New Ways of Encouraging and Assessing Participation

or, How To Do Participation Grades Better In General, And It Transfers Pretty Good To Zoom Teaching, Too!

This is a write-up of a short, semi-formal presentation I gave for the Fall 2020 UW Linguistics Department Annual TA Workshop, which is the workshop that our department does in addition to the training linguistics TAs get through the UW Center for Teaching and Learning. The slides from that workshop will also be available on my website at some point.

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?

Here’s what this blog post will not help you do:

  • covertly take attendance

“Participation” in college classes are often euphemisms for the above, but the above functions are cop shit, and I’m not going to help you do that stuff. You should consider that your students are human beings, and the minute your pedagogy reaches towards trying to control their behavior in any way, that’s a failed pedagogy. Do not at me.

Instead, I encourage you to reconceptualize participation as the interpersonal and informal parts of studying that make learning stick and feel good. If you’re teaching, hopefully your goal is to aid and allow people to learn stuff; learning does not stick if it feels bad. Furthermore, humans are social animals, and need interpersonal and informal interactions with each other in order to be alive and healthy. This is especially important during pandemic teaching, when students and instructors alike are feeling isolated, alienated, and fatigued.

What follows is some ways I’ve successfully facilitated interpersonal, informal interactions that have facilitated both learning and general well-being for students who have worked with me since we went on lockdown in March.

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.

I teach advanced syntax, which gets scheduled for two hours, twice a week; obviously as a human being with needs, I need a five-minute break in the middle of that at the best of times. The time in a classroom that I see students really cement what they’re learning is during breaks when they’re chatting around the vending machine, or walking together to their next class, or going to lunch together after class, or making study groups where they just hang out and do their homework together. In zoom, I can schedule in the breaks, but they don’t have the vending machine to gather around. Remote learning makes it harder for us to provide, or even just passively benefit from, those informal and interpersonal aspects of education. Without the opportunity to talk to me and each other, why would students pay tuition and not just sit and silently read the textbook at home? The social stuff is the biggest part of college.

What this means is that it’s not just a fun extra enrichment that you as an instructor can try to do for your class — making some way for students to get informal interpersonal interaction is a completely necessary aspect of trying to replicate the college experience.

Of course, if your class doesn’t take place in a classroom, you don’t also have the space around and outside the classroom for students to get that part. Replicating the feeling of gathering around a hallway vending machine is quite tricky to do digitally, but the core components are replicable. You need two main components: peer-peer spaces (for casual contact and for collaboration), and time or space when the instructor is available for informal friendly chatting, too.

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

Whether or not you use SLACK or other chat-servers to do it, it’s a good idea to make some space for students to chat. LMS discussion boards only kind of work for this — you might make threads that mimic the channels I suggest above (including a ‘random’ thread for non-class-related stuff). This may have the slight draw-back of feeling more formal, which means students are more likely to self-censor if they feel surveilled. (You do obviously still have to very lightly moderate to make sure no one is doing any cyberbullying or whatever.)

The other important aspect of peer-peer interaction is informal collaboration. I do not recommend assigning graded group projects during pandemic teaching. The idea gives me anxiety just thinking about it! Instead, what I do is that my regular homework assignments are structured in such a way where they’re equally challenging for students working alone or in a group. If students work in a group, I ask them to tell me (on the homework) who they worked with, so that they are used to giving appropriate credit in scholarly collaboration. They’re never required to stick with the same group, or work together at all — but because they have the option, many of my students have tried working solo and working in groups, and have mentioned that working together for even part of the homework increases their understanding a considerable amount.

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.

In the interest of making myself “somewhat available for the length of time it takes to walk across campus a few times a week,” here are some things I’ve tried:

  • 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

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)

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.

Giving points for posting on discussion boards is very common, so I won’t go into it in detail. For my own purposes: I set up a thread for each week’s reading. They get a point if they post something relevant — a question, answering a peer’s question, bringing in outside expertise, or anything else. They can get one point per week, they can go back and post later if they missed an earlier week, they can’t get extra credit for posting a lot. This works well with up to about 40ish students, in my experience. Grading these is a busywork task for me (or TAs when TAs are working with me), and takes about half an hour per week. If I get behind, it’s very difficult for me to catch up, so do be aware of that. Our institution uses Canvas, which means that the Speedgrader tool makes grading these pretty quick.

The other way I give credit for participation is through the self-assessment. I’m going to show you the language on my syllabus:

Participation (10% of course grade)

This portion of the grade is a way for me to give you credit for informal/unstructured collaborative work that you do. Participation and collaboration are strong predictors of success and learning retention, so please make an effort to find a way that works well for you to participate and engage with your colleagues. There are many ways you can do so.

Ways to participate:

·Post questions on the Canvas discussion board

·Share links or resources on the Canvas discussion board

·Answer your peers’ questions on the Canvas discussion board

·Come to Zoom office hours (group or individual)

·Form a study group with your peers

·Email questions to the instructor or TAs

·Ask questions during lecture or discussion section

·Volunteer answers to peer questions during lecture or discussion section

For the graded component of your participation, I will ask you to self-assess your level of participation. This part of the grade is intended to help you identify what strategies help you learn, and plan ways you can grow and improve in the future.

The list I give above is not an exhaustive list of things I’ve given participation credit for. Every quarter I also tell students about how, for some classes last year, I also had a group of students who made a Snapchat group to share syntax memes and plan study sessions. I do not know why they chose to use snapchat, but frankly that’s not my business! That group of students reported that the snapchat group was helpful to their learning and was instrumental in connecting them with their colleagues, and frankly it was very obvious by the high quality of work they turned in that it made a big difference. So each time I explain the syllabus language above, I also tell students that they’re welcome and encouraged to find other ways that work for them.

The point of the language on the syllabus is that I want to give students credit for stuff they’d already do anyways. Not to incentivize or manipulate them into doing certain stuff, but to reward them for trying something and seeing if it works!

The self-assessment that I give for determining points is also an important part of this. Here are the questions I ask:

This is a way of checking (and grading) participation. I will ask you to self-assess how much you participated in the class, and this will contribute to your participation grade (which will be scored out of 5).

(Please note that this survey is worth one point. If you fill it out you get the point, if you don’t fill it out or skip questions you don’t. It is in the participation category.)

1. How do you rate your participation in class discussions, group discussions, office hours, online discussions, or any other related form of activity in this class? (Excellent / Good / Okay / Needs improvement)

2. What were some of the ways that you participated in the class? Please use this space to tell me ways that you shared and contributed actively to the learning environment through groupwork, discussion, online discussion, or any other methods.

3. What were the forms of participation that were the most challenging for you? Did you try them out? If so, what didn’t work for you? Please use this space to tell me ways that you did not feel able to participate or contribute actively.

4. Of the types of participation that you shared above, which were most helpful to your learning? How did these ways of learning help you understand or remember material?

I have used this exact quiz, unchanged, for almost two years now. I have observed that students (at all levels, introductory to advanced) tend to underestimate their “rating” in the first question, so I largely disregard it except as a chance to observe how they view their goals. Instead, questions 2–4 tell me what I need to know: what did you try, how did it work, what didn’t work, and what are you planning on doing again in the future? If they tried stuff, and it worked for them, they get points! If they tried stuff, and it didn’t work, so they tried something else, they get points! That’s basically it.

Some common types of answers I get on this quiz (all paraphrased and anonymous):

  • I raised my hand a lot in class, so I would like some points, please. (Yep, they get points.)

The students’ answers to this quiz don’t completely decide their participation grades, just inform my thinking. This ends up being about 2 hours of work at the end of the quarter, where I go through their answers and grade in side-by-side windows. When I taught a 300-student class last quarter, the TAs who knew their students pretty well did this part, and they reported similar findings.


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

When grading participation, this is my approach:

  • students will have ideas of ways to participate that I never thought of

If you like my thoughts on academia, teaching, and writing, check out my other posts:

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