Developing a Rubric to Grade Classroom Participation

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Dr. Stephen Brookfield, UST Distinguished Professor and John Ireland Endowed Chair (CELC)

Dr. Stephen Brookfield, Distinguished University Professor, College of Education, Leadership and CounselingOne of the typical ways teachers in higher education try to get discussion going is by declaring that participation in the course counts towards the overall grade or mark awarded to students. This will certainly induce speech amongst those most concerned with getting good marks, but it often has little to do with thoughtful discussion. Instead, it turns discussion groups into performance arenas, settings in which students perform behaviors designed to gain recognition and affirmation from the teacher. Students sometimes think the frequency of their verbal contributions – almost regardless of their lucidity or relevance – is the criterion for judging participation. Furthermore, unless the pattern of participation is deliberately disrupted in the first couple of meetings of the course, the pecking order is firmly established by the third meeting. This pecking order is powerfully self-fulfilling; the longer a student remains silent, the more intimidating becomes the prospect of speaking.

Because so much student behavior in formal education settings is determined by the grade, I have tried to make a virtue of this necessity by developing a grading rubric that I use to teach students my own discussion norms. I want them to realize early on that the most important part of participation is listening, not talking. Above all, a good discussion participant is someone who listens carefully and thinks before speaking. As teachers we can model good active listening when we solicit, and reply to, students’ questions. But we need to underscore that modeling with clear criteria for participation that support that behavior.

The rubric below is one I have used with different groups of students – pre-college, undergraduate, and graduate. It tries, concretely and specifically, to describe the kinds of behaviors that count as participation. A student who participated well according to this rubric would link contributions already made by students, ask questions to draw people’s thinking out, builds on and extend comments already made, express appreciation for how peers’ contributions have clarified their own understanding, and raise questions that might take the discussion in a new direction. Quiet students could show good participation according to the rubric by posting comments online, bringing in resources that are new to the class, or calling for a period of quiet thinking time. I publish this rubric in the course syllabus in the hope of displacing the norm that participation means grabbing the verbal spotlight.

Instructions to Students

20% of your grade for this class is based on your participation in discussion. Participating in discussion does not mean talking a lot or showing everyone else that you know or have studied a lot. Good discussion participation involves people trying to build on, and synthesize, comments from others, and on showing appreciation for others’ contributions. It also involves inviting others to say more about what they are thinking. Some of the most helpful things you can do are call for a quiet interlude, bring a new resource to the classroom, or post an observation on line. So there are multiple ways quieter learners can participate.

Below are some specific behavioral examples of good participation in discussion:-

  • Ask a question or make a comment that shows you are interested in what another person says.
  • Ask a question or make a comment that encourages another person to elaborate on something they have already said.
  • Bring in a resource (a reading, web link, video) not covered in the syllabus but that adds new information/perspectives to our learning.
  • Make a comment that underscores the link between two people's contributions & make this link explicit in your comment.
  • Use body language (in only a slightly exaggerated way) to show interest in what different speakers are saying.
  • Post a comment on the course chat room that summarizes our conversations so far and/or suggests new directions and questions to be explored in the future.
  • Make a comment (online if this is appropriate) indicating that you found another person's ideas interesting or useful. Be specific as to why this was the case.
  • Contribute something that builds on, or springs from, what someone else has said. Be explicit about the way you are building on the other person's thoughts – this can be done online.
  • Make a comment on your Critical Incidence Questionnaire that prompts us to examine discussion dynamics.
  • When you think it's appropriate, ask the group for a moment's silence to slow the pace of conversation to give you, and others, time to think.
  • Make a comment that at least partly paraphrases a point someone has already made.
  • Make a summary observation that takes into account several people's contributions & that touches on a recurring theme in the discussion (online if you like).
  • Ask a cause and effect question - for example, "can you explain why you think it's true that if these things are in place such and such a thing will occur?"
  • Find a way to express appreciation for the enlightenment you have gained from the discussion. Try to be specific about what it was that helped you understand something better. Again this can be done online if this suits you better.

Implementing the Rubric: the Discussion Audit

Because I have multiple claims on my attention in class - making the material as understandable as possible, responding well to students’ questions, covering the material properly, and making sure the energy and engagement level of the class stays high - I am limited in my ability to track who is saying what in large group discussions, and how individual students are participating in small groups. So I rely on student reports of their participation to gauge how students are participating.

If discussion takes up a significant amount of a particular class then I ask the students to complete a brief Discussion Audit that day. This is a quick log where students have four questions to respond to...

(a) What ideas, questions, or information did I contribute to the discussion today?
(b) How did I try to encourage someone else to speak today?
(c) How did I demonstrate I was listening carefully to the discussion today?
(d) How did I build on a contribution somebody made?

Students write down their replies to these four questions and keep their completed responses. Once or twice a semester – usually on weeks where no homework is set – I ask students to bring the audits they have completed so far in the course to the class that day and I collect them to review. If I feel a student is making claims regarding the extent of their participation that are excessive then I’ll try to pull them aside and talk to them to get their perspective on what they think has occurred. What usually happens is that I am both impressed and convinced by students’ testimony, particularly to the way they document how they are contributing to small groups.

This degree of scrutiny is only really called for in courses where you have decided that discussion is a major teaching methodology. It is far too labor intensive for a class where lectures, demonstrations or independent projects are the major methodology. But if you use discussion a lot because it illustrates the complexities of the material to student, because it helps students to think on their feet, or because it gives them experience of collaborative learning, then it seems to me these are important enough reasons both to allocate points for student contributions, and to ask that students provide you with evidence of such activity.

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