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November 5, 2007

An interesting take on scoring student participation

I recently posted a short note on scoring student participation.  The following response from Hillary Burgess, an Adjunct Professor at Rutgers School of Law - Camden, was more thorough, insightful, and directive than my own blurb, and merits posting on its own:

In response to Mark Osler’s article on scoring participation, I will share with you some ideas I’ve used in the past, some more successful than others. 

I do score participation.  It’s usually worth 4% of a students grade, with 2% for answering thoughtfully when called on, 3% for volunteering sporadically but thoughtfully, and 4% for volunteering consistently and thoughtfully.  (Because I use a 1000 point scale, it’s 20, 30, and 40 points, so it feels a bit more significant to the students.)  I find reminding students about participation does help motivate them.

I start off the semester by telling them that I am attempting to have individual conversations with each student instead of lecturing at them.  My expectation is that everyone in the class will raise their hand when I ask a question because everyone is actively engaged in the dialogue.    I do give them the out that if they don’t know the answer, they should begin a dialogue with me about their confusion that demonstrates that they are prepared and thoughtfully considering my questions. Sometimes I add that I’ll assume that if they don’t raise their hand, they are unprepared, unless they tell me ahead of time that they are not volunteering for personal reasons.

I’ve also encouraged students to divide up the classes and have 2-3 “super-prepared” students for each class.  Everyone must read the material and be prepared to discuss it generally, but the “super-prepared” students will be responsible for the bulk of the discussion.  I’ve found that this solution takes the burden of participation pressure off of the professor and creates social pressure from peers to volunteer on their designated day.  If they don’t, the burden falls back on everyone else who resents the unprepared student, not the professor.  (I also organized this technique as a student in Chief Justice Rehnquist's class since the reading was so copious.)

In a couple of classes where literally, my problem was getting the students to participate LESS, I devoted the first few lectures to topics of opinion, where no answer could possibly be wrong, though people had very strong opinions one way or another.  For example, I started a class on Privacy with the question:  in wake of 9-11, should the government be allowed to wire tap every phone without probable cause?  What about video-tape everyone’s house?  (As an aside, be VERY afraid of what is going to happen when this generation comes of age.  Most of my students who were teeny boppers in 2001 had no problem with the government audio and/or video taping every aspect of their lives, including bedroom and bathroom.)

I think success rests a lot on pumping student’s egos up when they do volunteer.  No answer, no matter how incorrect, is wrong.  I’ve been known to say, “I’m so glad you gave that answer because I’m sure many other students read the material and interpreted it to mean X, too, so lets talk about it.”  Of course, this approach can lead to students coming unprepared to class if used too much, so I’ve found it best to use the technique only in the beginning of the semester and expecting more as the semester progresses.

Mostly, I’ve found that it’s a “critical mass” issue.  Once I’ve been able to get 1/4 or 1/3 of the class regularly participating, the entire class will chime in, minus a two students who would rather have their teeth pulled than say anything in front of a group.  If it doesn’t happen in the first 2-3 weeks, it’s not going to happen.

Here are some strategies I’ve heard other professors use, but do not use myself because I find them too punitive:

1.  Pop quiz if students don’t volunteer or don’t know the answer when called on.

2.  Dismissing students from class if they aren’t prepared when called on.  (For a great discussion of the pros and cons of this solution, which has made me reconsider how to incorporate this technique into class, read “Here’s a Shocker” by Tracy McGaugh in The Second Draft Volume 20, No 1. http://www.lwionline.org/publications/seconddraft/aug05.pdf  

3.  Giving students three days to come unprepared during the semester.  If they indicated they were prepared, they needed to participate or be prepared to be called on.  If they indicated they were prepared and weren’t they lost all of their participation points. 

4.  Give students the ability to pass one time during the semester if they do not want to participate, but then they are the main participant the next class meeting.  (Of course, I always thought that if I were called on, whether I was prepared or not, I would take a pass and then super-duper prepare for the next class.)

I don’t tend to favor these strategies because I want to build rapport with my students that lets them know that I am their biggest advocate in getting an good education and a great career.  It’s hard to employ punitive strategies and simultaneously be someone’s advocate - from their perspective. 

-- Mark Osler

November 5, 2007 | Permalink


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