OMG CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME HOW TO GRADE PARTICIPATION???

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?

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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.

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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.

Kim

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Active learning in the graduate seminar room

This past autumn I taught my first graduate seminar in almost eight years; as a result of sabbaticals, career moves, and then my labour establishing a new undergraduate theatre studies program at Western, I had had neither the time nor the opportunity to teach graduate students (Brits: that’s postgrads to you) since summer 2009. I was excited to get back into the seminar room with smart MA and PhD candidates, but I was also a bit daunted.

I find graduate teaching a mixed blessing. On one hand: smart students, well read, self-selecting into a challenging program. We can expect them to be prepared; we can expect them to be keen; we can expect them to participate. On the other, though, there’s the whiff of imposter syndrome all around us in grad seminars: every student is eyeing every other student, wondering if they know enough, if they are smart enough. Showing off can ensue; oneupmanship happens whether students intend it to or not. Fraught dynamics emerge; and there I am, the prof who ALSO fears she doesn’t actually know enough to be teaching graduate students, caught in the middle, trying to keep the discussion on track.

(Imposter syndrome never goes away; you just learn to cope better with it. Sorry.)

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With years between me and my last graduate outing, I had some questions for my peers as I prepared the syllabus: how much reading is too much? Not enough? Are we still assigning One Seminar Presentation and One Final Essay, or have assessments evolved? In general the consensus was: 100 pages per week, give or take; seminar presentations always; one or two essays as you prefer.

The goal, as ever, was to make discussions in the room rich, but prep not too onerous. Grad seminars, the logic goes, should involve the prof and the class preparing the reading, and then coming to the room with questions and ideas to propel a discussion. Profs aren’t prepping lectures (or, most aren’t), and the onus is on the group to find useful things to say about each set of readings each week.

Pure, unadulterated active learning.

Except, well… maybe not. As I planned my new course (“Performance and the Global City”; please email me if you’d like a copy of the syllabus!) I spent a lot of time thinking back to my earlier graduate seminar experiences, both as a teacher and as a student. I realized that the traditional seminar model creates some barriers to access that reveal its limits as an active learning environment.

First of all, good discussions require a fair bit of curation; it’s not enough to come to class with a handful of talking points and/or questions for the room and assume everyone will be able to jump in and dig deep, just like that. (Quiet students will always struggle with the “so, what did we think?” opener, and, no, it’s not them, it’s us.)

Second, certain voices dominate class discussions because they have been trained by existing learning protocols to do so; those voices are comfortable with minimal prompting, and they aren’t always aware of how much space they are taking up. For profs keen to get a rousing discussion going around the seminar table, those voices are a godsend; we may complain to each other in the halls or over drinks about the students who dominate our discussions, but without the keeners who can kill airtime, our under-curated discussions can stall and leave us exposed.

Finally, can I just say that the traditional graduate seminar presentation is more often than not boring as heck? Does anyone actually enjoy listening to anyone else read a paper for 20 minutes at a go? What – other than how to write a clever paper and deliver a very dull conference presentation – do we imagine we are teaching our postgrads with this kind of assessment?

OK, so I know I’m being hard on tried and true models here, and if your graduate seminars run conventionally but very well then I’m really glad, and I would not want to stop you from carrying on with them. But the more I thought about the grad seminar status quo, the more I knew I didn’t want to do it again. So I hatched a new plan.

I decided to import a bunch of flipped-classroom active learning techniques from my undergraduate classes into my new graduate seminar.

This shift manifested in two key ways. First, student presentations were styled as peer teaching presentations, not research presentations. Every student was required to teach one article over the course of the term to the rest of the class, and students were required to work in pairs for this task. Further, I explicitly asked them not to create a lecture, but instead to frame the teach with an active learning exercise.

Here’s the brief for the peer teach I included in the syllabus:

PEER TEACHING EXERCISE

Once this term you will work in pairs to lead the class in an exploratory exercise based on one of our readings. The goal: to help you to try out different ways to connect students with challenging material. For that reason, I ask you not to prepare a lecture-style statement for this task; you should of course have thoughts about your reading you would like to draw out, but the point of this exercise is not to tell us what they are.

Here’s how the task will work:

  • By Wednesday at NOON of your week to teach, you will post to OWL a provocation (maybe a question, maybe not…) based on ONE of the readings for that week. Let Kim know in advance which reading you will focus on.
  • Your classmates will offer preliminary reflections on your provocation on OWL over the following 24 hours. You should read and note these reflections.

You will then prepare a learning exercise to help us explore your provocation.

There are lots of exercises to choose from; you might want to consult some research on “active learning” or the “flipped classroom” to help you out – the Teaching and Learning Centre at Weldon can help with this, or (of course!) you can have a chat with Kim to discuss some options. Your exercise need not be complicated, but it should be more than you simply asking everyone, “so, what did you think?”

When you come to class on Thursday, you will run your exercise, and then debrief it. Here, you can incorporate your classmates’ preliminary responses as much or as little as you feel will be productive.

You will have a total of 30 minutes for your teach. (NOTE: this is actually not a lot of time! Use it with care.)

Clear as mud? Don’t worry! Kim will model this task in our second week. If you’re still stuck, though, ask yourself this question: did a teacher ever do a really useful, cool thing in class that really stuck with you? What was that cool thing?

Second, not only did I model a variety of peer teaching exercises for the students in the second class of the term, in order to give them a concrete sense of how their own teaching sessions could work, but I continued to incorporate group-based and pairs-based learning exercises in my own teaching week to week in order to make those things normative in our seminar room.

We’d do think/pair/share work, we’d use “world cafe” or long table-style discussions, and one week we even debriefed our field trip to Detroit by creating team maps of the experience on flip chart paper, trying to draw connections between our on-the-ground experiences and the ideas conveyed by our readings about the city.

(Candid snaps of the students at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit – Sebastian, Lacey, Sharon, Emily and Robyn)

The students came along, gamely, for the ride – although they were understandably hesitant at first. I made a point of leaving my office door wide open to them as they prepared for their teaches, and after each teach I’d invite the presenters to come for a debrief, where we’d talk about what went well and what didn’t, and where they could be free to ask me all kinds of questions about active learning models.

Students consistently reported to me that they enjoyed the teaching exercise, found it unusual but productive; nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were just humouring me. After all, grad seminars are supposed to be complex, serious learning environments… and we were mostly just having a good time. My imposter syndrome gurgled away in the pit of my stomach. Could they really be taking this seriously, getting as much out of it as they were getting out of the modernist theory and poetry seminar up the hall?

When my seminar evaluations landed in my email inbox last week, that gurgle erupted once more. Here was the moment of truth: What They Really Thought about our flipped seminar, all those small group discussions and messing about with coloured markers.

To my genuine surprise and utter delight, the evaluations universally praised the experience. I was astonished; students called our class a “refreshing and dynamic break” from the traditional model, a “comfortable and open learning environment” where everyone “could express their opinions and ideas without fear of judgement.” This one below is my favourite, because it tells me I achieved everything I had wanted to do, and also more than I’d hoped:

Through her use of active learning in her teaching practice, Kim fostered a deeply collaborative class environment. It was an environment where it felt safe to fail, which made it all the more generative – we were able to take risks, offer partial thoughts, and hash them out together.

I really appreciated that she encouraged using creative practices in our assignments, especially given the course material. Being able to engage in the practices that we were locating in our readings and field trips was a really valuable research method for me – that Kim gave us the latitude to work outside the boundaries of more traditional methods really enhanced my experience in this course.

Last Friday I had lunch with one of the students from the class, Emily Hoven. I told Emily about the evaluations and my surprise at their unwavering support for the flipped seminar model; I then asked her if she could talk to me a bit about what in particular she had found productive (or even not productive) about the model.

Her reply confirmed my own suspicions and chimed with the data on the evaluations.

She noted, first, that there’s a spirit of competition in graduate seminars that is not always helpful; everyone’s trying to say the next smart thing. That can make for brilliant, lively discussions, but can also make for intimidation and fear. In our class, she pointed out, we all worked together in a more equitable way; as a result, feelings of competitive angst lessened considerably.

Next, she pointed out that, as an undergraduate, she’d had a lot of experience with flipped classrooms, and thus our classroom felt both familiar and safe. Never mind that the model was unlike other grad seminars; it was like enough to active learning that many students are now experiencing at university that it provided a sense of grounding for students who might otherwise be struggling. She noted that likely this was not true for all the students in the class, but my guess is it’s also more true for many than we might think. As active learning becomes more common at the undergraduate level, we should consider its value as continuity at the graduate level, especially for Master’s students who are undergoing a sea change in their learning experiences and expectations as they enter grad school for the first time.

Finally, Emily’s comments, along with those on the evaluations, reminded me of what I found to be the most positive peer-teach outcome of all: it required everyone to renegotiate the vocal dynamic in our seminar space. Remember above, when I noted that certain voices tend to dominate seminars because they’ve been trained to do so by extant pedagogical models? In our classroom, new models driven by different learning dynamics meant quieter voices were invited actively into the learning space; shifting the room’s architecture (figuratively, but frequently literally, too, as we moved furniture to facilitate different kinds of group work) changed the default “permissions” of our seminar space, to productive effect.

In one of my favourite peer teaches of the term, this shift became glowingly evident as the most vocal person in the room and one of the quietest worked together; the former student actively placed herself in the peer teach’s supporting role in order to make space for her peer to take centre stage.

It was remarkable evidence of the power of genuine “active learning” in the graduate classroom to help everyone feel a little less like an imposter, and a little more like an empowered knowledge-maker.

Feeling grateful,

Kim