A Holistic, Learner-Centred Approach to Assessing Student Participation

How to promote active learning participation throughout the duration of a course

Natasha Kenny, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning 

November 18, 2014

I have been intrigued by a few recent blog posts focused on classroom participation. In particular, a recent post by Maryellen Weimer, “Is it Time to Rethink How We Grade Participation?” points out that when it comes to assessing participation we tend to favor quantity over quality. So how do we meaningfully assess student participation?

Alice Hovorka (2013) presents an interesting ‘holistic’ approach to assessing participation, which includes evaluating active participation from both the instructor and student perspective.   The framework is grounded by a detailed rubric with explicit participation criteria. The student-informed assessment contains a description of an ideal active participant, and asks students to comment on open-ended questions such as:

  1. How would you describe your active participation in class in terms of the following elements: preparation for and attentiveness in class, contribution to class discussion, engagement in class exercises, connections to class materials?
  2. How has your participation in this class differed from other classes?
  3. Which classmates would you describe as particularly active class participants? Why?
  4. What other elements do you feel should be considered in assessing your participation?

While reflecting on the process, Hovorka notes “…while simple in design, this rubric pushes forward boundaries of what counts as participation, the degree to which students engage in these realms, and the extent to which students feel these realms contribute to their overall learning experience.” She identifies that while question 1 is informed by scholarly literature related to elements of active learning (e.g. class preparation, session attentiveness, discussion contributions, exercise engagement, connecting class materials to other contexts), questions 3 and 4 provide an opportunity for students to critically assess and actively identify elements of their participation that may be missed by the perspectives of the instructor.

As instructors, it is important that we reflect on what we hope to achieve by assessing student participation, and to ensure that our criteria and standards for assessment align with these outcomes. Hovorka demonstrates a thoughtful approach to assessing student participation. I appreciate the learner-centred nature of this approach to assessing student participation – it engages both students and instructors in a meaningful opportunity to reflect upon the conditions which both support and contribute to active participation. Moreover, assessment strategies such as those presented by Hovorka shift the dialogue around grading participation beyond the realm of classroom discussion to promoting active learning participation throughout the duration of a course. Most importantly, these strategies provides an opportunity for students to actively see themselves in the learning process, motivating further responsibility and autonomy for their learning, as they reflect on how their active participation throughout the course contributes to both their learning experiences and the outcomes they achieve.

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Hovorka, A. (2013) Assessing Student Participation: A rubric for holistic student-informed assessment. Teaching and Learning Innovations Journal 16: Article 4.