When we think of student participation, we typically think of activities such as students asking and answering questions during class or participating in group work. But there are a variety of reasons this may not be suitable, whether for reasons related to the course material or student characteristics. For example, first-generation students (first in their family attending college) and international students may not inherently know the expectations in a university course. Therefore, it is essential to think of participation as several different types of engagement and communication—specifically, student to student, student to content, student to professor, and student to self.
Students need to see participation as a skill that they can practice and strengthen to value it. The Gillis (2019) framework does just that. The instructor indicates that the methods used for assessing participation help students move from seeing their participation patterns as an inherent part of their nature to understand that participation is a set of skills to develop.
Before the course
Be transparent with participation expectations
Because some students don’t know what participation entails, it is essential to be transparent about why participation is useful and what “counts” as participation (Gillis, 2019). The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) Higher Education Project website can provide a structure when developing a course using these three components: purpose, tasks, and success criteria.
- Purpose: Emphasize that participation promotes learning and relates directly to your overall course objective (e.g., To recognize and articulate the benefits of building participation skills (e.g., preparation, communication, contribution, etc.).
- Tasks: If students are graded or evaluated on their participation in the course, outline these explicit expectations in your syllabus. Clarify how you will assess participation and provide feedback on their progress throughout the semester/session.
- Success: Share specific examples of how students can successfully meet participation expectations.
Decide what counts as participation
In one example, Gillis (2019) characterizes participation in these five dimensions important to the course:
- Attendance and timeliness
- Preparation for class meetings (or synchronous sessions)
- Participation in small group work
- Participation in full-class discussions, and
- Participation in other ways (e.g., attending student (office) hours, using the writing and media center or the academic success center, peer editing papers, or talking about course content with students outside of class).
For each dimension, the instructor articulates multiple aspects of participation within that category for each course modality (face-to-face, hybrid, online – synchronous and asynchronous). A few examples:
- Face-to-face or synchronous class categories may include evidence of preparation, active and inclusive engagement, the initiative in asking questions, application of readings in responses, and synthesizing or prompting classmates’ comments (Lathrop, 2006). (For ideas, review the Synchronous Strategies page).
- In online discussions, the most common rubric criteria are cognitive (e.g., use of critical thinking and problem-solving capacities), mechanical (e.g., clarity of language and use of citations), procedural (e.g., timeliness of posts), and interactive (e.g., synthesizing or prompting classmates’ posts) (Penny & Murphy, 2009). (For ideas, review the discussions page).
Example syllabus language: Expectations for Course Participation
I view participation as a multidirectional flow of collaboration: student-student, student-professor, student-content, and student-self. I will be looking for evidence of participation in each of these facets of your work. What this means is that there are many opportunities for you to engage in the course. Engaging with our course means that you will learn more (as the adage goes, what you put into something is what you get out of it), but your chances of success increase dramatically. I want each of you to succeed; below are some ways to accomplish that. Some examples of participation include (but are not limited to):
Student to Student:
- You collaborate with your peers, meaning that you fulfill your duties and exceed your partner’s expectations.
- You work together during in-class collaborative activities. You actively contribute new ideas or refine what you originally proposed.
- You attend class.
- You use your device (if you are using one) responsibly and do not use it to complete other non-course-related tasks (i.e., sending emails, using social media, etc.).
Student to Content:
- You complete all of the readings for the week before coming to class.
- You say something in our in-class discussions.
- You introduce a new idea into our class discussions.
Student to Professor:
- You meet with me during student (office) hours.
- You send me an email asking a clarifying question about the course or ask for my feedback about an idea.
- You send me an article that you found that directly relates to what we discuss in class.
Student to Self:
- You reflect deeply in your journal entries by responding to the provided prompts.
- You make connections between this course and your other courses, internship, career, etc.
At the beginning of the course
Involve students in a scaffolded assignment approach
As an assignment, students identify three concrete, measurable, feasible areas for improvement regarding participation and describe how they plan to achieve those goals. Students periodically check-in on their progress towards improving aspects of their participation. Written student reflections on how ideas or skills have developed due to participation, weekly instructor notes on a rubric, or a scoring tool that outlines and assesses your expectations. Then, midway and at the end of the term, students self-assess their progress to each goal, adding justification, which serves as the participation grade.
Connect peers in building participation skills
Peers can play an influential role in providing students with feedback. Assign participation partners to trade their individual goals. For two weeks, they observe each other, again, in a very constructive and descriptive way, keeping track of what each other did in the class for participation. Then, students would include peer feedback in their self-assessment.
Seek input from students when generating participation criteria
If you are teaching a participation-based class, co-generated expectations to help establish the type of participation you wish to foster in your course and reminding students of this as the term progresses. To do this:
- Before the course begins, have each student write a concern about participation using an anonymous survey.
- Develop expectations that address these concerns and include the ISU Principles of Community as a foundation for your work together.
- Then, have students determine how they will best encourage these expectations in one another while promoting a conducive learning environment. The discussion may occur in both synchronous breakout rooms (Zoom or Webex Meeting) and asynchronously in Canvas’s online discussion boards to engage all of your students.
- Revisit these expectations throughout the course to build a more conducive learning environment.
Use a simple rubric for self-assessment
Another efficient approach is to use a rubric for self-assessment, 1=did not read and participate in the discussion, 2=did not read and contribute once, 3=read and contributed once, 4=read and contributed more than once, and 5=read and contributed more than once and made sure that every member of my group participated in the discussion.
During the course
Emphasize your approachability
Students who feel comfortable with their instructors are more likely to participate in the classroom and approach you when experiencing difficulties participating in the course. To emphasize your approachability, maintain an active daily presence in the course, solicit formative feedback, give interactive feedback, encourage students to use student/office hours, and more. For strategies, see the Instructor section of the Engaging with Students Online page.
Address reasons for non-participation
To build a participatory environment, help students overcome barriers with the following strategies:
- Be prepared: Strategies such as quick online or in-class surveys or reading journals to prompt accountability and test comprehension and ask students to send a reading question in advance.
- Provide time to formulate ideas: Strategies such as wait time (i.e., allowing a few seconds for students to develop an answer) or a minute paper (i.e., allowing a few minutes for students to write down a response) can be helpful. Approaches such as discussing ideas with a classmate or in a small group can also help students test out ideas in a lower-stakes setting before verbalizing them in front of a larger group. For examples, see the engaging students during synchronous sessions section of the Synchronous Strategies page.
- Reach out for help: It is important to note that a student who suddenly stops participating, becomes withdrawn during the semester or exhibits a significant behavioral change might be experiencing a form of distress. The Dean of Students Office is here to help! You can call to speak to a Student Assistance staff member at 515-294-1020, send an email to email@example.com, or you can refer a student via our “refer a student” link at the top of the Office of Student Assistance page.
Explore the instructional strategies and tools
Strategies for students to complete or participate in course work at different times.
Gillis, A. (2019). Reconceptualizing participation grading as skill building. Teaching Sociology, 47(1), 10-21.
Howard, J. R. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom: Getting your students engaged and participating in person and online. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lathrop, A.H. (2006, March). Teaching how to question: Participation rubrics. Teaching Professor, 5.
Rocca, K. A. (2010). Student participation in the college classroom: An extended multidisciplinary literature review. Communication education, 59(2), 185-213. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634520903505936
Hard, B. M., & RaoShah, T. (2021). Developing Collaborative Thinkers: Rethinking how we Define, Teach, and Assess Class Participation. Teaching of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320986953
Developing participation as a skill, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Developing participation as a skill is a derivative of Fostering and assessing equitable classroom participation developed by The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University (retrieved on Nov. 18, 2020) from https://www.brown.edu/sheridan/teaching-learning-resources/teaching-resources/course-design/creating-syllabus/equitable-classroom-participation, the Building the skill of class participation developed by Carleton College’s Learning and Teaching Center (retrieved on Nov. 19, 2020) from https://www.carleton.edu/ltc/ltc-blog/news/building-the-skill-of-class-participation/, and the Rethinking student participation developed by the American University’s Center for Teaching Research and Learning (retrieved on May 12, 2021) from https://edspace.american.edu/ctrl/portfolio-item/rethinking-student-participation/