The dreaded “Class Participation” grade: can technology help?

photo credit, deborah jaffe, via flickr

**I’m teaching a new class this semester: Human Behavior in the Social Environment: Groups, Organizations, and Communities, and it has prompted a lot of thinking about group development, in particular, and some new ideas about organizational impact on practice, too. This week, I’ll have a few posts about some of the topics that I’m raising in this class, tying in some of the reading I’ve been doing around these ideas. I (and, I’m sure, my students!) would appreciate any of your feedback, too.

One of the challenges of any instructor, I think, is how to solicit the full participation of all students in a way that supports the learning of other students as well. For social work instructors, where most of our classes are very participatory, and where a big part of our, rather unspoken, responsibility is to assess the degree to which a student is not only intellectually but also ethically congruent with our profession, finding this instructional ‘sweet spot’ is even more critical. We tell students that it’s not enough just to be present; they have to participate. Yet we (or, at least, I) struggle to quantify ‘participation’, and, even more importantly, to qualify it–how do I honor each student’s contribution, respect differences in language abilities and speed of processing, preserve confidentiality, and deal with conflicts among students (and student comments that challenge my own understanding of our professional value base)? On the fly, yet with a record that will later allow me to assign a point value to these interactions?

Over the winter break, in preparation for this class, which is a bit larger than some of my Master-level courses and also uses quite a bit of group work, I did some reading on pedagogy and also on group interactions and group work for learning. In light of those insights, and in preparation for class next fall, which will be half online, I am incorporating the use of online discussion boards, internal to our class, into the class participation grade. It has been mostly a success so far, largely because I was able to learn from the experiences of other instructors who have forged these paths before, although I’m still experimenting with ways to address some of the challenges.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m finding that the new medium doesn’t really change many of the dynamics and patterns of student participation; it mainly moves them to a new venue. At this midpoint in the semester (happy spring break, everyone!), here are my admittedly unscientific reflections on the limits and potential of discussion boards in social work education.

  • They absolutely help students whose only barrier to participation is shyness. I have had some wonderful, quite meaningful exchanges (and observed some others) with students who say almost nothing in the full class environment. This is a huge advantage; those students who obviously are very engaged with the material but just don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves in class have a new outlet.
  • Students tend to disclose more in a discussion board than they would in class. In some cases, this is really powerful; they delve more deeply into the course, and we are able to build a stronger relationship, than would otherwise be possible, in a shorter time. Sometimes this is kind of awkward, though, when students disclose things that they really might not want, on more reflection, me (or other students) to know; there’s an anonymity (even though there isn’t) on the discussion board, and boundaries can be a little blurred.
  • The core challenges in creating meaningful class participation experiences remain: students tend to react more to me than to each other, despite my attempts to draw linkages; students tend to answer the questions posed more than critically explore unanswered quandaries; and it’s harder to get students to bring in course readings and other, external perspectives than to get them to just respond from their own experiences. This doesn’t discourage me from using discussion boards but, rather, suggests that they are not the panacea that some would hope.
  • Finally, and unexpectedly, I love having a record! I can look back at how students have changed their understanding over the weeks, how relationships are developing, how we’ve been able to build in class off what we do on the boards. It makes assigning grades easier, too, because I don’t have to keep track of points every week.

    Students and instructors using discussion boards, in social work or elsewhere in higher education, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. How can we make this technology maximally useful? How can it complement classwork? And what do you see as its dangers?

  • 2 responses to “The dreaded “Class Participation” grade: can technology help?

    1. Based on my student experience with blackboard, the most interactive and rewarding experience I had was when the instructor posed a question/discussion point and then outlined specific expectation for the responses.

      One expectation was that we not only had to post our response, but read at least two fellow classmates’ responses and comment on them, much like a deabte. We had to identify which view points wtih which we agreed/disagreed or liked/disliked and explain why.

      This method tended to elicit more indepth discussions and prompted more critical analysis on my part. Conversely and unfortunately, it was, at times, used by some students to attack the person instead of the idea. But then no method of interaction is without its drawbacks.

      It was also helpful that the instructor specified a minimum of “talking ponts” that each student had to cover in his or her response. This is where you might get them to link the discussion to the class material or external links. Also, if memory serves me (a tricky thing at, best, sometimes) there were times when at least one external souce had to be cited (much like for a written paper) and incorporated into our discussion.

      Hope this helps. Just consider it one more learning tool in your repertoire and not, as you so aptly pointed out, “not the panacea that some would hope.”

      • Thanks, Cookie, for these thoughts. This aligns pretty well with what I’m doing (at the suggestion of some colleagues who have used discussion boards successfully), especially the pieces on requiring students to interact with each other; you’re totally right that that’s where the most meaningful interactions happen. I don’t require external citation, at this point, but I do require demonstrated integration of readings, and some students are bringing those references in on their own. I’m really concerned to hear about the ad hominem attacks on other students, though; when that kind of thing happens in the classroom (which it does less frequently, because of the personal connection), I can address it immediately with both parties. It could fester awhile in this format, because, while I’m on the boards every day, sometimes more than once, it’s not ‘real-time’. As always, I benefit from your wisdom and sharing. You’ve given me more to think about!

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