Guest Post

Guest Post, Alanna Gillis: An Evidence-Based Way to Improve Students’ Participation and How to Grade It

I am excited to introduce a guest post by Alanna Gillis, assistant professor of sociology. I strongly recommend her paper on reconceptualizing participation grading and her excellent work on the Covid pandemic. If you are interested in writing a guest post for the blog, please find more information about CITA’s scholarship of teaching grant here.

An Evidence-Based Way to Improve Students’ Participation and How to Grade It

Alanna Gillis

Participation is a difficult topic in higher education: we know that active learning is critical to deep learning and that participation is a necessary component. We want to incentivize students to speak up in discussions, complete readings, attend office hours when they need help, attend class on time, listen actively to their peers, and engage with course material in other ways outside of class. 

However, participation is extremely difficult to assess equitably or effectively. What should count as participation? How should it be measured? How should we take into account extenuating circumstances, learning differences, or past inequalities in educational quality? 

Despite being extremely common on course syllabi, faculty rarely explicitly describe what good participation looks like. If we’re being honest, many faculty have not fully refined for themselves what they even mean by participation. Faculty often rely on vague notions of who they remember talking during class or on narrow criteria like attendance. 

To overcome these problems, I created a new assessment format that I use in all my courses that reconceptualizes the purpose of participation assessment as skill building. Within this framework, I recognize that all students have strengths and room for improvement. With sufficient structures in place, they can improve in building skills they haven’t yet mastered. 

For instance, students who are hesitant to seek help can build the skill of attending office hours to talk with the professor. Sociologists have extensively documented social class and other differences in student help seeking behavior. While it may seem easy to those of us with experience, learning how to (effectively) ask faculty for help is a skill that must be practiced and developed. Likewise, students who are terrified to speak up in class discussions can build the skill of oral communication, improving from their current baseline. Alternatively, students who take up too much space in class discussions, preventing their peers from speaking, can build the skill of asking their quieter peers questions or learning to pause and count to five before responding. Even students who are habitually late to or miss class can build the skill of attending class on time. 

We accomplish this skill building together. Students complete a “Participation Goals” form at the beginning of the semester (see sample here) that asks students to reflect on their current skill levels in 5 dimensions: attendance/tardiness, preparation for class, participation in small group discussions, participation in full class discussions, and participation in other ways. Note that these are the five dimensions I choose to focus on in most of my courses, but faculty from across disciplines, institutions, and countries have written to me saying that they used this system and adjusted the dimensions based on their own course goals. 

Students must then set three goals for improvement during the semester. The goals must be based on what their baseline reflection established were areas for improvement so that they are working to build and improve skills they identified as needing development. They must also create a plan for achieving their goals. This practice is an example of metacognition, having students think about how they learn and create a realistic strategy for growth. Creating a plan jumpstarts the process of helping students think of these behaviors as skills rather than personality traits (i.e., being a “shy” student or being a “disorganized” student). I tell them that these goals will be the foundation of their participation grade, so they should take them seriously, create feasible and measurable goals, and choose things they actually want to improve on. 

On my end as the instructor, I give feedback on the goals, including recommendations for strategies for achieving them. For instance, if the student’s goal is to speak more during full class discussions, I might suggest writing down in their notebooks what they want to say before reading it aloud to start feeling less nervous about spontaneous speaking. I informally remind students every 2-3 weeks to think about their goals and they formally reflect on their goal progress at midterm (see sample midterm form). I again provide feedback, encouragement, and suggestions. Typically students who are reluctant to seek help in traditional ways will use this midterm form to honestly reflect on how they’re doing in the class and why they are struggling. This openness creates an excellent way for me to help connect them to relevant resources or intervene to provide additional support, as needed. 

At the end of the semester students complete a final participation reflection where they self-assess how they did on each dimension of participation and the extent to which they met their goals. They must also propose and justify a grade that they believe they earned for their participation this semester, based on my instructions that goal completion is the most important component of the grade. 

I know some instructors may be initially worried that all students will just give themselves A’s, but in reality with enough helpful structures, students are typically good at assessing themselves. About 90% of the time I agree with their grade, another 8% I give a higher grade, and less than 2% of the time I give a lower grade. This type of student proposed grade is a part of the broader ungrading movement (a suggested resource for an introduction to ungrading is Jesse Stommel’s website).

This participation system reduces inequalities as it is based on student growth rather than comparisons to other students. Thus, if students did not have access to a high-quality high school that provided robust experiences to develop oral communication skills, they won’t be punished for not speaking as much as their peers. Or, if due to sexism, racism, heterosexism, or any other number of inequalities, they have learned to distrust the classroom as a safe space for discussion, they can either work to build these skills here or they can simply choose to improve their participation in other ways. For instance, most students in my courses report regularly talking to friends and family about the course topics, an excellent form of participation where they must explain the concepts to someone who is unfamiliar–a skill requiring a high level of mastery and engagement! Now, they can set this as a goal and be rewarded for their out-of-classroom participation.

This participation system is additionally a helpful way to incentivize good classroom behaviors such as coming to class, being on time, etc. without having to be punitive. Students who tend to have problems with these behaviors are the ones who set them as goals and push themselves to attend more often. 

As further evidence that it builds skills, students report an increase in doing these same behaviors in their other courses that same semester, demonstrating that it’s not simply the grade motivating them to behave differently but that students are in fact building transferable skills that they take beyond my courses. 

In all, this system is one in which students take control over their own education by setting goals to improve on areas they recognize need improvement. I often tell them that this is the area of their grade over which they have the most control, as they choose the metrics (goals) by which they will be assessed and have the power to justify their own grade based on their success (or failure) to meet their goal. Students overwhelmingly respond positively to this approach and take the goals seriously. They express genuine pride during reflections when they report on their progress, often saying that they accomplished things they never thought possible. A number even tell me during the final reflection what goals they want to set for their future courses with different instructors. 

If you need any more persuasion to consider giving it a try, students overwhelmingly meet their goals (since 2020 I’ve recorded over 90% success rate) and so student participation and learning tend to be excellent in my courses. 

In essence, students learn that the multi-faceted concept we tend to call “participation” is actually a combination of skills and behaviors that can be practiced and improved upon. As their instructor, I admit I tear up grading participation final reflections each semester, as I am proud of their accomplishments too. 


If you are interested in talking about how to implement this framework in your courses, feel free to email Alanna. Since she published this system in 2019, instructors from around the world have successfully implemented the framework in courses of all levels (middle school through graduate level), all course types (STEM to arts to humanities and social sciences), and all course sizes (individual independent studies through several hundred student lecture halls). 

The journal article this post is based on was published in 2019 in Teaching Sociology. Since then, Alanna has presented on this framework at other universities, at conferences, and won a national award for its contribution to teaching and learning. Dozens of centers for teaching and learning recommend its usage including Yale, Brown, and Carelton. It may feel like a big leap of faith the first time you try it (that’s definitely how Alanna felt!), but the evidence shows that it can have significant positive impacts for your students and their learning.