By Signy Lynch
When I checked my inbox early this December and saw a notification for the latest Activist Classroom blog post, entitled ‘OMG CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME HOW TO GRADE PARTICIPATION???,’ it felt like a sign. As I came across this post, I was just finalizing the syllabus for the first course I would ever teach, Perspectives on Contemporary Theatre, a fourth-year seminar at York University.
I had great fun designing the syllabus, but had been hesitating over the participation section—I, like Kim, had been preoccupied with how best to grade my students on participation, and how to do so in a way that might motivate and elicit meaningful engagement from them. There were a number of factors to consider. While a seminar class, the course I was teaching was quite large, with 37 students. In order to fairly evaluate participation, I felt I needed some way to increase my engagement with them on a individual level. I also knew I wanted students to be given credit for and incentive to engage with the readings, as an important focus for class discussion.
After deliberation, and inspired by some of the resources that Kim posted, (particularly the first point in this post, on grading participation through written assignments) I settled on a participation grade made up of the following three components:
- In-class participation and attendance (the “typical” way)
- Commenting at least once per week on another student’s Instagram response post
- Written reflections on participation, conducted in class three times throughout the semester.
To emphasize the importance of engagement, particularly in a seminar course, I made participation worth 20% of students’ final grade; though I didn’t assign a strict proportion of that 20% to each section to allow myself (and the students) some flexibility.
One key theoretical influence on this formula for participation was the principle of universal design. Universal design provides students multiple ways to engage in the course, shows them multiple representations of material, and allows them multiple avenues through which to express their learning (here’s a great primer on universal design in higher education, for those unfamiliar). Incorporating universal design into course design is a more inclusive way to teach that respects students’ differences as learners, both in ability and interest.
Since the first component of my participation grade breakdown—in-class participation—is fairly traditional, I’ll spend a little more time elaborating on components two and three.
Component Two – Instagram Comments
Component two asked students to leave at least one comment per week on a classmate’s Instagram post, in connection to an existing Instagram response journal assignment. For a total of 30% of the final grade, I asked students to post weekly short (200-250 words) responses on Instagram to a passage of their selection from one of that week’s readings.
The posts were due the Friday before each Monday class, and the comments due right before class, ensuring that students had ample time to review each other’s posts and select one to which to respond.
In the past (despite teaching theatre!) I’ve heard from many students that speaking up in class is a real barrier to their participation. Thus in asking students to contribute through written comments I offered them alternate mode of communication (inclusive design!), while at the same time generating content that could be drawn on to round-out in-class discussion. Unlike the Instagram journal posts themselves, these comments were graded for completion rather than substance, to further reduce barriers to participation.
This component turned out fairly well overall. One student wrote to me in their response that posting on Instagram, “feels less formal than posts on Moodle, and I’ve noticed myself and my peers feel more comfortable responding to each other.” Through this component some great conversations happened on Instagram; however, I do wish there had been a bit more consistency in students’ comments and a slightly higher level of involvement—for some students the exercise often felt quite cursory.
Component Three – Writing Exercises
The third part of my students’ participation mark was derived from short written reflections (taking around ten minutes each) conducted at three different times during the term. I had students respond to some questions on a piece of paper, which was then placed in in an unsealed envelope. The idea was that students would review their own writing as the semester went on and base their subsequent responses on their earlier goals and thoughts.
A central goal of this component of participation was to give individual students a chance to reflect on and define what meaningful participation meant to them. In so doing, I hoped to activate students’ intrinsic motivation by asking them to find meaning in the work they were doing for the course.
Importantly, these writing exercises were framed as reflective exercises. I told students that for this component they would be evaluated primarily on their reflection on participation and not on the participation itself, encouraging honesty.
Another key part of this was that students shouldn’t be concerned about writing answers they thought would please me, but should examine their own feelings and preferences. Perspectives on Contemporary Theatre was not a required course. Despite this, I discovered from the first participation exercise I conducted that while many students were interested in the course content, some were primarily taking it because they needed a fourth-year credit that fit their schedule. I wanted to recognize and honour the fact that students were taking the course for many different reasons and may have had different priorities or assigned value differently than me. Thus through this component, I could give students points for effort, while also recognizing different types of effort and rewarding students for thinking on their own terms.
The questions I asked in each exercise are below:
Participation Exercise #1 – (near beginning of term)
- Why are you taking this course?
- What are your expectations from the course/what do you hope to get from it?
- Has this course aligned with your expectations/diverged from them so far? In what way(s)?
- What does meaningful participation in this course mean to you? (This response should consider your above answers. One example could be: ‘I don’t like to talk in class, but I want to really engage with the readings by taking detailed notes’)
- What two specific goals will you set for yourself regarding your participation in this course?
Participation Exercise #2 – (at midterm)
- How have you done with your goals so far? (Remember, I’m not evaluating you on whether you meet them but on your ability to reflect on them, so please answer honestly.)
- What factors have affected your participation?
- Review your goals. Are they specific and measurable? Are they still useful/in line with what you consider to be meaningful participation? If necessary, rewrite them and say what you’ve changed and why.
- What steps will you take going forwards to ensure you meet these goals?
Finally, as an optional part 5, you can weigh in with me and let me know how the course is going for you. This is your chance to give me feedback about your experience so far–whether it’s, ‘I wish we would watch more videos,’ or ‘I’m confused!’ etc.
Participation Exercise #3 – (end of term)
- How have you done with both general participation and your specific goals in this course?
- What factors have affected your participation?
- Are you okay with your level of participation? Why/why not?
- What would you change about your participation in this course if you could?
- If you were grading yourself on participation in this course, what grade would you give yourself and why?
In addition to the prompts for self-reflection, these exercises offered students some opportunities to provide feedback to me. Specifically questions 2 and 3 in exercise one and the optional number 5 in exercise two serve this goal. (For the final reflection I asked students to provide feedback through the course evaluations.) Collecting this feedback allowed me to address student concerns, and adjust in-class activities to student preferences, which I hope made students feel they had some some say in the course and that I valued their opinions and and experiences. At the same time my asking for feedback demonstrated to students that I was trying to be reflexive about my teaching practice in the same way I was asking them to reflect on their participation.
These written reflections also gave me some useful insight into students’ attitudes and feelings about participation in the course, so that I could then try to better it. When I heard from a number that the fear of being wrong was a major factor in their hesitance to contribute to in-class discussions, I was able to bring up this point in seminar, and talk it through with my students, and also to critically examine my own behaviour to see how it might be contributing to those feelings. I think one influencing factor was the difficulty of some of the readings, so I made sure to re-articulate that the material was meant to be challenging, that I was in no way expecting them to understand it all, and that they shouldn’t feel stupid if they were struggling with it.
Another student wrote, “I’m a little confused on how else to participate other than agreeing or disagreeing on the subjects at hand,” which served as a launching point for a productive group discussion on what forms participation could take. Some of students’ suggestions on this subject, both in class and in their journals, really impressed me. One student who admitted they avoided class discussions for fear of being wrong suggested that a way to get around this could be asking questions rather than trying to answer them. In an ideal world, they would feel comfortable with both actions, but here came up with a productive middle ground.
Finally, students’ discussion of meaningful participation not only guided their self-reflection, but also aided in my evaluation of them. Students’ observations on what meaningful participation meant to them, played a large factor in my assessment of the first participation component, their in-class participation. For example, if a student expressed difficulty with speaking up in class and didn’t include it in their definition of participation, I paid more attention to what their stated goals were, their in-class attentiveness and group work, and weighted their Instagram comments a little more heavily in determining their grade.
Overall, I found this three-part system very useful. It helped me to connect with my students and to understand them a lot better as individuals. Through the third component in particular, I learned a lot about their individual goals and the struggles they were facing, which put me in a much better position to evaluate their participation.
This experiment confirmed to me that relying solely on my own perceptions of students to grade participation is not enough, and I will continue to experiment with this model going forwards. While this iteration of it worked out fairly well for this particular course, variations or other approaches entirely might be better suited for courses with different formats.
Thanks to Kim for inviting me to reflect through this blog post. I hope this reflection is of use to some of you, and feel free to share your thoughts or own experiences with me in the comments!
Signy Lynch is a SSHRC-funded PhD Candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University. Her research interests include political performance, diversity in theatre, spectatorship, affect, and theatre criticism. Her dissertation investigates how direct audience address in contemporary performance in Canada can help audience members and performers to negotiate the complexities of twenty-first century life. She has published work in Canadian Theatre Review, alt.theatre, and CdnTimes and is a member of the board of directors of Cahoots Theatre.