In my last post, I talked about giving feedback to students.  But, beyond giving feedback,  how should we assess participation?

First of all, I like to ask:  what is participation anyway?  I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently.  I often hear “participation” used as another name for discussions in an online class, but experience (and some reading) has taught me that it’s more complicated than that.  So, in this post, I am going to talk a bit about the concept of participation and some general ways to assess it, and then in my next week’s post, I’m going to hone in on and talk about some assessment strategies for discussions.

So, what is participation to you?  Is it a way to make sure students are present?  Is it a way to ensure that they are engaged in the content and with other students?  Is it a way to encourage them to engage?  These questions probably don’t have easy answers, and your answers to them very likely depend on your teaching style, the content of your course, and the specific activities you designate as participation.  But, if you consider “participation” to be an important component of your course, and especially if you feel it is an important enough component to grade, it’s important to be clear with your students as to what participation in your class means and what specifically it will consist of (i.e., what components in your course do you consider to be “participation”, and how each of those components will be graded, if they are graded).  You might also explain why these activities are important – important enough for them to participate in!

For me, participation means student engagement – engagement with fellow students, with the instructor(s) and with the content.  Some of these elements of engagement might include students:

  • Demonstrating a weekly time commitment to the course (i.e., by them in the Learning Management System)
  • Showing their presence in the course (i.e., by asking questions or making comments about the content)
  • Engaging in the discussion forums – both as an original poster and as a responder to other postings
  • Engaging in pair or group activities, and carrying their weight in those activities
  • Sharing resources, ideas, etc. with the class

And as the instructor/facilitator, what can you do to encourage students to engage?  Here are some things to think about:

  • Are your expectations clear?  Have you included guidelines and instructions for participation and engagement?
  • Have you given students enough time to engage given the asynchronous nature of your course?
  • Are you modelling what you consider to be “good participation” yourself?

Now, let’s take a moment to think about grading participation and to consider why it might be (or might not be) important to grade participation activities.  Does participation need to be graded because we don’t see students in an online class and want to make sure that they’re there and engaged?

Well, experience (mine, and that of other instructional designer colleagues) indicates that students are more likely to engage in participation activities if there is a grade attached to them.  I think sometimes we assume students will engage actively because they understand that engagement is a critical component of the learning process, but I have found over the years that this is simply not true for most students for the duration of a course (in other words, they may start out very engaged, but gradually drop off as assignments due dates approach and their lives get busy).  Remember that typical Continuing Studies student are adult learners with full-time jobs and family commitments.  They want to know why they are being asked to do what you are asking them to do, and want to see clear links to measurable outcomes.  So it’s important to tell them specifically how each participation activity relates to the assessments or to the course goals (or unit learning objectives).

My personal opinion is that we should think less about a separate “participation” grade, and more about how participation activities can support other assessments in the course (and be integrated into the grading this way).  For example, if students worked in groups towards a common goal (like a presentation), we could add “group work participation” to that assessment’s grade.  Or if students engaged in a discussion of a case study before submitting their own analysis of a different case study, that discussion engagement could then be part of the submission’s assessment.  Or, if students completed a survey or poll as preparation for an assignment, that could also be a component of that assignment’s grade.

What if you think a student is not participating enough?  What does that mean, and should you do anything about it?  Remember that some students take online courses because they like to study on their own.  They may prefer learning without the benefit of others.  You need to weigh out whether it is important for the context of the content for them to be “forced” to engage.  It may be that you want them to experience working in a team and sharing resources with others because if they work in the field in question, they will have to do this in the workplace.  If so, let them know this (and the “penalty” for not participating) – you can never be too explicit online!

Since this has turned out to be a more general post about what “participation” actually might be, rather than a post offering you concrete ideas of how to assess it, next time I’ll discuss some assessment strategies for participation activities, including for one of the more common participation activities, the discussion.

For more ideas about participation and about possible participation activities, here are some good websites (in no particular order):

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