The Mechanics of Class Participation

Points of Interest

Lendol Calder, January 2018

One of the most widely used strategies to increase participation in class discussions is an activity called Think/Pair/Share. The technique is effective enough that if I had to teach on a desert island with only one strategy for running class discussions, Think/Pair/Share would be my choice. But every teaching technique has its limits. I have found that the effectiveness of Think/Pair/Share improves considerably when students are prepped for class with an assignment called the Point Paragraph.

First, though, what is Think/Pair/Share? Nothing could be simpler. On days when I want students to explore a concept, discuss a problem, or do a close reading of an assigned text, nothing gives more bang for the buck than posing a question to the class and allowing students a few minutes alone to write out their thoughts. They then share their thoughts with a partner, giving and receiving feedback, and reconvene as a whole class to consider further what the pairs discussed. Think/Pair/Share (along with its many variants; this activity is wonderfully adaptive) works equally well in classes large and small to get more students involved in discussions.

Stanislas Petit, "Engineering," n.d. (c. 1905?). Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0But if students aren’t keeping up with reading assignments, the quality of thinking and sharing falls off. And when there isn’t time or opportunity for everyone, including some of the more thoughtful students, to put in their oar, questions of fairness arise when grading for class participation. To address these problems, I juice up the value of Think/Pair/Share with the Point Paragraph.

A Point Paragraph (PP) is 250–400 words students write after completing a reading assignment. In their PP, students name a worthwhile discussion point inspired by the reading(s) and develop that point with evidence and argumentation. On class days when they will discuss the readings using Think/Pair/Share, the syllabus instructs them to bring a PP as their “ticket” to class. I check tickets at the door; those without a PP are kindly turned away. (I generally have to do this only once per semester.) This policy counteracts the free rider problem, ensuring that every person in the room comes with at least a modicum of readiness to contribute to a meeting whose success or failure depends on students’ willingness to risk their ideas out loud, something they are more likely to do if they have already thought through some ideas on paper. If my “ticket to class” policy seems harsh or a lot to ask, bear in mind that a PP need not be particularly brilliant. A merely acceptable Point Paragraph will admit a student to class.

An acceptable PP has three components. The paragraph begins with a statement called the “They Say,” which briefly summarizes “what everyone knows” or what an authority has said or what the student used to think before encountering a new idea in the reading. (The book to read is Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.) Next comes an “I Say,” a point responding to the “They Say,” either to agree, to disagree, or to agree but with a difference. Requiring students to position their “I Say” in conversation with others increases their awareness of the social dimension of thinking, where the significance of a point depends upon how much it surprises others in some way, providing new insight into the material at hand. The rest of the paragraph explains and supports the point, using quotations, data, and reasoning to demonstrate the plausibility of one’s claim.

Thus an acceptable Point Paragraph does three things: it makes a single, significant point focused on the reading for the day, marshals strong evidence in support of the point, and exhibits good writing style. PPs can be graded quickly using a three-point scale: an acceptable PP earns two points, one that is almost there gets one point, and when no grading categories are met, zero points are earned. I let students write as many PPs as they want, up to 30 total points or 30 percent of the final grade; others will have their own grading schemes. I do not accept late Point Paragraphs.

The Point Paragraph assignment carries a lot of water. It prepares students for robust participation in Think/Pair/Share. It helps me identify themes that the students find interesting so that discussion can be steered in those directions. Clearly, PPs help develop analytical writing. A big surprise since I began assigning PPs is the positive response they get from students. On unprompted mid-course “stop/start/continue” evaluations, I generally find three out of five students singling out PPs as something they value and want to keep doing. The general opinion goes something like this: “I am glad that you have the Point Paragraph system; I find it very useful for understanding the readings, and it improves my ability to form concise theses.”

That’s powerful testimony. If I am ever marooned on a desert island and need to teach a class (on boat building, perhaps?), I hope I can use two strategies for running class discussions: Think/Pair/Share and Point Paragraphs.

Lendol Calder, professor of history at Augustana College, was the 2010 CASE/Carnegie Illinois Professor of the Year. His performance in the swimsuit competition was unremarkable.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

The American Historical Association welcomes comments in the discussion area below, at AHA Communities, and in letters to the editor. Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.