New Ways of Encouraging and Assessing Participation

scribbly illustration of a zoom-like user interface; cameras in tile mode include a purple-haired person and a cat

What is “participation” exactly?

When we talk about assessing and encouraging “participation” in any college class, but especially in online classes during pandemic teaching, what are we talking about?

  • covertly take attendance
  • check if people are mentally “checked in” during class
  • test if people are going “above and beyond” in class work

Challenge & Necessity of doing participation remotely

If you have been doing any kind of check-ins with your students, informally in chats or formally through surveys or any other kind, you’ve probably had the same experience that I have: students are reporting very high stress levels, very poor mental health, and have been very vocal about how difficult this makes their attempts to study or learn. In order to generally make life less shitty for our students and ourselves, I want to highlight what it is that we’re missing when we’re doing zoom teaching.

Peer-peer spaces and peer collaboration

There are two important types of peer-peer contact: the kind where they’re just chilling together and shooting the shit (necessary), and the kind where they’re working together on some loosely class-related stuff. I have had good success with a class SLACK, and have heard other instructors who’ve used Discord and such. Important properties if you’re going to use a class SLACK/discord:

  • The priority should be them talking to each other; I think of myself more as a mod than a participant
  • It should not replicate exactly what’s on the course management software (like Canvas)
  • It should not be a required / graded part of the course. If they want to ‘claim’ it for participation credit, they can, but if they don’t use the SLACK, they should not be penalized
  • Relatedly, don’t use (only) SLACK for important announcements — this is a pain if some students actually believed you when you said it’s optional, because they feel out of the loop!
  • I like to make channels for “Introductions,” “Study-buddy organizing,” “paste your answers here from in-class ungraded activities,” and so forth. The introductions channel is the most helpful to me, and the study-buddy organizing channel seems to be the most helpful for them
  • “Random” channel for pet pictures and memes is actually completely necessary, you must include this. Also good idea to post pet pictures or memes in it to break the ice if you can. This is the “vending machine in the hallway outside the classroom,” and also means if someone gets off-topic in another channel you can ask them to go to Random rather than kick them out of the space

Informal time with instructors

One of the other important informal/interpersonal aspects of college is the time-honored tradition of “got so excited that I just sort of followed the professor back to their office after class.” I did this to many very patient faculty in undergrad, and I was delighted when students started doing this to me in my teaching. That walk across campus is an important time for strengthening your connection, talking more deeply about related topics, and getting to know more of your students’ interests. It’s also, like, pretty hard to do that in zoom.

  • I like to remind students that it’s a totally valid use of my (zoom) office hours to just come and do their homework while I cheer them on or answer questions if they get stuck. Whenever they do take me up on this, it is really delightful
  • hanging out in the SLACK sometimes, like when I’m between classes, and sometimes posting fun or funny things on there or in Canvas. Syntax memes or cat pictures or whatever
  • Scheduling in BREAKS during any zoom session longer than 45 minutes. During break, I like to chat or show off pets and stuff
  • having clear and healthy boundaries about when it’s okay to contact me (and when I’m not available) actually increased my student emails and office hour attendance, because it takes the guesswork out and students worry less about bothering me

Stuff to do during Zoom sessions

I have a few little hacks of things I do during Zoom classes to make them interactive — here’s a very short list. If you have suggestions, I can add them here!

  • I like to ask one or two students to be in charge of the zoom whiteboard while others make suggestions; this works very well for syntax or other board-heavy classes (would probably work great for math)
  • I have students do very short (5m) reading presentations where they sum up the reading or vocab for the week
  • For a larger class (300 students) I did weekly AMA (“Ask me anything”) question sessions as a break from lecturing
  • Someone on twitter (I forget who? will link if I can find out) suggested asking students to upload profile pictures to Zoom, so that if their cameras are off it’s not a wall of black boxes and can still feel slightly more interactive. I’m trying this now, and it weirdly helps a lot
  • One of my TAs assigns a “chat captain” to read chat questions/comments out loud, which solves one of the zoom difficulties (where did all my windows go?) and feels slightly more interactive even when some students can’t do mics or cameras

How to grade all this?

I have graded participation two ways: first, I give points for posting on the course discussion boards; and second, I ask students to self-report their level of participation.

  • I raised my hand a lot in class, so I would like some points, please. (Yep, they get points.)
  • I was really shy so I only participated on the discussion threads. When I did that, it was helpful, but I hope I can be less shy next quarter. (Yep, points for them!)
  • I fell behind and was really struggling, but then I made a friend who was also behind. We did the late homeworks together and now we’re best friends and I feel so much better. (YES! Points for this, I love this!)
  • I was kind of coasting because the first part of class was too easy, but then when it got hard enough that I actually needed to join a study group, everything got way more fun and I’m glad I did. (Hell yes!)
  • I hate Canvas and Slack and I made two friends and we worked on the homeworks together via HAM radio and now we are all applying for grad school in syntax. (Yes? What? Points for you, amazing, love this)
  • I am in a time zone where class “happens” at 4AM my time, so I have to watch the lectures the next day. I found it really hard to connect with my peers, but when I found some classmates were in closer time zones, we made a weekly time to watch lectures together and that helped a lot. (POINTS, yes, amazing).
  • I basically did not do or try anything and I’m aware of that. I don’t feel good about it, so here’s what I plan on trying next quarter. (I give partial points for this depending on whether I think they did or tried anything, but the self-reflection is also worth at least 1 point.)


Reconceptualize participation as the interpersonal and informal parts of studying that make learning stick and feel good.

In order for anyone to learn anything, you have to make pandemic online class interactive. You need:

  • ways for students to socialize with their peers
  • ways for students to collaborate informally with their peers
  • ways for students to informally chat with instructors
  • students will have ideas of ways to participate that I never thought of
  • students can self-report what they did and how effective it was
  • my aim is to give credit for whatever they thought of, not to try and get them to do certain stuff.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kirby Conrod

Kirby Conrod


Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.