Building the skill of class participation

11 February 2020
Students in a classroom

Class participation fosters student learning and is an important element of many courses. Therefore, faculty often include class participation as one element that contributes to the grade a student receives for a course. However, assessing participation can be tricky. Counting how frequently a student contributes to discussion favors those students who are more comfortable speaking and it does not account for the quality of the contribution nor does it recognize those who are learning through listening. On the hand, counting how many times someone is physically present for class does not give any indication of the quality of engagement during class.

Previously, this blog has highlighted the communicative competence checklist as a method for encouraging thoughtful participation by students and assessing student development of their skills. A 2019 article, “Reconceptualizing Participation Grading as Skill Building”, by Alanna Gillis of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill highlights an approach to grading participation that has many elements that are similar to the communicative competence checklist:

Participation as a skill to be built

As Gillis notes in her article, “Socialization and structural opportunities provide differential access to the skills needed to engage in classroom participation.” Growing up, students are socialized to have different orientations towards school and interacting with teachers. High school cultures vary, and not all schools encourage students to provide their own perspectives in the classroom or challenge authority, and those who do not have these experiences in high school are less prepared to participate in the college classroom.

Students need to see participation as a skill that they can practice and strengthen. Just as the communicative competence framework asks students to identify what aspects of communication they want to strengthen, Gillis also invites students to identify three concrete, measurable, feasible areas for improvement with regards to participation. In both frameworks, students are asked to periodically check-in on their progress towards improving aspects of their participation, and at the end of the term, students provide a self-report on how they did with regards to meeting their goals.

Participation has multiple dimensions

Because some students don’t have a nuanced view of what participation entails, it is important for instructors to be transparent about what “counts” when it comes to class participation. Gillis breaks participation into five dimensions that are important for her class:

  • Attendance and timeliness
  • Preparation for class meetings
  • Participation in small group discussions
  • Participation in full class discussions, and
  • Participation in other ways.

For each dimension, she articulates multiple aspects of participation within that category. For example, the last catch-all category include activities like attending office hours, using the writing center, peer editing papers, or talking about course content with students outside of class. Students then choose what their three goals are with regards to participation and articulate how they plan to achieve those goals.

Participation is not a personality trait

Several studies have found that students think their ability to participate depends on their personality. The pre- and post-reflections by students in Gillis’ courses indicate the framework she uses for assessing participation helps students move from seeing their participation patterns as an inherent part of their personality (e.g. “I’m shy so I don’t participate) to understanding that participation is based on a set of skills that they can develop.

References & resources:

For more details about the implementation of this approach to grading participation, see the original article:

  • Gillis, A. (2019). Reconceptualizing Participation Grading as Skill Building. Teaching Sociology47(1), 10-21.

For a summary of the literature on student participation, see the article:

  • Rocca, K. A. (2010). Student participation in the college classroom: An extended multidisciplinary literature review. Communication education59(2), 185-213.