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

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

“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.

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.

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

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.

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
  • 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

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.

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.)
  • 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.)

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.

tl;dr

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

When grading participation, this is my approach:

  • 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.

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

This work is supported by my ko-fi tips. You can also follow me on twitter

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.