The Mechanics of Class Participation

A Dot Matrix

Charles S. Young, January 2018

Napoleon admired the dangerous chances soldiers took for bits of ribbon. I get students to take risks for dots on paper.

Large survey courses are the hardest for encouraging class participation. First-year students might not ask questions, even when we befuddle essential points. Many also assume that contributions will not scratch the final grade, no matter how sharp they may be. And since sustained conversation is difficult, we instructors easily fall into monologue, perhaps with perfunctory queries (“. . . and when did FDR take office? Anyone?”).

For big classes, I have formalized rewards for participation by recording dots on the attendance sheets. Students receive two extra points on an exam if they get three dots in a current cycle. They get dots for asking a question, answering a question, or making me laugh. I announce the policy the first day, sententiously proclaiming that “the dot is the highest form of public recognition awarded in this class.” It is goofy, but students become surprisingly possessive of their dots.

Dots are also a check on instructor performance. If no one has three dots by exam time, you know you need to climb out of your head.

Stanislas Petit, "Engineering," n.d. (c. 1905?). Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0Contrary to pedagogy that recommends avoiding calling on students directly, I often pick a name off the attendance sheet when I ask a question. Students tell me it helps them pay attention when they may be called on at any time. Commonly these are easier questions; harder ones are opened to volunteers. The attendance sheet helps me spot the dotless, so I can draw out the reticent. I give dots for wrong answers and half answers. The only phrase that is not rewarded is “Wha, who me? I dunno.”

Besides points on the exam, good participation can also raise borderline final grades. For this, a solid record is a must. It ensures that students without striking personal traits get credit for participation. Generally, I give someone only one dot per day, but I may have a sale close to exam time. I offer three dots to anyone who catches me in a factual error, but so far only the student who knew that Mein Kampf did not mean “my life” has collected.

The drawback of dots is that pausing to ask last names can interrupt the flow of discussion. Once students are habituated to the system, I often wait and dot a bunch at once, or wait until the end of class and have them give their last names on the way out. And they do. I have also used volunteer dotters for classroom debates. Surprisingly, I have never detected a problem with students sneaking dots onto the attendance sheet.

Once, the day after a big exam, a student who had seemed tightly wound all semester paused to chat. He said he would not have come to class that day, but his wife made him. “Tell her she gets a dot,” I said. He smiled for the first time that term.

Charles S. Young is associate professor of history at Southern Arkansas University and the author of Name, Rank, and Serial Number: Exploiting Korean War POWs at Home and Abroad(2014).


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