Use a rubric to evaluate class participation

January 14, 2014

George Kuh (2008) and Carol Twigg (2003) note that “students don’t do optional.” If we know an activity or study strategy is effective, they propose that we should encourage students to use it by making the activity mandatory. Unfortunately for us, this usually means we must grade the activity in some way.

Students who prepare for class and actively participate in discussion are more engaged and learn more, but grading participation can be a challenge. Many instructors include class participation as a graded element but have difficulty evaluating student participation. Simply recording attendance or counting how often students contribute to discussion or ask a question during class feels superficial. Worse, this system can misfire and create unintended problems. If we reward all contributions without evaluating whether contributions advance the discussion, the quality of discussion might degrade because students attempt to earn points for “participation” by asking trivial questions or making uninformed or off-topic comments.

A rubric that describes appropriate preparation and participation behavior provides clear guidelines to students about participation expectations. Provide periodic feedback based on the rubric during the term (once every 3 or 4 weeks works well). The feedback tells students you take meaningful class participation seriously, and students can use the feedback to improve their in-class contributions. Finally, participation rubric scores serve as an unambiguous method for determining a participation grade.

An example of a Rubric for class participation‌ (PDF) that I developed and used in a small seminar is posted to the CUTLA web. The rubric includes evaluation of the quality of the student’s preparation for class discussion, the substance of contributions made to discussion, and aspects of general class citizenship (listening skills, responding to other students with respect, promoting on-topic discussion). I share this rubric with students during the first week of the class and provide feedback to them about once a month during the term, with a final evaluation at the end of the term. The rubric allows me to give students regular feedback based on a period of observation I can recall accurately. The first time I provide feedback on class discussion, the students initiate a useful discussion about my expectations for participation. I note an improvement in the quality of discussion following this initial feedback that persists through the remainder of the term. Students appreciate the opportunity to improve the quality of their participation across the term. Since using this rubric, students in my class now initiate actions to keep discussions on track and will refer to the rubric when they respond to another student whose off-topic comments threaten to send the discussion off the rails (yes, the rubric rewards students for contributions that keep the discussion focused).

Examples of rubrics, including my rubric for class participation, are posted on the CUTLA web site.

Kuh, G. (2008).What matters to student success: Lessons from high performing institutions. (PDF) Workshop on Assessing Student and Institutional Performance, University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL.

Twigg, C. A. (2003, July). Build it, but will they come? Learning Market Space. Electronic newsletter published by the National Center for Academic Transformation.

Update: 04/17/14 tjf