Do students see the value of class participation? Results of a pilot project 

A cloud and round speech bubbles above a pad of sticky notes
Sun-Young Kim (L) and Alejandra (Sandra) Barriales-Bouche (R)

Do you ever wish students viewed class participation to be as important as you do? What if you could motivate students to take more responsibility for their class participation? Two McGill instructors whose courses require a lot of student participation did a pilot project to find out. Alejandra (Sandra) Barriales-Bouche and Sun-Young Kim teach Spanish and German language courses, respectively, in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures in the Faculty of Arts. They shared with me what they learned from their students and how they will use that information to support students’ learning going forward.

Carolyn: Can you describe the context for your project? 

Sandra: We did this research in our intensive beginner level courses where students practice and learn listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. These courses are required for students doing majors and minors in their chosen language. Other students take the course as an elective. Students tend to be U0 to U3. Typical enrollment is around 23 students.  

Sun-Young: Since language learning requires repeated practice and feedback, our courses have many low-stakes assignments in addition to exams. 

C: What did you want to investigate with this project?  

S: For students to confidently use a new language beyond the classroom, they need to regularly engage in learning activities that require not only interaction with course content, but also with peers and us. For this reason, students need to attend class and interact. When classes were online during the COVID-19 pandemic, we felt we couldn’t insist students participate—not only for technical reasons, but also for compassionate reasons. Students, like everyone else, were experiencing stress and had other preoccupations. We wanted to go gently and therefore chose not to grade participation.  

SY: As classes shifted from being held online to being back on campus, this choice caused us to reflect on what we generally ask students to do in terms of participation. Thus, once fully back on campus, we became more intentional about what our expectations for class participation would be and how we would articulate these expectations to students. We wanted to get an understanding of students’ perceptions of what it means to participate in our courses. Here are a couple of the questions we explored that could be of interest to others: 

  1. Do students understand our expectations for participation? 
  2. Would students be more engaged if they were involved in the assessment of their participation?  

C: How did you collect data? 

S: It was in three parts:  

First, two weeks into the term, we each administered an initial survey* in our classes where we asked students to review the participation criteria detailed in the course outline and let us know if they had any thoughts or concerns about their ability to participate in class.  

Second, at midterm, we each administered a class participation self-assessment survey*. This survey was a mix of open and closed questions that invited students to reflect on their participation in the first half of the term and consider ways they might improve their participation in the second half. 

Finally, during the last week of classes, before students had completed the last exam of the term, we administered an exit survey*. The questions were designed to help us understand the extent to which students felt reflecting on their participation contributed to their engagement in class participation. 

We used the Assignments tool in myCourses for the first two surveys. The initial survey and self-assessment were not anonymous because we wanted to engage in dialogue with our students further to their responses.  We did, in fact, respond to students’ comments. Sun-Young responded to students’ questions and concerns in class, and I used the comment box in Assignments to provide individual feedback. The exit survey was anonymous. 

C: What did you learn from students’ responses? 

SY: We learned a lot! We’ll give you some examples from our preliminary analysis. For the initial survey, 32/39 students responded from the two sections of the Spanish course (combined) and 16/22 from the German class. We learned that we might need to temper one of our expectations. Specifically, in language courses, instructors often insist that students use only the language they are learning while in class. We learned that students who wanted to participate felt they couldn’t necessarily do so because, as beginners, they were uncertain with vocabulary and grammar. One student suggested a more realistic participation criterion might be “increasingly uses Spanish over time.” 

We also learned that cold-calling on students potentially stops other students from volunteering to participate. Interestingly, one student said they tend not to raise their hand unless the instructor looks in their direction. 

In the midterm self-assessment, we asked, “How has your participation helped you learn so far? Can you provide some examples to explain your answer?” From the Spanish classes, 32/39 students responded and 16/22 from the German class. The most frequent responses (in order) were that students perceived that participation helped them self-correct errors; be more confident with their oral skills; learn pronunciation; remember material; and stay engaged. 

For the exit survey, 32/39 students responded from the Spanish classes and 16/22 from the German class. We share the results with bar graphs: 

Did reflecting on participation help you stay (more) engaged in class?  

Did reflecting on participation help you take participation more seriously in this class?  

Which form did you find the most useful in understanding the value of participation in this class? 

In your opinion, should these self-assessment assignments be kept in future Spanish/German classes?  

With respect to the self-assessment at midterm, the final survey revealed that students appreciated the clarity of the expectations for participation; the reminder to participate through the use of the midterm self-assessment; and opportunities to voice their opinions. Some students were motivated to participate simply by doing the survey. 

Interestingly, students’ responses were essentially the same in both courses.  

C: How will the results from this pilot project inform the way you encourage students to participate in your respective classes in the future? 

SY: We’ve already made several changes. For example, we’ve both changed our itemized list of expectations of participation to be more appropriate and realistic for each language level, as I mentioned. We will continue to encourage students to increase their use of the language they are learning over the course of the term, as they acquire new skills and progress with their learning. And I think more carefully now about when to cold call on students and when to wait for them to volunteer to participate. We also plan to share the results of this investigation with future students to get their buy-in and motivate them to participate. And we plan to continue administering these surveys. 

C: What advice do you have for instructors who are interested in bolstering students’ in-class participation? 

  • S: Try out the initial survey. You don’t have to do all three parts if you feel it would be too much, but just getting that initial information can be enough to engage students and begin a dialogue with them.  
  • SY: Check in with individual students. Use the information from the survey(s) to engage in dialogue with students about their class participation. While students valued our ongoing support for their participation, we believe it’s important for students to share in the responsibility for this learning. 

*Sandra and Sun-Young have shared the three surveys under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. 

Read about other research Sandra and Sun-Young have done in their language classes: Doing research to inform teaching strategies and assessment practices 

Image (sticky notes) credit: DS stories 

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Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!

(Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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