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When I initially envisioned writing this piece, I did not think that I would be writing it at a time when classes in many universities in the U.S. and worldwide would be conducted remotely and/or online because of the ongoing crisis that the pandemic has brought upon us. Therefore, many of the aspects of assessing students’ participation that I would write in this piece would probably not be applicable for remote learning, though some of them might be useful. Given the circumstances that we are in because of COVID-19, I am adamant about the need to be generous with assessing students’ participation in the virtual medium, as it’s important that we look out for each other as a community, and the space of the virtual classroom is no different for me.

I started thinking carefully about ways of assessing students’ participation when I realized one month into the last semester that if I assessed students’ participation based only on verbal modes of participation, it would not be a holistic model of evaluating them. I admit that I am an extroverted grad student and did not initially consider that students might not feel comfortable speaking in the classroom for various reasons that include cultural differences (not to homogenize a category such as international students, but this is something one should be especially cognizant of, if one has international students in the class) or not feeling confident to speak up because they think what they are saying is wrong or incorrect.

I was also facing an additional difficulty -- they would talk to me when I asked them a question or share their responses about a text, but they would not build on one another’s arguments. I immediately realized that I needed to think of alternative ways through which participation can be assessed. In this semester, I had an early conversation with my students about what might constitute evidence of their engagement in the class, and their participation grades would not depend on how many times they are speaking in the class. Rather, I would pay particular attention to how they were listening and building on a comment or a point that their peer made or drawing on an argument made in previous classes.

In-class writing: After my realization, I started every class with an in-class writing prompt, which they were welcome to share in class, but it was never compulsory for them to share. Furthermore, they would have the option of submitting five pieces of what they thought were their best pieces of in-class writing as part of their final portfolio, and I would count their in-class writing toward their participation grade. Considering that so many classes have shifted online now, the in-class writing would also work well if a class is being delivered synchronously. Students could have the option of sharing their in-class writing on a discussion thread on the learning management software of the university.

Using Google Docs: In normal circumstances, I would often have a collaborative class Google Doc where students have the option of taking notes or putting in comments/thoughts that they otherwise might not be comfortable sharing during the large group discussions. In the current circumstances of remote teaching, I would use Google Docs differently to promote community in the virtual classroom: one (pre-allocated) group of five students would be responsible for posting five discussion questions, another group of five would respond to the first three questions, another group of five would respond to the last two questions and the final group would summarize the discussion or post additional resources related to the reading. They would need to consult among themselves and post on the Google Docs within a predetermined time.

Peer review: As I require students to turn in their peer-review sheets, I take into account how students provide feedback to their peers and how effective that feedback is. The peer review is an essential component of assessing student participation. I also periodically make sure to applaud students who are effective peer reviewers. With the shift to remote teaching, it is still possible to continue with the peer reviews online because often many learning management systems such as Canvas have built-in peer-review options. Alternatively, you can preassign peer reviewers and then have them email each other’s drafts for comments and feedback.

Collaborative annotation: With classes shifting online, one of the activities that I am considering doing with my students is to engage in collaborative annotation of texts, which might also be an effective way to gauge how involved students are. A free tool that I have found particularly useful is, which can be used to annotate material available on the web. I am thinking of using this tool specifically for the public writing unit of my class. They have also waived the fee for educational institutions for this year.

Contribution to class Zotero library: Although I did not get an opportunity to train my students in using Zotero this semester, for the next semester I am planning to have an option where students could contribute to the class Zotero library, add a note about the entry and get participation credits for it. I also think that it is a wonderful way of building class resources, and students might feel encouraged to contribute if they know that counts as a valid way of assessing participation. I will be forever grateful to one of my mentors, Peter Odell Campbell, for introducing me to Zotero during his graduate seminar and encouraging us to contribute to the class Zotero library.

Small group discussions: During the midterm conferences that I had with my students both last semester and also in this semester, a number of students disclosed to me that they are more comfortable opening up in small group settings. Therefore, during small group discussions (ideal for groups of three), I would often allocate different roles for each participant: mediator, note taker and a speaker, who would share with the class what the group came up with. Their roles would change from one day of the class to another. Here’s another useful way of navigating classroom discussion using dice devised by Shiladitya Sen, which has an element of fun in it which I have found helpful in engaging students.

What are some of the ways you use to assess student participation in your classes? How are you adapting them during remote teaching? Please let us know in your comments below.

Sritama Chatterjee is a second-year Ph.D. student in the department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. You can find her on Twitter @SritamaBarna.

Image Credit: Sritama Chatterjee

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