Part 4: Learning Activities and Engagement

The Puzzle of Online Participation

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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 required synchronous components can be trickier. Depending on the course level and content, some instructors may substitute an auto-graded quiz over the reading or video or an assignment like a minute paper where they write briefly about one or two things in the module.

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 is not going to be true for everyone. For example, teaching statistics, it’s not uncommon to have students work with sports data. Presuming that everyone understands what you mean when you start asking questions about batting or earned run averages is a good way to lose folks that did not grow up with baseball. These students may be able to easily compute the same type of statistics for soccer, cricket, video games, or other non-game-related situations, but are lost with baseball questions without some additional information. Thinking about the purpose of the assignment, which is to understand and use particular statistical concepts, you could do something as simple as making a few small groups in Canvas, each with themes such as baseball, soccer, election data, or COVID-19 data,  and letting students pick which one they want to participate in.  This is an example of a part of  Universal Design for Learning which encourages faculty to provide options for getting students interested in what they are learning and staying interested as they see the connections to things they are already interested in. For more on UDL, see the UDL on Campus website.

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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