Director’s Blog

On Class Participation

by | Apr 15, 2021 | Director's Blog

James Lang, one of my favorite faculty developers, wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education this week about why he no longer grades class participation. In short, he found it difficult to do in an equitable way, hard to distinguish through grading between substantive comments and ones that merely agreed, and stressful for students who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class.

This article got me thinking about the past advice I’ve given on participation, particularly when teaching remotely. One thing Lang pointed out is that his classes are designed with multiple ways of participating, such as group work, written reflection, etc. So if multiple avenues of engagement make it hard for students to avoid participation, does it still makes sense to grade participation?

Many of us use participation points both as a way to reward students for speaking up and the motivate those who are reluctant. But we’ve also experienced the result of this on our Canvas discussion boards where “required” responses simply say, “I also found the reading interesting.” Does that student earn the same amount of participation points as the one who posted a thoughtful response? How much time should instructors spend on rating the quality of participation just for participation points? I think Lang has some good points here.

It also got me thinking about a book I read a few years ago, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I’m a hardcore introvert who would much prefer not to talk to you if I don’t know you. So I liked this book that pointed out how we often favor and reward extroversion in our culture while overlooking what’s happening behind the scenes with quieter people. This could be a good lens to examine your participation grading. Is it set up (inadvertently) to reward extroversion? Can students still demonstrate engagement without having to talk?

Another important question – is your participation grading system creating meaningful engagement? If it is, then keep it up! If not, reflect on what counts as participation, or consider not grading on participation for one quarter and see what happens. I think participation is going to be especially tricky as we return to campus. Some students will still be attending remotely while others can physically be there. So how will participation work in a hybrid situation? Some students are going to be anxious being around large groups of people again and may not be eager to talk in front of the class. It is going to require some patience and creativity on our parts as we figure out this transition.

But this is also an opportunity to reflect and rethink how we want to structure our classes moving forward. With all the talk of returning to campus, we have to accept that we won’t be “returning” to the way things were. Too much has changed, and there are some pre-pandemic mindsets and practices that we shouldn’t return to. So let’s be forward thinking with our plans – what do you want your teaching to look like? What did you truly miss about the face-to-face experience and how can you shape your teaching around that? How can technology and other remote practices still play a role in connecting you with your students? I’m excited to see what teaching looks like over the next few years. This feels like a pivotal moment in higher education.

In other news…

What I’m currently reading: The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. This book is…intriguing. I don’t know what to make of it yet, so I’ll give you a sense of what it’s about. Let’s say you are a brilliant scientist who wins awards for your work on human cloning. Now let’s say your scientist husband steals your work and creates an “improved” clone of you…and then leaves you for the clone. Believe it or not, things get even weirder than that.

Andrea Aebersold

Andrea Aebersold

Director, Faculty Instructional Development

Andrea Aebersold is the Director of Faculty Instructional Development at University of California, Irvine. She earned a PhD in English and was an associate professor of teaching before coming to UCI. She specializes in active learning, evidence-based teaching, and reading mountains of books.