Teaching Today

Setting the Stage to Assess Student Engagement

Shannon Portillo explains why it's important to engage students in the evaluation of their course participation from the first day of class.

August 21, 2018
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Seanshot

At the end of every semester, I ask students to reflect on their participation in the course -- and I also ask them to help me determine the grade they should receive in it. This is a structured way for students to take responsibility for their own learning and assessment, and it facilitates an active learning environment. Students provide thoughtful reflections on their own contributions and feel engaged in the assessment process.

In fact, over the past decade, I’ve asked students to evaluate their participation in all types of classes: large lecture courses, small honors seminars and graduate seminars. I have received thoughtful essays reflecting on course engagement, repenting for not engaging enough and providing valuable feedback. But I’ve found to make this approach work effectively, it’s important that I set the stage at the start of the class.

To ensure strong engagement and reflection throughout the semester, I:

Clarify expectations at the beginning. The first day of class, I ask students to help me set up class guidelines. We brainstorm the ways we should engage with each other and our expectations for participation in class discussions. We generate an actual list.

This is the list from my most recent course, and it is pretty representative of expectations that we establish each semester:

  • We will engage with and criticize ideas but not people.
  • We will listen with curiosity, not hostility.
  • We will not interrupt.
  • We will not be afraid to ask questions.
  • We will be aware of how much space we are individually taking up in class and step up and stand back as needed.
  • We will use I statements and not attempt to speak on behalf of groups.
  • We will not expect individuals to act as spokespeople for groups.
  • We will name when the guidelines aren't followed, address it and move forward.

I adapt this activity and list to fit my specific classroom each semester, but you can find similar lists and activities here. I post this list on our online course management site, updating it if needed throughout the semester.

Ask for students’ input and reasoning. On the last day of class, I ask students to reflect on how they engaged with the course and followed the guidelines we all agreed to on the first day. I ask them to write a paragraph outlining what grade they believed they earned for participation.

Students must give me an actual number based on the weight of participation for the course. They also must provide evidence and reasoning for their recommendation. Evidence may be quantitative. This last semester, I had a student tally how many times he spoke. He said he averaged three contributions each class period.

Most of the evidence that students provide, however, is qualitative. Students point to times they served as spokespeople for small group activities or note that they often shared their personal work experiences in full class discussions.

Many times, students will use this activity to reflect on their own learning style, saying things like, “I am an introvert, so speaking in front of the whole class is intimidating. I participated regularly in small groups and always tried to volunteer as note taker for my group.” Their reflection and reasoning are an important part of their engagement with the process.

Make your own assessment. I’ve used this exercise for the past 10 years, and I have regularly had to adjust men's grades down and women’s grades up. Men tend to be very generous when it comes to what they should earn, regardless of the evidence they present. Women often provide great evidence of their participation, but they are incredibly harsh on themselves when it comes to how many points they should actually receive. That said, I just wrapped up a summer intensive course, and I was impressed by the number of women advocating strongly for themselves and their grades by making arguments based on evidence.

When I disagree with a student’s assessment of their own learning, I provide concrete reasons along with their numerical grade. When providing feedback for a student who did not give themselves enough points, I tell them that I recognized their contributions and saw how they supported and advanced the class learning environment. When giving a student fewer points than they have requested, I reference our guidelines and the expectations of the course, often noting that they did not regularly step into the discussions. As long as I’ve provided clear reasoning, linked to the expectations, I’ve never had a student dispute their grade.

Ultimately, as the instructor responsible for the course and grading, it is up to me to decide what grades students deserve. I warn them about this when I ask for their feedback, and I practice it when I enter their grades. I appreciate the additional information and data they’ve given me to help determine their participation grade, but ultimately, I decide how many points they’ve earned based on all of the evidence from the course.

By laying the groundwork at the beginning of the semester, structuring a variety of active learning experiences throughout the semester and engaging students to reflect on their own participation, I involve my students in their assessment from the very beginning of the semester.

Bio

Shannon Portillo is assistant vice chancellor of undergraduate programs at the KU Edwards Campus and associate professor in the School of Public Affairs & Administration at the University of Kansas. She believes meaningful service and mentorship are important aspects of an academic career. Her research and teaching focus on social equity, local government and legal mobilization.

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