critical, insightful evaluation and synthesis of presented evidence.

Diversity & inclusion

An assessment approach would be unfair if it benefitted certain personality types or cultural norms. For example, students who describe themselves as extroverts may find participation in group activities easier and receive higher marks independently of effort. In addition, international students who may be learning in a second language may be slower to contribute not through lack of understanding or ability, but merely through command of language; is this what we wish to assess? This is, of course, less of an issue if we are online as asynchronous communication can give these student the necessary extra time. Indeed, a small scale study on perceptions of inclusivity amongst students at Warwick revealed that the expectation to actively participate in class can be perceived as non-inclusive (WIHEA funded project 2019).

In addition, we can help student prepare by giving:

  • a writing exercise, before class, based around the types of questions that will be posed in class and which the student can read from in their responses rather than having to respond spontaneously
  • a brief free-writing period after the question is posed e.g. 3-5 minutes of silence during which students write their initial thoughts down
  • an asynchronous online activity can allow students to think through their responses not pressured by having to listen to those students who might respond more readily and dominant the interactions.

If a percentage of the final assessment for a module is for participation then in effect it becomes obligatory. For some students it is daunting to be required through the assessment process to speak in seminar groups or to have to contribute to group work. They may require support to do this. It cannot be assumed that poor participation is a deliberate choice - there may be other reasons for this such as diagnosed or undiagnosed social anxiety. Crossthwaite et al. (2015) suggest that students considered in-class participation measures were unfair. Further Gopinath (1999) found that students were not positive about a model where peer- and self-assessment was used. As with all methods of assessment, we need to discuss the approach with our learners in order for them to see the relevance and value and to understand how they will be measured.

Academic integrity

The nature of this form of assessment means that there are very few opportunities for academic misconduct. Where students have to contribute online or as the result of group work it is important that the differences between collaboration, which you might want to encourage, and collusion is discussed. (Click here for further guidance on plagiarism.)

Student and staff experience
Benefits for students

LSE (2017) suggest that “fostering students’ active involvement in their own learning increases what is remembered, how well it is assimilated, and how the learning is used in new situations.” Combining their claims for the benefits to students with the work of UNSW (2019) the list is impressive.

Activities involving class participation will:

  • encourage students to prepare for class and to do the weekly readings, lab notes and studio preparation
  • encourage students to be active participants in classroom activities and encourage them to take responsibility for their learning
  • encourage students to reflect on issues and problems that relate to the class
  • encourage students to develop oral, aural and language communication skills and to demonstrate them in their interactions and co-operation with peers and staff
  • foster the development of a student’s presentation skills in individual and group presentations
  • foster students’ analytical skills and their capacity to critique ideas and concepts in a supportive environment
  • support students in developing their collaborative and team-working skills
  • develop students’ capacity to critique peers' responses in a supportive and collegial environment
  • increases motivation, as students need to take responsibility for their own learning.
Challenges for students
  • creates tension: students may think it better to keep quiet than get it wrong; hence assessment results in the polar opposite of intent
  • contributions may be affected by class size and group dynamics
  • international students may find it difficult to participate due to language and cultural issues.
Challenges for staff

Even with clear criteria and rubrics assessment of classroom participation can be a highly subjective form of assessment. In addition, staff need to facilitate the teaching / learning session and assess at the same time; both activities can be challenging individually, and together require a high level of skill.

Given the, usually, low marks assigned to this form of assessment, students may be strategic and just not turn up. This makes the assessment less meaningful and useful. Macfarlane and Tomlinson (2017) critique ‘participation’ because of associated threats to ‘student rights and freedoms as learners’ (p.5), and offer six critiques of student engagement including performativity, where easily measurable student behaviours are monitored and audited (measuring what can be rather than what should be measured) and infantilisation where adults are treated like children. Considering carefully the motivations for including assessment of participation is important; it might be argued that a ‘deficit’ view of how students behave, and a desire to adapt their behaviour, is not a good reason to assess participation.

Workload

Students: Given the drivers for this type of assessment, one could expect students’ workload to increase, but one might argue that they should be doing this work anyway.

For staff: Despite the challenges of design and implementation, Heyman and Sailors (2010) found that peer assessment of participation took a short amount of time and was easy to undertake. Bean and Peterson (1998) found that it was hard for academics to keep records of participation.

If participation is assessed across a module a large amount of data can be accumulated very quickly and this would need management and processing. If participation in a one-off learning experience is assessed then the amount of data would be reduced but, perhaps, be less representative of true participation of the learners.