This is a cry for help.
It’s the end of term. I’m absolutely thrilled: welcome back, weekday drinking! And I’m really tired. Where’s my pillow at, again?
But I’m also staring at my computer screen. Because I’ve got 40 students in my terrific Toronto: Culture and Performance class, and they’ve all been superb and committed and present, and now I have to give them “participation” grades.
Ah, participation. What exactly is it “testing” for? If you’re like me you’ve probably not spent enough time thinking about that question, or considering what we are trying to measure and reward with the inevitable “10% participation” line in the syllabus – the one that carries over from year to year with hardly a thought or a tweak.
That laziness comes home to roost this time of year. Because they can’t all get 100%, now, can they?
So I’m being a touch disingenuous here. I’ve actually thought about participation a fair bit. In most of my classes it is a category pegged to real work and effort, not a nebulous thing that lets me quietly reward students I appreciate more than others, or unconsciously punish those who have pissed me off. (Yes, we all do this. No, we don’t mean to. Think about it.)
For example: in my OTHER fall term class, my second-year performance studies seminar, participation works like this.
We have a class blog. (All the class prep and para-discussion goes on the blog.) Every Monday I post a “prompt” related to the week’s reading, viewing, or topic in general. I ask the students to engage with an aspect of the work under consideration, and to do so in writing or by posting video or other media. I emphasize that this work should demonstrate a fulsome (not just passing) engagement with the topic or material – IE: that it should take more than a minute or two to do. But I also emphasize it is not “graded”; students should feel free to experiment, write as much or as little as they wish without fear of making grammatical errors, and take a risk if they wish (there are no wrong answers!). I place a deadline on the responses – they must be completed an hour before class – and I always incorporate them into my class prep, so it’s clear they’re not just make-work things.
The rule for this fall’s seminar was: respond to 5 prompts over 13 weeks and earn 100% in participation. That’s 20% per prompt. Come to class every day, prepared and on time, and keep your grade. Miss class without accommodation? Each miss takes 5% off your running total. Miss more than three classes without accommodation, and lose all your participation grades for the class.
My logic for this structure was as follows. Coming to class matters a lot: seminars thrive on group discussion. Being prepared matters for the quality of discussion we have, and being on time is simply respectful. But the quality of in-class discussion is profoundly enhanced by thinking carefully and richly in advance about the work we’re going to do there – that’s the spirit of the flipped classroom in action. So the prompts were my way of saying: here’s something we’re really going to talk about. And the students’ responses were a way of saying: this is where we think we want to go with this. We’re into it!
And that, really, is what I am “testing” with participation: the willingness to have a real, considered, respectful conversation about a syllabus topic – to put something real into it, and get something real out of it.
Versions of this participation rubric have worked well for me over the past few years: sometimes the pre-prepped action relates to a prompt response; sometimes it takes the form of a performance. I’ve been learning and tweaking as I go, but I’ve been trying hard to eliminate the guesswork. Participation grades function best when they are pegged to rubrics, and when they reward heartfelt effort and genuine engagement with as much of the subjective stuff on my end either eliminated or curbed by the hard evidence of a student’s work on behalf of the course.
Flash forward to TOCAP, the big class on the screen in front of me. I didn’t do what I describe above for this class: too big; too much work. UGH! So what did I say about participation? I checked the outline just now. It says this:
To earn 100% for participation – and you really truly can (it happens all the time) – do the following things:
- Come to class. Every day. If you have to miss, ensure you have accommodation from your academic counsellors (see below).
- Read the stuff we’re reading. Think carefully as you’re reading. Maybe read it twice if it’s a challenge. Take some notes! Bear in mind that the reading load for this class is not heavy; readings have been scheduled to give you lots of opportunities to make time for them, and there are built in re-reading opportunities if you want to take them.
- Contribute to class. This doesn’t mean talking a lot; talking a lot usually means you’re not paying attention to how much space you’re taking up. It also doesn’t mean nevertalking, though: lots of us are shy, but there will be many different ways in this class to share thoughts – including via silent writing, group chats, peer-to-peer conversations, and more. If you’re a shy person and you’re working hard to contribute, we will notice.
- Take some risks! Falling on your arse doesn’t mean failing the course: it means you have to get up and try again. A risk is worth it if you learn something valuable about yourself in the process. And risks can be small: like speaking up when normally you don’t, or keeping mum when normally you talk over others. Risks can also mean trying to create a video when normally you wouldn’t, or writing your essay well in advance and bringing it to Kim or Courtney to talk about, when normally you’re a last-minute person. Taking a risk means actively taking up an invitation made by our class to push yourself a bit, rather than just showing up for the sake of it. Give it a try.
This all sounds great, and I’m sure it was reassuring. But it’s also not a rubric; it says NOTHING about how I’m going to measure these things. And that’s a problem – because right now I have to measure them.
Staring at the screen in low-level panic, I’m reminded that I need to figure out how to scale up my participation rubric experiments and fast.
There are best practices out there of course: here’s a good one from Faculty Focus this past May; here are four collated in a short article published by the Teaching Commons at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, ON. (I’m fond of the first one here, but click the second link in that bullet in order to read both the first noted article by Weimer, and the response by Slapcoff.) But the problem of scale still arises: in large classes, grading participation is significant extra work – or can be perceived that way (certainly at this time of the term, and certainly right now by me!).
This is why Slapcoff and Weimer’s linked reflections (in the first item above, as mentioned) make great sense to me: as writing assignments about participation, they offer excellent ways for students to reflect meta-cognitively on their classroom practice in a format we A&H professors are used to grading, and grading quickly. Better still, if these are (as Weimer suggests) papers written primarily for completion and reflection (like my students’ blog prompt responses), they need not be long, and they need not be marked for grammar. Feedback can happen in a peer-to-peer structure, or at strategic points in the term when life’s not too busy. It might be most fruitful, in fact, to schedule mid-term check-in meetings with students, where they bring a participation reflection with them, and talk them through in office hours. If the class is big, perhaps setting one or two sessions aside for this reflection work makes sense, too.
Options, for sure, if not solutions. What think you, dear readers? What do you do in larger-class scenarios to measure participation? What works, what’s too much work? What’s definitely not worth doing? Thoughts very welcome.