Encouraging and Evaluating Student Participation


The materials on this page were developed and written by Dr. Nicky Didicher, Department of English, Simon Fraser University.

On this page:

Encouraging Participation in General
Different Kinds of Participation
Encouraging Participation in the Large Lecture Hall
Encouraging Participation in Seminar or Tutorial
What to do about the Keenest Contributors
Tips to Give TAs on Marking Participation
Evaluating Participation and Sample Rubrics

Encouraging Participation in General

  • Make clear at the beginning of term what kinds of behaviours and contributions you expect from them, both orally and in writing (in an outline or syllabus). If you'll be using a rubric, make it available/visible.
  • Have a discussion with the class about discussion: what it consists of, what its academic/learning purposes are. You may want to share Bloom's taxonomy with them, so they get the idea that they'll learn more when they're doing rather than merely watching and listening.
  • It's important to learn as many names as quickly as you can: at the beginning of term try having students say their names before speaking; in smaller classes go around the room and repeat their names aloud at the beginning and/or after the break.
  • Not everyone thinks at lightning speed or has enough confidence to offer their first reactions: giving a bit of time between question and response lets more people get involved (e.g. ask a question and give them one minute to think and jot down ideas).
  • You need to make their participation valuable, not just in terms of marks but in terms of their learning, and you need to make it clear that you value their ideas.
  • It's tempting to focus your eyes and attention on the regular participators--remind yourself to make positive eye contact with those who are less eager, make them feel you know they're there and you value them.
  • Don't force all discussion to go through you--encourage them to respond directly to each other: "what do others think?" "how would you respond to x's point?"
  • Use a variety of classroom activities, allowing for different kinds of participation for different student learning styles. With your more unusual activities, build in some time afterwards for follow-up--"what did we learn from this?" "why do you think I chose this activity for this topic?"

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Different Kinds of Participation

Students' participatory activities can include

  • talking during full-class discussion, including both questions and answers
  • positive listening skills: paying attention, looking interested, positive body language
  • responding to other students during discussion
  • bringing prepared discussion questions to class
  • talking during group work, and other active behaviour such as collecting data, writing, acting
  • recording group notes during class, transcribing them after class and posting them
  • managing group work, e.g. being a time-keeper, keeping people on task, organizing results
  • making notes on the blackboard during lecture or discussion; transcribing such notes for posting
  • giving feedback to fellow students on their drafts/other work, either in class or on-line
  • giving feedback to you on how their group work went or is going, in a quick-write or simple rubric
  • posting to a discussion board, list-serve, blog, or class wiki, either beginning or adding to discussion
  • collaboration on group homework or other out-of-class activities (you can let them give groupmates participation marks, so long as they justify them)
  • sharing research sources/results with fellow students.

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Encouraging Participation in the Large Lecture Hall

  • Build in regular discussion, both full-class and in small groups, so students expect it and are prepared to participate.
  • Learn as many names as you can, even in a large lecture hall.
  • Give them some discussion questions for the next class/week: quiet students will often feel more comfortable talking when they have something prepared.
  • Start with a low-stakes writing exercise, to get them thinking about a topic/issue.
  • Ask open-ended questions rather than right-or-wrong ones; questions should be not too obvious/simple-seeming and not too involved/complex.
  • Sometimes have students generate a list of possible discussion topics, which you record on overhead or blackboard, then pick out two or three to focus on.
  • Give them time to think/prepare: e.g. tell them what question you're going to ask in two minutes, then give them two minutes to think and jot down notes; or, tell them what question you'll ask in five minutes, then give them five minutes with the people sitting near them (like a think-pair-share).
  • Keep a visual record of main discussion points on an overhead or projected screen, to keep discussion on track and to give it value (you can have a TA or a student volunteer do this or do so yourself). Periodically sum up or paraphrase discussion, but don't respond to every contributor.
  • Getting them to talk as a large group is tricky in a large lecture hall: either you have to repeat comments for the class as whole or pass around a microphone, which is time-consuming and awkward.
  • Make sure people in the front rows don't speak softly: back away from them casually so they have to increase volume, or ask them to speak up.
  • When you assign them small group work, make clear how much time it will take and what they should accomplish. Walk around the lecture hall and offer help to groups which look apathetic or stuck, and ask the individuals who are on Facebook or playing solitaire to join a nearby group.
  • Have a class discussion board, or list-serve, blog, or wiki, on which students can post ideas, comments, and/or questions without having to talk in class. Bring interesting points from the online discussion into the full class to validate it and show that you're reading it.
  • If you do a quick-write at the end of class such as "what questions are uppermost in your mind on this topic?" pick out the most interesting results and post them for on-line discussion, or return to them in the next class.

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Encouraging Participation in Seminar or Tutorial

  • Build in regular discussion and regular small group exercises, so students expect it and are prepared to participate.
  • Learn their names as quickly as you can, and demonstrate that you know them.
  • Sometimes have students generate a list of possible discussion topics, which you record on overhead or blackboard, then pick out two or three to focus on.
  • Vary the ways you assign students to groups, sometimes splitting up buddies, trying all-male and all-female groups vs. mixed ones, and watching for what works best.
  • Either move from group to group offering help/advice, stopping to make small notes for yourself on their participation, or join a group which is struggling or under-populated.
  • Sometimes have all groups working on the same task and then bring the groups back to a whole-class discussion of the results.
  • Sometimes have each group working on one part of or a different aspect of a problem/text/case/issue, and then collate and compare results.
  • If the groups have different tasks, sometimes let students choose their group, then spread out the students who don't care in the under-populated groups.
  • Try out different class activities such as organized debates, mock trials, peer teaching exercises, round tables, jigsaw puzzle groups (stage 1 in groups with individual tasks, stage 2 new groups consisting of one from each previous group). Follow up by asking "what did we learn from this?" and/or "why do you think I chose this activity for this topic?"

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What to do about the Keenest Contributors

  • In both large and small classes there are usually a few students who will always have something to say. They are often the brightest, fastest, most confident students--you want to use them, encourage them, reward them, but you know that if you always call on them then the rest of the class will stop participating.
  • Try not to give them more or less attention than other students--you may unconsciously look more often at them, smile more often at them, etc.
  • Encourage students to respond to each others' comments, ideas, and questions--that way the talkers won't always have the last word.
  • Talk to these students outside class, in person rather than by email: assure them that you enjoy having them in class and admire their intellect and communications skills, but say that you're hoping to have more even participation. Encourage them to hold back, and reassure them that they will not lose marks by doing so.
  • In small group work these students often become group leaders by default, sometimes dominating or taking over all the work: talk to them outside of class if this happens, letting them know that you want them to draw out and encourage their groupmates and that you will be giving them marks for this.
  • Of course, if the talker is also a tangent-taker or bully, you'll need to talk to him or her outside class.

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Tips to Give TAs on Marking Participation

  • Use your attendance sheet for the day to make notes as to who participated and its value, e.g. check marks, pluses, minuses, very brief comments.
  • Make concise notes during group work and/or right at the end of tutorial--if you put it off you'll forget.
  • If it's a writing class, keep copies of in-class writing exercises/quick-writes and mark them at the top with checks, pluses, minuses.
  • If the class has on-line discussion, review the board(s) when you do assessments, noting not only frequency of postings but also concision and value.
  • Use a rubric for the assessment, so students know what they're doing well and what they need to work on. One or two written comments on formative assessment, such as "more comfortable in small groups" or "try not to dominate in group work," show students you've been paying attention and know who they are.

In addition to giving TAs general advice, you should visit a tutorial or two to observe how they generate and manage participation, and give them more specific tips afterwards. Encourage them to come to you for help with problematic students, etc.: shy or inexperienced TAs can be bullied or put into uncomfortable situations by students.

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Evaluating Participation and Sample Rubrics

  • Make clear at the beginning of term what kinds of behaviours and contributions you expect from them, both orally and in writing. If you'll be using a rubric make it available/visible.
  • Make the percentage of their grade devoted to participation match more or less with the amount of work you expect from them.
  • Give a formative assessment/estimate partway through the term, fairly early for 1st-yr classes and mid-semester for others. Use this to reinforce what they're doing well and discourage any bad habits--or let people know they have some (e.g. not all people with negative body language realize it). Emphasize that the formative assessment is an estimate not a part of their mark, and it can go up or down by the end of term.
  • Have the students do a self-assessment at the same time you give them your estimates. Trade, and tell them that if you're far apart in your estimates they should talk about it with you outside class--usually, 80-90% of students come close to your estimate and many of the rest are being modest/conservative and underestimating, but there may be cases where you've missed some contributions, were mixing them up with another student, etc.
  • At the end of term fill in another rubric sheet for them (you can offer them another self-assessment, but hardly any students will take you up on it), and again emphasize that if your evaluation doesn't match their perception of what their participation has been worth they should talk to you outside class.
  • In smaller classes, keep notes as you go on the number and value of different sorts of contributions, so that the formative and summative assessments will take less work and be more accurate. In larger classes, have the participation mark come largely from tutorial, but ask TAs to give bonuses to those who contribute regularly in lecture.
  • Being aware of different kinds of participation is linked to being aware of what's going on in different parts of the classroom--not just focusing on the keen speakers.
  • Rubrics come in different kinds, with more or less detail/ability to discriminate between different student accomplishments. More detail generally means better feedback, better ability to improve, and more understanding of why you allotted marks the way you did. Of course, from the teaching point of view the rubric also has to be quick and easy to fill out. Below are links to the one Nicky Didicher uses and to another, by Bean and Peterson. The Didicher rubric has more opportunities for detail and more flexibility, while the Bean and Peterson is simpler and faster; however, the latter also encourage teachers to discuss the rubric with students and/or have a rubric generated by class discussion.

    Download the Didicher rubric [pdf]
    Download the Bean and Peterson Rubric [pdf - external site]
    Note: Additional rubrics can be found on the course materials page.