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Back view of student raising his hand to answer a teacher’s question in class while other students look down and don’t have their hands raised.
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As a student and educator, I have had a love-hate relationship with participation grades. On the one hand, I am naturally talkative and curious, so I often ask many questions and think out loud. On the other, I love structure and a detailed rubric that explains how I earned my grades.

As a graduate student this past year, I have had instructors require “X” number of questions or comments per class without considering the topic, lecture type, number of students, or any other metrics that make meeting that requirement in every class almost impossible. I have had instructors with an internal measure for each question depending on how hard they had to think about the answer. And, of course, I have had instructors post a grade without any feedback whatsoever. But what frustrated me more than these vague metrics was the lack of community, support and purpose in their requests for participation.

The Good

Active student participation is a crucial element in the learning process. Students who are engaged and participate in class not only learn more but also gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the material. In fact, a study by two professors at Bryant University found that students who participate more in the classroom perform 25 percent better on exams than those who do not. In addition to gaining more knowledge on concepts, they also improve vital communication and collaboration skills through in-class interactions with peers and instructors—essential skills to prepare students for careers after graduation. Requiring participation also guarantees that more diverse perspectives will be voiced in classroom discussions.

The Bad

The benefits of participation have been well documented. People encouraged student-centered learning as far back as 1905, but it gained popularity when John Dewey presented his Student-Centered Learning Model in 1956. Because of that emphasis on student engagement, more than 90 percent of college courses try to increase classroom contributions by assigning a grade to how well and/or how much a student “participates.”

However, these participation grades are subjective and prone to many instructor biases, because instructors depend on their memory to recall a student’s contributions over the course. Not only is memory unreliable, but also individual characteristics or the student-instructor dynamics can color an instructor’s final assessment of a person.

For example, suppose a student participates in class but always turns in sub-par assignments. In that case, an instructor may translate that lack of effort in their assignments into a lower participation grade, essentially double-dinging them for the same thing. Additionally, when instructors try to create a quantitative metric to measure, they face the problem of incentivizing the quantity over the quality of the contributions.

What’s more, students have many different reasons for being apprehensive about graded participation credit. Some attribute their “shy personality” and nervousness or intimidation as a reason they don’t speak up in class. Others fear they will look foolish by saying something incorrect. Many of my classes have had participation grades in which I’ve felt obligated to speak up in class even if I’ve been uncertain about the subject or feel my statement may not actually contribute to the benefit of the whole class. Gender also plays a role in participation, with women feeling less comfortable speaking up in classes with a male professor or a majority of male students—something I have felt firsthand.

And the Ugly

I imagine two scenarios when considering why many instructors grade participation. The first is that grading participation is so much the norm that instructors don’t question it and decide to keep it on the syllabus simply because of a “that is how we have always done it” attitude. The second scenario is that the instructor isn’t comfortable or confident in their abilities to foster a collaborative environment, so they require students to “pick up the slack.” In either scenario, participation is treated more like something to check off the to-do list versus something that, when implemented correctly, can increase a student’s understanding and develop essential skillsets for personal development.

Making a Change

Instead of implementing ambiguous and inconsistent participation-grading requirements, let’s focus on creating an environment where students actually want to participate. In my three years teaching professional military education in the Air Force, I never graded participation. Still, I made it known from day one that we would have conversations in the classroom and that I needed to see evidence that they understood the material I was teaching them.

From my experience and the findings of many research studies, five essential techniques can transform your classroom into a nonthreatening and accepting environment for every student.

#1. Learn your students’ names. This one should be a no-brainer. After all, if you are trying to build a community focused on communication and collaboration, you need to start with knowing your students' names. Also make the effort to pronounce them correctly. This one strikes me personally, as I have lived most of my life with every teacher mispronouncing my name. Although the popularity of Frozen made the pronunciation of “Ah-na” more commonplace, I went the first 24 years of my life with everyone calling me “An-uh.”

You may argue that you don’t have time for this “social” stuff or that your class is too large to try anything like this. But knowing and saying your students’ names is the basic starting point of mutual respect. In a larger class, memorizing every name might not be realistic, so use nametags and a seating chart to help you use student names when interacting with them. Your investment in your students as people will pay off through increasing student motivation to contribute to discussions and enhancing the quality of discussions.

#2. Get to know your students individually. Aside from knowing their names, you should find ways to connect with your students on a more personal level. Starting your class with a good ice breaker that allows you to hear some things that are important to your students or that they value can help you understand who they are and relate to them through specific examples or terminology used in your classroom. If you can’t accomplish that in the classroom setting, I have had instructors in larger classes email a questionnaire for each student to fill out. You’re not looking for their entire life story—just something that signals to your students that you listen to them and recognize them as individuals.

#3. Implement purposeful cold-call and warm-call techniques. Cold-calling can get a bad rap because instructors fear it may make students uncomfortable and less likely to contribute to discussions. Yet, research shows that cold-calling increases student voluntary participation when implemented strategically. You want to ensure your cold-calling technique doesn’t come as a surprise and that you weave it throughout each class.

One option is “warm up” cold-calling by providing opportunities for students to reflect before calling on them. You can give your students a prompt to work on the night before as homework or even offer a few minutes in the class to quietly think about the question and topic you want to cover in a “think-pair-share” activity. It is also beneficial to work through a hierarchy like Bloom’s taxonomy, so that you start with more direct comprehension or recall questions before advancing to the more challenging analysis and application questions.

#4. Have students self-reflect and assess themselves. Many students view participation as an aspect of their personality versus a skill they need to practice and hone. They make excuses for their lack of participation by saying it is because they are “introverted,” “shy” or “quiet.” But suppose we reframe participation in the minds of ourselves and our students as a skill they can improve. In that case, you can set personalized goals that target specific areas that need work for each individual. Instead of grading participation on a fixed scale, give a self-reflection assignment where you ask students to genuinely reflect on how they participate well and where they can improve.

Aside from speaking up in class, participation also includes coming to class prepared, being a good team member, actively listening to others’ comments, critically thinking and researching, attending office hours, or even note-taking. Students can identify and generate a goal for what they hope to improve during the semester. Then, at the end of the semester or specified checkpoints, each student can complete a self-assessment to evaluate if they reached their intended goal and, if not, what barriers they experienced. Here, you are looking for action items and specific examples to show that your students understand the expectations and are taking tangible steps toward self-improvement.

#5. Acknowledge and praise contributions. You must apply positive reinforcement principles in your classroom to promote active participation. Providing verbal recognition when a student answers something correctly or when they bring up a good point gives them real-time feedback that they are meeting or exceeding your expectations. But you can’t just recognize correct answers. Instructors also need to acknowledge and support even when a student may say something incorrect. You should praise the student’s effort for speaking up and use it as an opportunity to acknowledge mistakes or misconceptions that will benefit the entire class. Doing that in an encouraging and supportive way will help that student feel empowered to speak up again without holding on to that fear of being wrong. Providing this support and acknowledgment is even more vital when the class may mock the question or statement.

Moving Forward

These suggestions may not surprise you, but we all often have a disconnect between what we know versus what we actually do. I challenge you to ask yourself why you have participation in your syllabus. Is it there because “that’s how it’s always been done?” Are you putting the onus on your students to generate discussion, or are you fostering a collaborative environment that encourages student participation? Do you use cold-calling to catch your students off guard or to truly assess student understanding?

Dare to do something different and more pedagogically useful by removing participation requirements and focusing instead on creating an encouraging, supportive environment that develops each student’s communication skills.

Anna Broadbent has taught students for more than 2,700 hours as an Instructor of Technology and Military Science at the Community College of the Air Force and has received an MBA from Baylor University.

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