Student Participation

We want students to come to class, and we want the classroom to be a lively place where students take an active role in learning. To encourage this activity, many instructors list “participation” as worth some substantial percentage of the students’ final grade. These guidelines are meant to aid you in creating a coherent and effective participation policy.

Should I be Grading Participation?

The first question you need to ask yourself is if you need to be grading participation at all. Although nearly every kind of course benefits from active student participation, to grade it effectively means committing yourself to regularly assessing every student using some set of objective criteria that you have communicated to them. If you don’t have clear criteria and you don’t assess regularly, you will probably find yourself relying on gut instinct when assigning participation grades. We can do better than that, but it requires forethought and planning.

What is Participation All About, Anyway?

As with any assessment, grading participation should be done as a way of measuring student success in achieving the learning goals of your class. We all want our classes to be vibrant hotbeds of student curiosity and engagement, but unless that is one of our stated learning goals, we may miss the point when assessing students solely based on whether they speak up regularly or join in small group activities.


Another common use of student participation is a way to gauge who has done the preparatory work for any given class session. There are other ways of achieving this goal, such as a quiz or short writing assignment that is due before class begins. Alternatively, you could distribute some sort of worksheet at the start of class that students could complete and hand in via Canvas Assignments. In larger classes, you could give points for simple completion, if time spent grading is a concern (and when isn’t it?).


There’s a third way of conceptualizing participation. Consider looking at participation as a function of social relations between the students. That is to say, one way of viewing participation is that participation is when students are helping each other learn. It’s not about judging how garrulous or prepared our students are, it’s about making sure they are helping each other on the long, hard journey of learning.

Building Criteria

If you have decided that you want to regularly assess participation, we recommend that you create a rubric, much as you might with a variety of other forms of assessment. A rubric requires you to clarify your own thinking about an assessment; forcing ourselves to write down what is important to us makes our grading more lucid. Furthermore, a rubric also serves as a useful communication device, as it makes our priorities clear to our students.


An important thing to keep in mind is that not all participation looks the same. A student who reads the first and last paragraph but talks a big game can appear to be participating more than a quiet student who does all the work but in class focuses on taking good notes for the test. Who is actually participating more? It is important that when deciding the criteria for participation that you consider four factors: the observable behaviors you want to encourage, the observable behaviors you want to discourage, the unobservable behaviors you might unintentionally encourage, and the unobservable behaviors you might unintentionally discourage.

What If a Student Misses Class?

Traditionally, a student who doesn’t make it to class (for any reason) loses their opportunity to participate in class. This is particularly unfortunate in classes where absences are already penalized, as the result is a double penalty. Additionally, we need to be aware of the fact that sometimes students have no control over their ability to attend class. This has become more apparent in the era of COVID-19, as students find themselves in quarantine or without a stable internet connection.


Putting together the two above concepts, participation is when students are helping each other learn and not all participation looks the same, points us toward a solution. A comprehensive participation plan gives students more than one way to help others in the class and not all of the options have to be during a live class session. Your main task would be to identify self-directed tasks that students could do in an asynchronous learning environment which could contribute to the learning of others in the class.


For example, perhaps you could keep a bank of extra articles on the course’s Canvas site. Students who miss class could earn participation points by reading the article and writing a summary that ties the piece to the broader themes of the course. Or students could earn participation points by recording an audio or video response using the record/upload media feature in a Canvas discussion. Or perhaps they could find some connection between the current unit and the larger world, by finding an example of a key concept in a relevant news item or youtube video.


Whatever options you give for alternative participation, make sure to clearly communicate these options to the students and regularly remind them of their existence.

Making Time for Assessment

Once you have a rubric or some other clear guidelines for in-class participation, you need to make time for regular assessments. Ideally, you would record observable student behavior as it happens or shortly after class. That means planning ahead and setting aside the time necessary on whatever schedule you deem appropriate. Will you be assessing participation every day? Weekly? Every couple of weeks? Whatever schedule you choose, don’t wait until the midterm or (worse yet) the final grade to assess participation. If participation is valued in your class, students not only need the criteria, they need regular feedback on how well they are meeting those expectations.

Establish an Environment that Invites Participation

Finally, consider whether or not you are actively inviting participation in your class. In order to be brought into the circle of learning, students need to feel like they are welcome in the space, that they and their contributions are respected, and that if they attempt to participate and stumble, they will be supported and not humiliated. We need to treat the people in our classes as humans first and students second.


If you’d like to discuss class participation or any other pedagogy topic, you can make an appointment for a one-on-one consultation with a CAT staff member by visiting our virtual front desk.

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