Assessment Case Study - Participation Policy in Communications

Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning 

June 1, 2018


“This puts grading right into students’ hands” – Dr. Lisa Stowe



How to grade participation is often a difficult decision for instructors. Traditional methods often privilege confident students who enjoy public speaking over quieter students, who are less comfortable in that environment. It can also be challenging for instructors to track exactly how much each student is contributing in class. Dr. Lisa Stowe, a Senior Instructor in the Department of Communications, Media and Film at the University of Calgary, has developed a unique but useful method for getting students to self-assess their participation in COMS 369: Rhetorical Communications. Although group discussions and debates are a big part of the course, engagement and participation do not just happen in the classroom. Self-assessment allows students to track how they are participating in different ways across the course.



Participation is worth 10% of the course grade and students get to determine their entire mark. On the first day of class, they spend time developing criteria for what effective participation looks like. They list out different actions that they consider as parts of participation. These include the traditional forms, such as contributing to discussions, asking or answering questions, and actively speaking in front of the group. But they also consider smaller, less obvious forms of participation: attentive body language and behaviour during lecture, sending emails about unclear concepts or discussing the course one-on-one with the instructor. The criteria are student-created, so they feel that it is fair and comprehensive. It also ensures that they know exactly what they should be looking for as they start to assess themselves. This leads to fair self-grading for the whole semester.

After this first class, Dr. Stowe creates a spreadsheet for each student that includes their newly developed criteria, along with the dates of each lecture. Since students are expected to be fully engaged for the entire semester, after every class, they fill in their spreadsheet with how they participated that day. When everyone is participating in self-assessment, there is an added incentive to be honest, since another student could call them out for inflating their grade. Dr. Stowe has to remind students to fill in the sheet each day, and the purpose has to be explained multiple times for it to sink in for students. Many have not had the opportunity to self-assess before, so the high responsibility can be intimidating. However, Dr. Stowe’s constant encouragement helps keep students on track. 



Student participation and engagement are consistently very good in the course, which Dr. Stowe attributes partially to the participation policy, but mainly to the content itself. The topics for discussions and readings tend to relate to current events, so students have lots to share. The self-assessment component means students feel accountable and responsible for earning their grades. It is especially beneficial for quieter students who do not like to speak out in class, but who are just as engaged in the material as those that do. They are rewarded for participating even if Dr. Stowe may not see them doing it in obvious ways. COMS 369 only has 30 students per lecture section, making it possible for Dr. Stowe to dedicate this time to creating a spreadsheet for each student. She does not use this method in any of her larger classes, and it would have to be amended if she did. She feels that some courses do not benefit from a participation grade in the same way that this one does.

Dr. Stowe assumed that students would see this self-assessment as an opportunity to give themselves 100% regardless of how much they participated in the course. She was surprised to see that the average grade is usually around 80%. Students tend to be honest with themselves and use the criteria that they determined to do a fair self-assessment. Some students do give themselves high grades, but they are usually justified. Others grade themselves very low. Dr. Stowe has a conversation with these students about why they felt they did not meet the expectations and what they will do in the future. These students admit that they knew the criteria but chose not to do as much as they could.

Marking participation is virtually impossible if there isn’t a mutual agreement between the students and instructor about what participation means, especially when students are self-assessing. Giving students both a voice in determining the criteria and the opportunity to assign their own grades promotes academic independence and meta-cognition. Students have to be aware of how they are learning, not just what they are learning.

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