Reimagining Participation Points in the Classroom, Oh My!

After years of experimentation (with successes and failures), I’ve finally settled on a great way to reimagine participation in the classroom. I am fully aware that this won’t work for many people, or even most classes, but it has worked wonders for my art history classes under 30 students. Once I found the winning recipe, I realized I’d never be able to do without it because my classroom has been transformed. The best part is that it is a flexible enough system that when changes are needed, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Participation Points: How can students earn them?

I have always included something about active participation in the classroom on my syllabi. And I briefly note what that looks like. But over the years I continued to feel that it didn’t capture what I actually felt could happen both in and out of the classroom. I was such a shy student that the idea of answering questions in class sometimes made me want to miss class due to spikes in anxiety. But it didn’t mean I didn’t want to participate, I just couldn’t in that way. And what about students who would seek out opportunities to go to exhibitions or monuments in their town or city, then write about it? Wasn’t this too a form of participating in and with the class? Over time, I realized I needed more flexibility to account for the many ways that students could demonstrate participation. I also wanted students to devise ways that they too felt was a form of participation.

Here are some of the ways that students in my World Art History II class could earn participation points in and out of class this past spring 2020 semester (ok so it was #TriageTeaching2020).

They could earn them outside of class time.

I won’t go into great detail about each of these here (some I will cover in other posts; if you have questions, please do reach out!). For the reflection, I have students the opportunity to write 150-word reflections on our LMS forums (all this before we went remote, mind you). I have students freedom to choose what they’d write, as long it related to class somehow. In the years since I started to do this, I’ve never been disappointed. Students write the most wonderful, fascinating, thought-provoking things! And I note to them that I will not be an active responder in this space, mainly an active reader. I do reference the posts in class though. Why don’t I respond? Well, students can earn points for writing 50-100 word responses to these reflections. They generate conversations, incorporate what they’ve learned in my class or in others or what they’ve watched, read, or streamed. It is a robust learning environment, and one that has become crucial to my class.

I also wanted to encourage students to come to office hours (in person or virtual ones), so I give participation points for that. I very much encourage students to work and study together (they are, after all, arranged into teams), so they can earn points for that pro-social act.

With COVID-19 upon us, I also wanted to offer students some ways to destress, to meditate, to just be. I offered about 50 coloring book pages of well-known artworks that students could complete as a form of self-care. I also had them recreate famous artworks (which I’ve been doing for years–go tableaux vivants activities!). They would likewise post these things in our forums, and students could comment on them.

In a normal semester, students could also earn points by going to certain museums and exhibitions, and writing specific reflections that they post for other students to read.

They could also earn points during class time.

I begin this class every day with retrieval practice. I use PollEverywhere to ask 5 questions about the readings or videos that they had to do before class. Each question is worth 1 participation point (if it is answered correctly). BUT! I know test anxiety is high, so I also offer students the chance to earn participation points by coming to class 5 minutes early and showing me the notes they took on the days preparatory materials. If they wrote notes for them all, I give them the 5 points automatically and they can still opt to take the polleverwhere quiz.

I’ve found that students are better at keeping on track, yet they feel less stressed. Every student in this class (or 99% of them) have noted that this technique also made them feel see much better prepared for exams, activities, and discussions.

How do I track all of this?

As you can imagine, having so many opportunities became unwieldy for me to track. I tried it, and let me tell you: it was INTENSE. Too intense, and I made mistakes.

Thus was born the Google Form, portions of which you see above. Basically, I ask students to track their participation. I still keep track as well, but now the responsibility is shared. It is also nicely input into a spreadsheet, and it is easy to do the addition at the appropriate time.

[NOTE: As of Spring 2020, I now have a super-charged spreadsheet that is PURE MAGIC. I did not develop it, but a good friend and colleague did. I cannot make it available, nor do I feel I can talk about it publicly, because she is developing it into an app. But wow! I need to learn the magic of spreadsheets in greater detail.]

The downside to this flexible participation point system

Students often want to know where they stand, understandably. But because the points change almost daily, they do need to check-in more regularly about where they stand.

It does require some upkeep–let’s call it daily maintenance.

And also, spreadsheets. If you have an aversion to them, this might not be the best system for you.

The upside to this system

Honestly, it has been the best system for my class. Students remain engaged throughout the semester. They take charge of their learning in exciting and new ways. They get creative. They know they can do a lot of different things to demonstrate participation, and this appeals to them. It has been worth every moment that I’ve spent trying to develop a more equitable, flexible system. And it has worked wonders!

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