Module 2: Active and Engaged Teaching and Learning

The Puzzle of Online Participation

When teaching on campus, it’s not uncommon to have attendance factor into a course grade. It’s fairly straightforward—students show up for class, they mostly pay attention, they may speak up in a class discussion or work in a small group. You give them a grade at the end of the semester. Online classes with no synchronous components can be trickier. Depending on the course level and content, some instructors may substitute a quiz over the reading or video an assignment where they answer one or two questions to indicate attendance.

In some in-person courses, participation is presumed by attendance. Students who are present are, by default, considered to be participating. As you have likely seen in many class settings, that presumption is not always true. While answering a question or submitting a quiz is enough to prove attendance for financial aid reporting purposes, it doesn’t provide the level of engagement that we hope to see in an online class.

Just as in your physical classroom, different approaches will engage different students, and it may take some experimentation to find out what works best for your course. Having a variety of participatory activities the first couple of times you teach a given course can allow you to gauge which ones you want to keep and which ones you don’t.

Expectations for active participation

There are three main expectations that both faculty and students should be able to have regarding active participation in an online class and they don’t have anything to do with word count, logins, or liking posts.

The first expectation should be that participating will help students learn or practice something that supports a desired learning outcome. The connection needs to be made explicitly enough that students can see the point of the interaction. When students feel that participation is merely busywork with no real benefit to them, they are much less likely to take part and benefit from the interaction. Explaining your participation activities transparently can clarify the purpose and benefit for your students and yourself.

Another expectation is that actively participating in the course should be worth a reasonable amount of the course grade. Supporting online presence through active learning and collaboration won’t happen by itself. Instructors modeling active participation in a welcoming and supportive manner will certainly help, but students are just as likely to look at what is included in the final grade to determine what is important. If you are encouraging weekly substantive participation but all of those activities together only count for 5% of the course grade, students will get the impression that their participation is not really valued. Putting your money (grades) where your mouth is, reinforces to students the value of active learning and collaboration for their academic success.

The final expectation is that all students can authentically participate. Your students are a diverse group, so assuming that everyone has had similar experiences, similar access to technology and internet connection, or similar comfort levels sharing their experiences and thoughts with their classmates. Thinking about these challenges from the perspective of can help you brainstorm participation opportunities that can be more engaging to more students.

On a related note, instructors using occasional synchronous video meetings for a participation grade can never assume that all students can be online at a particular time and day. If the times and days are listed as required on the schedule of classes before students register, you can come close, but you still should plan on either recording the session for students who could not participate or providing a coherent set of notes – either written by you, by an individual student (which could change each meeting), or by the class collaboratively in a Google Doc.

Grading participation

While active participation and engagement are crucial for learning, when that participation becomes fixed in text or video form, grading the quality and level of participation can become a challenge because you can have a lot of actual artifacts to grade. Depending on the activities involved, instructors may grade each activity individually or grade sets of activities related to single topics or projects along with providing general feedback on what the student has done well and what could be improved.

Rubrics can be an effective way of setting everyone’s expectations for participation in class and smaller group discussions and making participation grades more transparent. Quality Matters encourages the use of a checklist or rubric for participation; the rubric or checklist may include items such as originality, quality of posts, and responsiveness to peers.

Here are some example discussion rubrics to help you think about what you might work well in your own class.


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