Documenting Participation

In most courses I’ve experience as a student or as an instructor, there’s been some nominal part of the grade assigned to “participation.” As an instructor, I include this because I want to emphasize the importance of students’ in-class work, in particular the verbal work of mathematical discourse. The classes I teach happen to be Inquiry-Based Learning classes, but I think this is a broadly applicable to any kind of course.

However important I find this work to be, a method for quantitatively assessing participation escapes me. How can I possibly assess a student’s participation in both small group work and whole-class discussion in a meaningful way? And how can I do that in a way that doesn’t inherently favor certain personality types (such as those who raise their hand to answer every question)? In the end, I usually end up giving all my students full points, except for those who were often tardy or absent. But it is not “butt-in-the-seat” that I am trying to measure, so this is unsatisfying.

To address this, I am trying something new this year. I am drawing students’ attention to the work they do in class and calling such incidents (asking a question, making a suggestion, etc.) a “class contribution.” Then I ask students to submit, on a weekly basis, a response to the following:

Describe your class contribution and explain what made it valuable to the mathematical discussion. What did you learn from the experience? What did your group or classmates learn? Remember that a contribution does not have to be a correct answer or slick solution. Good questions can be incredible contributions and ideas that you share that that may not pan out are often just as valuable, if not more so, than complete answers.

Do I really think I will be able to differentiate student participation in a fine-grained, quantitative, and meaningful way with these responses? Absolutely not. It is still the case, that almost all of the students will still get full points for the participation part of their grade. However, my goal of including a “participation grade” in the first place  was to highlight the importance of in-class work. I am doing that by simply asking the students to tell me the importance of in-class work.

There is little I can do to measure the effect of this tiny weekly assignment. Will it create a more involved class? Improve student learning? There is no way for me to associate observed changes or improvements to this assignment. But the assignment allows me to see students’ awareness of the effect of their participation on classroom learning and their own learning. As an example, here is one contribution I’ve received so far where a student describes a question she asked during another students’ presentation of constructing a perpendicular intersection on the first day of class:

I asked about the length of the radius the presenter used to draw the circles. I learned that the length had to be greater than that of half the line segment, and I think other people in the class learned this, too. I think the presenter learned that it helps to be more specific.

I can’t say that this student made these observations because of the assignment. But it’s awfully reassuring to see this concrete example of a student recognizing the value of her class contribution (while simultaneously reflecting on class content and mathematical communication). And wasn’t this my goal in the first place?