Jenny Baker
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Max. Classroom Capacity: On Student Participation

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

I taught a person named Lawrence, one of my most memorable students, in my second semester as a freshly minted PhD at Baruch College 16 years ago. What I remember most about Lawrence was his participation. The class, social psychology, was taught in a large lecture auditorium packed with 115 students where it’s difficult to get students to participate in class. To counter this I tried to learn every student’s name (a huge challenge—read more about that here). I showed up early and chatted with students to warm them up and make the class feel more intimate. Lawrence stood out because he was so prolific and entertaining in his participation. He was the prototypical brash New Yorker. He had no shortage of opinions and was never shy about sharing them. He pulled no punches. He was always ready to challenge me about an idea, a finding, or a theory. If no one else raised their hand I could always count on Lawrence to answer a question (whether he knew the answer or not). If I teased the class about the perennially disappointing NY Knicks, I was sure to get an angry retort from Lawrence. The class loved it! I loved it! I feel like Lawrence’s disinhibition encouraged and made students feel more comfortable to participate and created a very positive, fun learning environment that benefited everyone.

Max. Classroom Capacity is all about reaching our potential as instructors. Here’s a strange admission: I haven’t been in a classroom since March 12, 2020—2 years ago! Thanks COVID (sarcastically), and thanks (sincerely) to some grant-based course release. The thing I miss the most is that strange alchemy that can happen in the classroom where everyone is learning together, and it’s a joy to show up every day. When I reflect on my most fantastic teaching experiences, they always seem to arise from the openness of the students to engage in the learning process both with me and with each other.

Most of us probably believe that students who are engaged in a class are likely to learn more than those who are disengaged. So, it makes sense that many instructors consider student participation as an important ingredient of an effective class. In some of my classes I have graded student participation. In others, like the one Lawrence was in, I haven’t. The questions I want to consider are whether student participation in fact is important, what we can do to encourage student participation, and whether we should grade it. These are questions I ask myself all of the time, and I don’t have a clear answer. In fact, this has been a topic of (unresolved) discussion in the Naidoo household. So, to help answer these questions, as well as to create work–family synergies, I’ve enlisted Dr. Kara Naidoo, associate professor of education at California State University, Channel Islands, a teacher-of-teachers, an expert on science education, and, also, my beloved wife!

Loren: Dr. Naidoo, welcome to Max. Classroom Capacity, and thanks for agreeing to have this discussion with me.

Kara: Thanks for the invitation.  It will be good to formalize the argument with you about grading student participation in writing as we have spent many hours debating it informally. This might be a new way for us to effectively communicate when we disagree about a topic.

LJN: When do we ever disagree?! But seriously, that’s a pretty good idea. Well, anyway, the first thing I want to ask you is whether you believe student participation is beneficial for learning. If participation is good, what quantity/quality of participation is needed? Does it only benefit the students who participate? Are there downsides to student participation?

KMN: I believe student participation is beneficial for learning. But first, let’s be clear about what you mean by “student participation.” It sounds like, from your introduction, you mean specifically verbal participation in whole-group discussions. Verbal participation is one way a student can participate but not the only way. Some benefits of verbal participation in discussions include developing speaking and listening skills, clarifying and refining thinking, and receiving feedback on contributions. Learning happens within a community, so when a student offers her perspective in a classroom discussion or restates in her own words how she understands something, this contribution can support others, as well as the student, in thinking and in learning the course content. However, I think there are downsides to expecting all students to contribute to a discussion in the same way.  For example, students are coming into your classroom with different lived experiences that shape how they contribute in a formal academic setting, cultural differences that might discourage some from speaking up, and linguistic differences that may favor native English speakers by creating unequal (and unintended) power structures. 

LJN: OK, so big picture, we agree that participation is good for learning, albeit with some troubling inequities involved. On verbal discussions I would add that extraverted students might be unfairly advantaged, and I imagine many biases may influence instructors’ decisions of who to call on as well. Yes, I suppose that, in my head, when I think of student participation, my first thought is of class discussions, but I see your point that there are other ways to participate (e.g., engaging in activities that require reading, writing, listening, etc.). Verbal participation may be more easily observed than some other forms of participation. For example, it may be difficult for an instructor to visually distinguish between a student participating by carefully listening as opposed to “spacing out,” whereas it’s easy to distinguish between a student answering a question as opposed to saying nothing. By extension, I wonder whether verbal participation is more likely to have the beneficial effects on peers that you described compared to other forms of participation.

KMN: I agree with you that it is difficult to evaluate the quality of participation from students. For example, a student might contribute to a verbal whole-class discussion without thinking deeply about the material (talking a lot without saying much), whereas another student may say nothing during a discussion because she is taking time to process information (this happens at different rates and ways for different people), but she is thinking critically and deeply about the material and not quite ready to contribute to a discussion. Having a class discussion on course content can benefit learning, but evaluating student participation in the discussion is highly problematic. You mentioned reading, writing, and listening as other ways to participate. There are also many technologies that enable students to share ideas like Nearpod, PearDeck, Kahoot!, polling features on Zoom, and so on. But I think you are more interested in focusing on verbal whole-group discussions, is that correct? 

LJN: Not necessarily—let’s get back to verbal whole-group discussions later. I think it’s valuable to hash out what we actually mean by “participation,” and I don’t think we’ve fully done that yet. You have rightly pointed out that student participation can happen in multiple ways. But, how is participation different from, for example, taking an exam, writing a paper, or other such activities that most instructors probably don’t think of as participation? Can we define participation as engagement in the learning process that is distinct from and/or antecedent to learning outcomes? Might we give points or other rewards/sanctions for attendance, not because attendance necessarily means that the student has learned anything but as a way to encourage behaviors likely to lead to positive learning outcomes? I think one of the best ways to learn is to try something, fail, figure out why you failed, develop a new approach, try again, and repeat. Based on this approach, initial performance on a task actually may be inversely related to final performance. Consequently, it’s beneficial for the instructor to create opportunities for students to safely practice and explore before assessing their learning, and to encourage engagement in this process. Rewarding participation is one way to accomplish this. Reactions?

KMN: Well, my first reaction is, wow, that is a lot of questions! Because students can choose to participate in assessments, or not, I would argue that students sharing their understanding on an exam is a form of participation. I used to teach middle-school and high-school science, and there were plenty of students who chose not to participate in summative assessments, whether it was a project, paper, or exam. I believe all forms of student participation are important. It is useful for instructors to ask themselves, is student participation important in my course and why? I value student participation because it is part of the learning process and helps me to understand what students are thinking so I can modify and adjust my lessons to best support them. Learning is social, emotional, and cognitive, and people actively construct knowledge based on experiences, so creating opportunities for participation, like the cycle you described above (which I loved—try, fail, adjust, repeat) will lead to student learning and development. Participation supports students in successfully meeting learning outcomes, but it should not be evaluated or contribute to a course grade as an external motivator to punish or reward participation. That is not a fair or equitable practice.

LJN: Am I correct in understanding that you don’t think that we should distinguish between “participation” and other learning outcomes? In other words, things that instructors might toss into the “participation” bucket in their minds or on their syllabi, like verbally answering questions, attendance, in-class exercises, and so on are fundamentally no different from other class activities like taking exams, writing papers, doing formal presentations, and so forth. By extension then, we should treat whatever might fall into the “participation” bucket in the same way as those other things: If it’s a formal learning objective for the class, then we identify it as such and create rubrics for how to evaluate students on it. If it’s not a formal learning objective for the class, then we should NOT grade it in order to punish/reward student behaviors that are in/convenient to us or to “motivate” students. Is that more or less your position?

KMN: Correct, I do not think evaluating participation and attendance is appropriate unless these things are specifically listed in the course learning outcomes/objectives. I do believe that participation helps students achieve the course learning outcomes, and it is to their benefit to participate and attend class, but it should not contribute to a student’s overall course grade.  However, if an instructor does decide to grade participation or attendance because it is a learning objective for the course, then a rubric with clear guidelines and expectations should be shared with students so they understand how they are being evaluated in this area. Maybe even having students self-assess their own participation in each class session using the rubric and specific evidence from the class is a more effective strategy than an instructor subjectively assigning a participation score to students every class. This way a student who is quiet but engaged is not penalized if they participated in ways that were meaningful to them.  To me the course grade should reflect the student’s level of mastery of the course learning objectives, NOT my subjective evaluation of their participation in class.  

LJN: Let’s return to the case of verbal whole-group discussion for a second. We both agree that they can be valuable learning exercises. What are some best practices for holding productive verbal whole-group discussions in class?

KMN: An instructor can implement pedagogical strategies to reduce potential barriers and embed scaffolds in order to support a variety of learners in contributing to a class discussion. Creating an opportunity for individuals to think/write/draw about a discussion prompt and use small groups to make sense of content would be an easy first step. It might look something like this: (a) share the discussion prompt(s) in writing and verbally with whole class; (b) allow for individual writing/drawing time to think (maybe 1–5 minutes) about the discussion question(s) (providing a template to organize thoughts like a concept map, sentence starters, etc. would be useful here too); (c) students form small groups to discuss individual ideas, questions, and confusion regarding the discussion prompt(s); and (d) open up the class to a discussion on the prompt(s). This process may help more students contribute to and make sense of a class discussion but does not solve the issues with grading student verbal participation in whole-class discussions.

LJN: These guidelines make a lot of sense. I’m on board with them. Earlier you described problems with grading discussion participation, including power structures that benefit some students over others. Do the procedures you described above mitigate a lot of those issues? Let’s consider classes in which effectively contributing to a whole-class discussion IS an important learning outcome, which may be the case in many I-O psychology and business classes given that these may be valuable skills for the workplace. For example, in some employment hiring/promotion scenarios, employers will use “leaderless group discussions” in which applicants discuss an issue while being observed and evaluated as part of how they select applicants to hire/promote. When properly constructed, such assessment-center activities are reliable and valid measures. Isn’t evaluating student participation in whole-class discussions basically the same? I understand the potential pitfalls of grading participation, but do you think it can ever be done effectively?

KMN: Mitigate issues, yes. Eliminate issues, no. Sure, effectively contributing to class discussions can be a course learning outcome, and if it is, then it should be evaluated and graded. However, just as with other course outcomes, students would need to be taught this skill and understand what it means to “effectively” contribute to a class discussion, hence the rubric recommendation I mentioned earlier. This rubric specifies to students how they are being evaluated and the expectations for mastery of this outcome.  Grading a student on something, whether it is a skill or content, without explicit instruction and practice seems unfair to me. I giggled when I read your example of the hiring scenario. This is exactly what I had to do when I was being interviewed for my current faculty position. I was in a group of job candidates from across disciplines in a fishbowl type of situation where we had a discussion on a prompt we were given. Other faculty and staff evaluated us using a rubric during this process. It is interesting to learn this is standard hiring practice in I-O psychology. Or did you already tell me that when I was hired and I forgot? Anyways, it is always nice to find connections between our two fields.

LJN: Well, because they hired you, perhaps we can consider this one positive example of evaluating participation! Thanks so much for sharing your valuable insights about participation!

Readers, as always, please email me with comments, feedback, or just to say hi!

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