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Education and Learning

What does participation look like?

I had one class during my PhD where I remember being graded on participation. I spoke in every class. Jumped through every hoop. Except, I often spoke to disagree (with references to support my position) with the perspective shared by the instructor or the readings they had selected. I missed two classes during the semester, both due to illness, which I contacted my professor about in advance. I received a mediocre grade on participation.

Fast forward to several years later when I was co-teaching a course. The course had been created by my co-instructor and included participation as part of the grade. I spoke up at the start about changing that but my perspective was rejected for the first semester. At the end of the semester, I sat with my co-instructor while they determined participation grades. I only spoke up to advocate for higher grades. But the rationale they provided just didn’t work for me. “They looked like they were paying attention.” “They spoke lots in the small groups.” At least there wasn’t any “They disagreed with us too much.”

The thing about participation is that I don’t know what someone else’s participation looks like. I consistently doodle in class but that helps me pay attention. In my undergrad, I rarely spoke up in class.

I had a student who slept through class but recorded it. The listened to it later, in between working multiple jobs. But I still remember the day that student gave an answer to a question that the rest of the class was struggling with. There were lots of comments that day of “the guy who was asleep knows this better than I do, I need to do better.”

I have had students miss class because they have a sick kid, because the bus didn’t show up during a snowstorm, because they had to go to court, because the Internet was dropped in their neighbourhood, because… None of those are reasons to me that someone should lose marks in a class as none of them reflect whether or not they understand and can apply the material. This to me is key. Is there something about participation that shows they understand something that cannot be demonstrated in any other way? For example, if I’m studying nursing, I will have to demonstrate that I can start an IV. That means showing up, practicing, and then demonstrating my skill. But speaking or not speaking during class doesn’t tell me anything about a student’s level of competence, unless its a course on something like public speaking.

Aguillon and colleagues (2020) examined how gender influences participation in active-learning classrooms. Active-learning is about participation, but the researchers found that women participated less, particularly during small-group discussions than men. Lower scientific self-efficacy and increased awareness of gender identity both contributed to reduced participation for women. Nadile and colleagues (2021) found similar results with regards to gender differences. In large lecture classes students reported that other students asking and answering instructor questions was helpful but over half of students never asked or answered questions and women were more likely to never participate in this way. Students associated the potential of a negative evaluation from this participation with a sense of dread. Related to these findings, Bailey and colleagues (2020) found that female students participated more in classes where there were more females in attendance and if there was a female instructor.

Aside from Aguillon and colleagues, the other studies examined participation in terms of speaking up. And these findings are similar to what is found with other marginalized populations as well. So clearly measuring participation by who is vocal is going to create some inequity. But, again, the bigger issue to me is that verbal participation is not representative of a student’s competence.

In the course I’m teaching this semester, the closest I come to participation is social annotation. Students read and comment on key articles together using specialized software. They can do this asynchronously, but they are expected to engage with each other and with the text. The reason I include this is because it creates rich discussion and reflection. I have actually had a number of students email me to tell me how much they enjoy the social annotation. The thing is, while there are markers of participation, I’m reading their comments and conversations to see how they are taking up the material. How are they applying what they are learning. How are they demonstrating the key competencies that are the focus of the course. And because it is asynchronous, students have more options for how they engage. They can go through and read and respond immediately. They can take their time and come back to it. They can even go off on tangents and then bring what they learned back to the article.

Participation doesn’t have to be about speaking up vocally but it’s hard to “objectively” judge anything else. So perhaps, we need to just get rid of participation as a measure and consider how the student demonstrates competence. If they can do that, without ever saying a word, why shouldn’t we accept that.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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