Building the skill of class participation

Class participation fosters student learning and is important element of many courses. Therefore, faculty often include class participation as one element that contributes to the grade a student receives for a course. However, assessing participation can be tricky. Counting how frequently a student contributes to discussion favors those students who are more comfortable speaking and it does not account for the quality of the contribution nor does it recognize those who are learning through listening. On the hand, counting how many times someone is physically present for class does not give any indication of the quality of engagement during class.

Previously, this blog has highlighted the communicative competence checklist as a method for encouraging thoughtful participation by students and assessing student development of their skills. A 2019 article, “Reconceptualizing Participation Grading as Skill Building”, by Alanna Gillis of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill highlights an approach to grading participation that has many elements that are similar to the communicative competence checklist:

Participation as a skill to be built

As Gillis notes in her article, “Socialization and structural opportunities provide differential access to the skills needed to engage in classroom participation.” Growing up, students are socialized to have different orientations towards school and interacting with teachers. High school cultures vary, and not all schools encourage students to provide their own perspectives in the classroom or challenge authority, and those who do not have these experiences in high school are less prepared to participate in the college classroom.

Students need to see participation as a skill that they can practice and strengthen. Just as the communicative competence framework asks students to identify what aspects of communication they want to strengthen, Gillis also invites students to identify three concrete, measurable, feasible areas for improvement with regards to participation. In both frameworks, students are asked to periodically check-in on their progress towards improving aspects of their participation, and at the end of the term, students provide a self-report on how they did with regards to meeting their goals.

Participation has multiple dimensions

Because some students don’t have a nuanced view of what participation entails, it is important for instructors to be transparent about what “counts” when it comes to class participation. Gillis breaks participation into five dimensions that are important for her class: attendance and timeliness, preparation for class meetings, participation in small group discussions, participation in full class discussions, and participation in other ways. For each dimension, she articulates multiple aspects of participation within that category. For example, the last catch-all category include activities like attending office hours, using the writing center, peer editing papers, or talking about course content with students outside of class. Students then choose what their three goals are with regards to participation and articulate how they plan to achieve those goals.

Participation is not a personality trait

Several studies have found that students think their ability to participate depends on their personality. The pre- and post-reflections by students in Gillis’ courses indicate the framework she uses for assessing participation helps students move from seeing their participation patterns as an inherent part of their personality (e.g. “I’m shy so I don’t participate) to understanding that participation is based on a set of skills that they can develop.

References & resources:

For more details about the implementation of this approach to grading participation, see the original article:

Gillis, A. (2019). Reconceptualizing Participation Grading as Skill Building. Teaching Sociology47(1), 10-21.

For a summary of the literature on student participation, see the article:

Rocca, K. A. (2010). Student participation in the college classroom: An extended multidisciplinary literature review. Communication education59(2), 185-213.

Teaching with census data

Last week’s LTC lunch brought together faculty and staff from many different departments and offices to consider the many ways in which the census provides opportunities to teach students about public health, racial constructs, identity, and political representation as well as offering rich opportunities for academic civic engagement projects. Katie Lewis kicked the session off by asking the audience some questions to gauge their knowledge about the census. Debby Walser-Kuntz in biology, Liz Raleigh in sociology, and Christina Farhart in political science all shared how they incorporate census data in their courses. In addition, Kristin Partlo provided a useful summary sheet about various census resources that are available from the library (and why you might want to use a particular type of resource), the staff who are available to partner with faculty in developing assignments or activities using census data, and additional information about census surveys and programs that might be useful in the curriculum. Finally, Kendall Clements spoke about the ways the CCCE office is engaging with the community around Census 2020. If you weren’t able to attend the lunch, you can access the slides from the presentation, and below are some resources suggested by the speakers. 

Resources about the census:

A glimpse into a teaching circle

Each year the LTC supports one or two teaching circles. These teaching circles provide the opportunity for three or four faculty members to observe each other’s classes, engage in conversation, and learn from each other. Kim Huynh (Chemistry), Andrea Mazzariello (Music), Ryan Terrien (Physics & Astronomy), and Paul Petzschmann (European Studies) participated in a teaching circle this past fall. Kim, Andrea, Ryan, and Paul created a podcast that provides a glimpse into their experience. 

Introduction to the podcast: This podcast is for anyone interested in hearing about the unique perspectives of four Carleton faculty members from different departments (i.e. Music, Chemistry, Physics & Astronomy, European Studies) and the challenges they face while teaching. Listen as they share personal stories, discuss their observations from sitting in on each others’ classes and provide some insights that can inform and empower your teaching. Participants talk about their reasons for participating in a teaching circle, their goals and experiences in taking part and what useful techniques they learned along the way.

Three steps towards making your classroom more accessible

As faculty continue to consider how to make classrooms more inclusive, one area of discussion has been approaches to make our classrooms more welcoming for students with disabilities. In the summer of 2018, the LTC, Academic Technology, and the Office of Disability Services teamed up for a couple of targeted workshops with small groups of faculty to discuss this topic. Last month, both the new faculty workshop and the advising workshop included some tips and ideas for supporting students with disabilities. Tuesday’s LTC lunch will be a chance to learn about the work of the Carleton Assistive Technologists, student staff who are trained to support students with disabilities who are using assistive technologies.  

I have learned a lot from the programming, and from associated conversations with Celeste Sharpe and Chris Dallager, but I have also found that the sheer number of recommendations for improving classroom accessibility for students with disabilities can be overwhelming. I can become frozen as I ponder where to start making changes. Here are three do-able suggestions to make your course more accessible.   

Make your documents friendly to screenreaders. 

Formatting elements that make a document friendly to screenreaders include: 

  • Using headings to format sections of your document (rather than just changing the size or formatting of the font). 
  • Embedding hyperlinks and using informative link text (rather than pasting links in a document or embedding hyperlinks in text that says “link.”)
  • Including alt text for images that describes the content of images or graphs. 

Here are some resources for key software: 

  • For Microsoft Word uers, the built-in accessibility checker in Microsoft Word will help identify formatting that will not be friendly to screen readers and make the suggested changes. 
  • For Google doc users, reference this list about how to make your Google doc or more accessible. Also, when you create a new Google doc, underneath the “Tools” menu, go to “Accessibility settings” and check on the box to enable screen reader support. 

Be aware that if you scan a document to a PDF, it will not be screenreader friendly. To make scanned documents accessible to screen readers, use the tools in Adobe Acrobat Pro to convert the document to text (with appropriate tags) in order to make the document compatible with screenreaders. Web Accessibility In Mind provides a resource about how to make PDF documents accessible with Adobe Acrobat Pro

Present information in multiple modalities

Not all students access information equally well with all senses so aim to provide students the opportunity to engage with course material in multiple modalities. Here are three things you can do:

  • Caption video content. 
  • Verbally describe images that you reference during lectures or class discussions. 
  • In course materials and activities include text and graphics, audio and visual, rather than only one or the other.  

Learn about the Universal Design for Learning framework and use it to help design your courses. 

Universal Design for Learning is a framework for rethinking how you structure course activities and resources so you can support all students. The UDL guidelines consist of three key components: 

  • Provide multiple means of representation (e.g. materials are available in accessible file formats; use a variety of media; use both instructor created and student created course materials). 
  • Provide multiple means of engagement (e.g. vary the type of activities in the classroom; integrate self-assessment and reflection; invite students to apply their learning in a variety of different contexts; provide low stakes assessments with feedback).
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression (e.g. give students options for assignments; allow student choice about some aspects of course activities; provide opportunities to get feedback).

Many of these suggestions aren’t new, but UDL provides a more intentional approach to thinking about how you design your courses. If you would like some specific ideas about how to revise your course, the University of Calgary Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning has a UDL guide that includes reflection questions and planning worksheets for faculty.  

One important thing for faculty members to remember is that making your course and your course materials more accessible for all students doesn’t happen overnight. Each time you teach a course, consider one small change you could make that would address some of the points above. A series of small changes add up so don’t become discouraged if the number of tasks seems daunting. 

Meditation and mindfulness

Mental health is a widespread topic of conversation on campus. Often our focus is on student wellness, but faculty and staff also benefit from developing healthy practices. One program offered by Carleton’s Student Health and Counseling (SHAC) is Koru mindfulness classes, designed to provide an evidence-based introduction to mindfulness and meditation. This four session course helps build the habit of using mindfulness in your daily life on a regular basis. Koru mindfulness was originally developed at Duke University for “emerging adults”, but SHAC reserves several spots in each Koru class for faculty and staff.

The 2018-2019 Koru pilot program at Carleton included 32 students, 18 staff, and 2 faculty members. To explore the impact of the Koru course, participants were asked to fill out a pre/post assessment (the Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale-Revised).  Results show that participants experienced a increase in four aspects of mindfulness — attention, awareness, acceptance, and present-focus — with an effect size of 0.8. Participants also reported less stress, more in-the-moment awareness, better sleep, and increased focus. These results are consistent with finding at Duke University that Koru produces meaningful changes in participant self-compassion, perceived stress, and sleep (Greeson et al. 2014).

If you are interested in participating, or if you want to recommend that one of your advisees participates, the winter term 2020 schedule is:

  • Koru Section I: Wednesdays,  1:15-2:30 pm, Jan 15, 22, 29 and  Feb 4 (weeks 2, 3, 4 and 5) 
  • Koru Section II: Tuesdays, 4-5:15 pm, Feb 11, 18, 25 and Mar 3 (weeks 6, 7, 8 and 9)

For more research about correlates of mindfulness in higher education, check out the summary sheet with bibliography, compiled by Betsy Lane-Getaz of SHAC.

Connecting with Art Exhibitions and Artist Residencies Across the Curriculum

The November 12th LTC session provided some excellent examples of how faculty can make use of exhibitions or artist residencies to bring new dimensions of teaching and learning to their classrooms. Barbara Allen (Political Science), Stephanie Cox (French & Francophone Studies and Cross-Cultural Studies), and Bill North (History) all shared experiences and lessons learned. For faculty who are interested in bringing a guest artist or group to campus, Steve Richardson, Director of the Arts, can help with scheduling, venue, technical support, and funding. You should contact him before contracting with an artist.

Exhibitions, featuring tangible artifacts and organized around research questions, are powerful formats for creating and sharing knowledge. Three facilities host Carleton’s exhibition program: The Perlman Teaching Museum, Gould Library, and the Weitz Center for Creativity White Spaces. Here is information about these spaces that was shared at the LTC lunch.

Perlman Teaching Museum

Presents exhibitions of art and artifacts organized around ideas connecting the liberal arts, materializing scholarly questions, and cultivating visual literacy.

Curated by: Museum Director and Curator (currently vacant); faculty and student co-curators; and outside professionals

Timeframe: Exhibition projects generally take one to three years to develop.

Facility: The public spaces comprise the soaring Braucher Gallery, with 24 foot ceilings and an adjustable lighting grid, and the more intimate Kaemmer Family Gallery. The facility is secure and climate-controlled to high museum standards. Museum staff are fully involved in realizing and installing all exhibition projects.

Contact: While Museum Director and Curator position is vacant, contact Steve Richardson, Director of the Arts. More information at the Perlman Teaching Museum website.

Gould Library Exhibitions

The mission of the Robert C. Larson ’56 Art in the Library Program is to bring library users into daily contact with works of art, artifacts, and natural objects in a spirit of discovery and learning. Exhibitions, drawing from library collections and other sources, feature student and faculty research, course projects, and more.

Curated by: Zoe Adler, Curator of Library Art & Exhibitions, in collaboration with students, faculty, and others.

Timeframe: Proposals accepted for projects one term to one year in advance.

Facility: Gould Library is a semi-secure, climate-controlled environment. Exhibitions are mounted in cases, on display walls, and throughout the Library.

Contact: Zoe Adler, Curator, Robert C. Larson ’56 Art in the Library Program. More information at the Gould Library Exhibitions website.

Weitz Center White Spaces

Active places to create, critically analyze, and share exhibitions, creative projects, and learning laboratories.

Curated by: Students & faculty

Timeframe: Proposals accepted for same-term and advance projects to be displayed from one week to a full academic term.

Facility: Two small former classrooms (260 square feet), and the Hamlin Creative Space (1000 square feet). No security provided; exhibitors are expected to manage their own install, de-install, and publicity.

Contact: Submit requests to Steve Richardson, Director of the Arts.

Feedback and assessment in collaborative projects with students

Last week, Matt Whited (chemistry), Susannah Ottaway (history), and Ellen Iverson and Kristin O’Connell (both of SERC) presented at an engaging LTC session that explored strategies for communicating expectations, assessing student learning, and helping students articulate what skills they are developing in student-faculty collaborative projects.

Susannah shared her evolving perspective on the key elements for successful research partnerships with students. She noted that having a framework for projects that encourages a faculty member to think through key aspects of the project before starting is helpful. Because of her work with CCCE and the usefulness of community partner agreements when working with community organizations, Susannah suggested that faculty who want to spell out expectations more clearly, and think through aspects of a research partnership, might consider using the community partner agreement documents as the basis for developing a research partner agreement between students and faculty.

Matt shared his experience teaching a 300-level course-based research experience in the chemistry department. In particular, he noted the challenge of articulating learning goals and assessing student learning when the skills needed and progress made for each research project might be different. Rather than focusing on particular skills, Matt focused on fostering particular habits of mind. Assessment then involved metacognitive activities that asked students to reflect on both their experimental goals and progress and the development of other skills like teamwork and resilience. Matt noted that being explicit both about the course goals and how they would be assessed was important; this was uncomfortable for some students who were used to chemistry courses that involved problem sets and exams to assess learning.

To see more details of Susannah and Matt’s presentation, check out the slides from the event.

Teaching Toolbox: Coaching Students on Collaboration

Carleton faculty members often encourage students to collaborate with each other in many different ways:

  • Informal opportunities to work together on class-related activities outside of class time,
  • Assigned group work outside of class time,
  • Informal partner or small group activities during class time,
  • Formal group work during class time, and
  • Long-term projects with the same group of students over an extended period of time.

However, we don’t always explicitly help students understand what we mean we encourage them to collaborate nor do we always provide them with the tools they need to address the inevitable difficulties that arise when working in teams. This term’s teaching toolbox provided an opportunity to discuss approaches that faculty are currently used, as well as exploring ideas from other institutions.

My sense is that that are many techniques out there for helping students collaborating on formal projects over an extended period of time. Some of the the tools that faculty use include:

  • Group skills inventory,
  • Team contract,
  • Peer evaluation, 
  • Group process assessment.

For a thoughtful discussion of how to structure long-term team projects, consider taking a look at the work by WPI faculty members Geoffrey Pfeifer and Elisabeth Stoddard. They have explored the challenges of designing group work with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind and developed a series of tools to help faculty structure teamwork.

The above approaches may not make sense for group work of a shorter duration, but discussing and assigning group roles and include a pre- or post-activity reflection assignment can be valuable, even for short-term collaborations. At the LTC discussion, Sarah Deel shared some excellent resources that she and others have developed for Bio 125, including document about Group Work Hints and Roles as well as some group work scenarios for discussion during class time.  

In addition to formal group work, our courses often include informal collaboration during class and outside of classroom. Some suggestions for informal group work include:

  • Asking students to report who they collaborated with outside of class on each part of an assignment that they submit
  • After an assignment, inviting students to write a short reflection paper about whether or not they collaborated and the associated benefits/drawbacks.
  • Being cautious about letting students self-assemble into groups as that students who don’t find a group right away feel unwelcome. 

During the discussion we also took a look at the Harvey Mudd Math Department’s Guidelines for Collaboration. That document does an excellent job of making explicit what collaboration (including informal collaboration) entails and provides tips on collaborating both on homework assignments and on projects. As always, being transparent about expectations helps make our learning environments more inclusive for all students. 

What approaches do you use to explicitly help coach students to build collaboration skills?

Feelings of learning in active learning versus lecture settings

Earlier this month, the article, “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom”, in PNAS garnered a lot of buzz. In a carefully controlled classroom environment, researchers gathered direct measures of student learning in an introductory physics course, as well as student self-reported perceptions of learning. They found that students learned more in the active learning classes (as would be expected based on much existing research), but students’ perception of learning was lower in active learning environments than in passive learning environments. This suggests that when instructors try to evaluate teaching based on students’ perception of learning, they might mistakenly find themselves lecturing more because students will self-report that they are learning more from lectures than in-class activities.

What’s going on here? The paper notes that the cognitive fluency of lectures can lead students to believe that they are learning more than they actually are. Active learning requires more cognitive effort, and as students struggle with activities, they become aware of what they don’t understand, which can lead to diminished feelings of learning. The paper suggests that instructors should discuss with students the research showing that perceived fluency and feelings of learning can be misleading as compared to actual learning. As always, explaining to students the “why” of the pedagogical choices we make is important.

Reading the PNAS paper reminded me of other discussions I’ve seen that explore how students are poor judges of the effectiveness of various study strategies. For example, students believe that massed studying is more effective than interleaved studying, although students actually perform better after interleaved studying. This once again seems to be a case of students assuming that feelings of fluency reflect actual learning.

For faculty who are looking to help students develop better self-monitoring skills, there are a variety of different approaches. Saundra McGuire’s book Teach Students How to Learn is available in the LTC library, and a number of faculty have found its suggestions for fostering metacognition to be useful. This recent blog post at Improve with Metacognition provides some suggestions for smaller activities to incorporate into classes to help students develop metacognitive skills. And this blog has highlighted Chico Zimmerman and his approach to using learning assists as a way to foster metacognition in the classroom. What are some of your approaches to encouraging students to become better a monitoring their own learning?