Publication Date

November 1, 2009

A generation ago, teaching history was primarily lecture based, but now the prevailing wisdom among teaching experts is that class discussion promotes more active, engaged learning. The byproduct of this pedagogical shift has been the growing tendency across the humanities to designate a percentage of the grade for participation, and I have seen this range from 5 to 45 percent of the grade. Despite this hefty proportion, there are no clear disciplinary standards for evaluating participation, and there exists great disparity between how professors interpret and implement it.

A useful starting point is to think about the purpose of participation in our teaching. By posing questions and inviting debate, we seek to get students to think about, and not merely passively ingest, the material we present. Students are a captive audience in our classrooms, held in what may very well be an endangered space, within a culture increasingly oriented around multitasking and hyper-stimulation.2 This makes it even more imperative in our teaching to train students to focus and engage in informed discussion of texts free from distraction. We hope students will turn off their cell phones and PDAs for a brief period and subject themselves to the larger questions that drive America’s place in the world, shape our identities and our political, cultural, and social pasts. Ideally we want our students to respect, and treasure as we do, a place where they can work through their ideas collectively and safely (despite the heat it may generate).

Peter Filene, in his book The Joy of Teaching, examines different models for discussion that range from a “recitation” (a directed Q&A review of the readings) to the other extreme of an unbounded, open-ended “conversation.” The former may be fruitful to assess student competence and reinforce key material while the latter grants students free reign to explore texts in the direction of their own interests. There may be times when both are appropriate, but for most of us, the ideal is somewhere in between—a “seminar” style—in which we serve as facilitators for a more directed conversation, with moments when we refocus the group and encourage deeper analysis, and other times when we step back and allow students to grapple with material on their own.3

Assigning a specific share of the grade for student participation makes it very clear to students that they are integral to the learning process, and we assume, provides incentive for them to contribute. Curious about what my students thought, I surveyed about 20 master’s students and 80 undergraduates over two semesters, and asked: Does having participation count toward your grade encourage you to participate more than you would otherwise? Amongst both undergraduate and graduate students, about 40 percent said “yes.” This number was substantial enough to renew my commitment to this type of evaluation, but it also reminded me of the creative work I need to do to reach the other 60 percent.

Critics of grading participation in the assessment had some revealing insights. One graduate student wrote, “When I know that it counts I try to get my 2 cents in (however silly my comment may sound). But when it doesn’t count I’m more likely to be confident in my participation.” An undergraduate similarly commented that it “brings down the level of discussion.” We need to consider whether we are giving our students incentive to speak for the sake of it or to speak when they can make a valuable contribution. One undergraduate called it “a poor incentive.” “It irritates me; everyone contributes in his/her way. You are always going to have ‘the talkers’ and ‘everyone else’.” Another student commented, “People who are shy will always be shy.” By rewarding the “talkers” with high participation grades, are we privileging certain personality styles and putting more introverted students at an unfair disadvantage? At the same time, while it is easy to distinguish the effective speakers, how can we recognize students who are thoughtful “listeners”? A student of mine several years ago told me that he did not often speak in class because he was fascinated by what his peers had to say. Discussion enables students to get exposed to diverse perspectives, and if they are actively processing these ideas, is that not “participation”? The problem is that listening is more difficult to measure (and can be easily faked), but perhaps we can consider certain indicators as evidence of engagement, such as forward posture, eye contact, nodding, or taking notes.

In formulating our criteria for evaluation of classroom participation, we need to think about the circumstances that may inhibit participation—language barriers, cultural differences, shyness, public speaking anxieties, and socioeconomic factors that may diminish our students’ sense of their own value in contributing. For example, teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, an urban public institution, we have many entering international students who find themselves in one of my introductory sections, often to fulfill general education requirements. These students in my experience tend to be more reserved, as many of them are unaccustomed to the learning culture and some struggle with English. Several shared with me their desire to participate, but contend that by the time they have framed a comment in their minds, the discussion has moved on. If we require participation, then we need to create a flexible and supportive learning environment that meets the different needs of all of our students.

Each semester, my syllabi get more explicit. In defining how students can earn participation points (which, of course, changes depending on course level and format), I make clear that I define participation qualitatively, not quantitatively. A shy student, for example, might muster up the confidence to speak twice during a whole semester, while speaking multiple times per session might be the norm for a “talker.” The best way I have found to account for these differences is to hear directly from students about their expectations for speaking in class. Midway through the course, I require students to do a self-evaluation of their class participation and give themselves a grade. This can be very useful in (1) making sure my expectations have been clearly conveyed; (2) initiating fruitful conversations about creating a respectful space for sharing ideas; (3) gauging reactions from students about the variety of ways they can participate and which ways are working; and (4) ascertaining their comfort levels while at the same time motivating them to participate more. Typically students assess themselves fairly accurately or slightly overvalue their participation. In the occasional instance when students assign themselves a much lower grade than they deserve, it alerts me of the opportunity I have to help them recognize and appreciate their intellectual worth.

We can maximize student participation by providing alternatives to traditional ways of measuring participation that acknowledge different personality and learning styles. Web-based technologies, such as discussion boards or blogging, offers students a way of contributing without public speaking and through a means that has become increasingly comfortable for our students (even if not for all of us). Moreover, small, peer-group discussions (or peer reviews of written work) may relieve the pressure for more reserved students to contribute in meaningful ways. In-class writing, or posting questions ahead of time, also facilitates greater interaction. I am currently experimenting with assigning my students a technique often used in teaching English composition: “double-entry notes.” Working at home, students select two quotes from the assigned readings, copy them, and write a paragraph explaining the significance of each quote to the author’s argument and why they chose it (students turn these in upon entering class, giving me a few minutes to glance at them). This helps foster more informed discussions, as students are already equipped with specific evidence to back up their assertions, and it enables me to bring in ideas from less vocal students whose written insights I can highlight and validate as important. Sometimes in class I have students write a “one- or two-minute paper” in response to a discussion question. This exercise often improves the quality of comments from the chatty students (who may not always think before they speak), and at the same time enables other students (and in particular English-language learners) to compose their ideas in time to participate. Invariably, this technique brings voices into the discussions that are not typically heard.

In surveying students about different teaching formats for learning history, I was struck by how many students associated lecture with learning historical “facts” and discussion with debating different interpretations. Despite our efforts in our lectures to expose students to different perspectives and interpretive approaches, the very mode of communication reinforces perceptions of studying history as an exercise in memorization. It is when we get our students to do the work of formulating historically important and relevant questions and recognizing how historical documents speak to those questions in multiple, and often complex ways, that we truly make historians out of them and hopefully energize them to appreciate the dynamism of history as a field of study.

— is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She is currently completing a book manuscript on visual and popular culture in relation to the Spanish-American War.


1. I am grateful to Lois Rudnick for her invaluable editorial suggestions.

2. I want to thank Judith Smith for helping me appreciate what is distinctive and important about teaching in this cultural moment.

3. Peter Filene,The Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 56–60.

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