Grading Participation

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.

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Image: Some people raising their hands. Participation?

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:

  1. In-class participation and attendance (the “typical” way)
  2. Commenting at least once per week on another student’s Instagram response post
  3. 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.

art artistic bright color

Image: a variety of coloured pencils. Universal design design appeals to a variety of learners. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

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Screenshot of a post from the course Instagram account, describing the journal assignment

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.

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Image: a stack of envelopes as used in this exercise. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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)

  1. Why are you taking this course?
  2. What are your expectations from the course/what do you hope to get from it?
  3. Has this course aligned with your expectations/diverged from them so far? In what way(s)?
  4. 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’)
  5. What two specific goals will you set for yourself regarding your participation in this course?

Participation Exercise #2 – (at midterm)

  1. 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.)
  2. What factors have affected your participation?
  3. 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.
  4. 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)

  1. How have you done with both general participation and your specific goals in this course?
  2. What factors have affected your participation?
  3. Are you okay with your level of participation? Why/why not?
  4. What would you change about your participation in this course if you could?
  5. 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.

person uses pen on book

Image: Hand holding a pen and writing in a journal. Creating opportunities for students to engage in reflection was important to me. Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

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.

Final Thoughts

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!

thank you text on black and brown board

Image: a chalkboard reading ‘thank you’. Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

signy-lynch-profile

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.

 

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Decolonizing the classroom, end of term edition (Pt 2)

In my last post, I wrote about my History of Performance Theory gang, the amazing term we had together, and the incredible achievement they walked away with: a bunch of As. I talked in particular about how low-stakes, grade-free tasks, and fulsome engagement and participation, were key to their success – not just in “earning” A-level grades, but in demonstrating A-level learning and growth.

A big part of their capacity to learn and grow in this way can be attributed to the amazing classroom space we moved into at mid-term – something I first wrote about here.

I clocked immediately, upon seeing that new classroom space in February and getting incredibly excited about its potential, that in it we would be able to work in fresh ways as a team, and use technology much more to our benefit than we had in our old, quite unloved, traditional quasi-seminar/quasi-lecture space.

Our old room, our new room. A huge difference.

What I had not realized right away was that this new space would also allow the students to get to know one another better, trust one another more, and collaborate more effectively together. This new, active-learning-oriented space was not just able to decenter me as the ‘expert’ in the room, and to re-orient our learning around student engagement and response; it actually had the capacity to shape classroom community in new ways, and in ways that opened students’ eyes to the power of each other’s knowledge and ability in ways traditional classroom environments simply do not do.

How did I learn this thing about my students, this thing that should perhaps be obvious?

I asked them.

Participation in this class was keyed not just to in-class or online engagement; it was also dependent upon students stepping up to really think critically about their own strengths and weaknesses as learners in our class, in two short participation-reflection papers (one at mid-term and one at the end of the year). When I realized late in the term that the students were genuinely exhausted (so far so normal), and thus probably would not give their final participation reflections enough time and effort to properly reflect on their participation in our class, I had a radical idea. I scrapped my plan to review and sum up our course readings in our last session together, and decided, instead, that we’d spend that session working together to reflect on our participation.

To shape that final lesson, I created four prompts for students to write around. These were:

  1. Think about your participation in class since reading week. What went really well? What went as well, or perhaps even better, than in the first half of the term?
  2. Now, think about what didn’t go so well. Where did you want to improve, but it didn’t quite work out as planned? What slipped, though it was going well before?
  3. Now, think about your experience as a learner. What’s your most significant take-away from our class? What piece of knowledge, or what experience, do you think will stay with you?
  4. One last question – for Kim’s benefit! Did our new WALS space affect how you engaged in our class? If so, how exactly? If not, what is still missing?

I gave students five minutes per prompt to write about the first two prompts, then two minutes for the third – plus a chunk of time to pair and share with the other students at their pods/tables – and finally five minutes for the last.

In response to the last prompt, in particular, the students told me things about their experience in their learning ‘pods’ that I could not have understood from outside those micro-environments.

They commented on how the pods’ orientation (everyone around a shared table – no choice but to sit with and look at others!) generated an atmosphere that was not just group-work oriented, but ‘relaxed’ – it helped lower the stakes, so learning could feel more comfortable, and it created an environment where there was no expectation that they would simply hear and write down knowledge spoken from a front-central area. One student noted – contrary to my expectations! – that because students were always sat at the same pods, they not only became closer with one another, but could also extend their discussions over time, picking up on earlier comments or ideas and moving them forward, even when I did not explicitly invite them to do this.

Students also wrote about how a room in which they were expected to sit together, facing each other – and were not forced, as we had been in our old room, to try to engineer seminar tables out of furniture that we typically (despite the hopeful photo above) found to be forward-facing – made the group learning components of our class feel more ‘organic’ and even ‘easy’. Note-taking gave way to complex group discussion; learning toggled between the shared white boards, where students visualized one another’s ideas, and the chat around their tables, making a learning impression deeper than notes alone might be able to create.

They talked, too, about the pleasures of the tech – the electronic white boards at each pod were a huge hit (making question-exploration and note-taking so much more fun), and the projectors and internet connectivity at each were celebrated for the roles they played in the students’ incredible final presentations, in particular. A couple of students suggested that, in my next class in the space, we spend a lesson or two early in the term just orienting ourselves, simply playing around with the technology, in order to discover its capabilities and what they might do for us as we work through the term. I love this idea!

One student, Katie Flannery, really captured the spirit of the group’s replies to prompt #4; I’ve asked for her permission to reproduce her comments here:

The WALS (Wide or Wonderful Amiable Learning Space):

My very random decoding of this acronym sums up how I feel about this room. I loved the space it gave us. We no longer had to take 15 minutes to move around furniture. The room was ready for us to engage with it right when we got there which is wonderful. “Amiable” because I felt comfortable right away. The placement of the tables and where you (Dr.Solga) are able to stand and teach/interact is ideal. It allowed an easy-flowing discussion as you can see every face in the class. “Learning” because I do believe the interactive technology advanced my learning. I liked how we could engage with the whiteboards separately in our own groups while simultaneously displaying it for the entire class. It made the transition from little groups to the whole group seamless. Another class I have had in one of these rooms also got us to do lots of movement activities. We would kind of rotate through whiteboards. A group would write one response down and have to then contribute next time to the following groups white board. This kind of activity allowed groups to really rely on each other. These rooms allow all the movement!

Katie celebrates another terrific white-board achievement.

So this is my take-away from the students’ take-aways from our wonderful, amiable learning space: the room gives students permission to recognize, respect, and learn from each other in ways that are not hierarchical and that authorize multiple voices and perspectives at once as critical questions come under our scrutiny.

When students sit in rows facing forward, or even in a traditional seminar-table setting, there’s always a ‘main’ voice – usually the teacher’s – and there are usually, too, the usual suspects: the clever kids who always seem to have the ‘right’ answer. In those spatial circumstances, it’s so easy for ‘regular’ students to distrust their own voices, or resent those of their louder peers. But when a learning space is comprised of multiple tables, and the prof is forced to become a roving participant and regular listener, the opposite obtains. Students learn more, full stop, get more interested, and do better.

A number of students, in response to my third prompt, commented on the meta-pedagogical qualities of our class; they talked about ‘learning how to learn,’ discovering what was possible in a classroom, and making connections between the work we were reading and the world around them in ways they had not ever done before. I’m convinced that, because the WALS space radically re-orients their (and my!) usual expectations of what a classroom should look like, it also encourages them to think about their physical and emotional classroom experience much more, and much more critically, than normal. This can only be a good thing.

Stay tuned for more WALS adventures as I have them!

Kim

 

 

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