Turning Participation Grades into Self-Directed Learning Opportunities

Students engaged in small group discussion in a lecture hall
We all want students to come to class prepared, having done the readings, and ready to actively participate in discussions and activities. Although the practice is debated, many of us use participation grades to encourage the types of behavior we want to see in class. Typically, it works, but it’s a very extrinsically focused form of motivation.

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We all want students to come to class prepared, having done the readings, and ready to actively participate in discussions and activities. Although the practice is debated, many of us use participation grades to encourage the types of behavior we want to see in class. Typically, it works, but it’s a very extrinsically focused form of motivation.

At the same time, most college teachers want to help students learn how to learn and become self-directed learners. Yet extrinsically motivated grading practices make it difficult to accomplish these goals. Are there ways to not only ensure that students actively participate in class but also help them take ownership of their participation and develop the desire to become more intentional learners?

I’ve been exploring a few ways to do this. Over the years, I’ve learned from other instructors’ practices, helpful online posts, and great resources like Nilson’s (2013) collection of self-regulated learning strategies. I am currently using a few methods that attempt to support Schraw’s (1998) three-stage model for self-regulated learning: planning, monitoring, and evaluating. Through the development of class norms and periodic reflection assignments, I work with students to collectively set the tone for class participation and encourage them to reflect on their engagement continually throughout the course.

During the first class

It is common to create guidelines, norms, or “rules of engagement” for class discussion, especially in courses in which sensitive and contentious discussions occur or reactions to the content can become emotional. During the first class, I make time to collectively create these norms, asking students, “What does it mean to participate?”

I ask the students to think about particularly good discussions and classroom climates they have encountered and to describe them to each other in pairs. Next, two pairs join and begin talking about the essential elements that support productive classroom communication.

Typically, students themselves suggest norms such as the following: ask questions, be an active listener, respect different opinions, be open-minded, and come to class prepared to engage. Here are some of my additional favorites:

Students write down suggested attitudes and behaviors they would like the class to follow. I bring up anything I feel is missing, such as whether they believe participation means that everyone should speak in class (usually they do not). Then I type up our collectively developed norms, making sure to use the students’ language as much as possible.

I post the norms online and in the classroom, and I refer to them at the beginning of the first few classes as well as before any potentially contentious course activities or discussions. By creating this list of norms using students’ language and their understandings of productive class engagement, I hope they can better see the connections between their individual behavior and our collective learning.

Midway through the course

It is an important first step take the time to create class norms, and it is wonderful to see the energy and ease with which students engage in the process. But it’s another thing to make sure the class stays true to the intent of these norms without frequent reminders from me.  

Like many instructors, I always offer some form of midcourse feedback mechanism students can use to share feedback about the course and instruction. At the same time, I ask students to reflect on their learning. I give them each a sheet of paper that lists the class norms and ask them to assess their participation and contributions in light of these norms. I have them respond to these questions:

While the students’ feedback to me about the course and my instruction is anonymous, their feedback about their own learning is not. I ask them to put their names on their self-assessment reflections. I find that students are usually pretty accurate in assessing their strengths and areas for change. More often than not, my feedback is to simply agree with them, encourage them, or make specific suggestions.

At the end of the course

To help students continue to develop and reflect on their engagement in future classes, I have a final participation reflection assignment. In the syllabus, I lay out some general expectations for class participation and engagement. For example:

Each week you will be expected to come to class prepared, having done the readings, and ready to participate and engage in class activities. In addition, you will occasionally be asked to complete short activities prior to and during some of the class sessions. As a class, we should all try our best to live up to our collectively created class norms.

During the last week of class, I ask students to submit a short reflection describing their participation and engagement in the course. I ask them to review the class norms and participation expectations and to share how they would grade themselves and why. Essentially, this is a chance for each student to weigh in on their final “participation” grade, which ends up as a combination of their reflection, my observations, and their attendance and completion of the weekly assignments. 

I encourage them to be creative in the format, and I’ve found that at the end of the term, students are often eager to do something other than write a paper. I have had students submit videos, poems, concept maps, and drawings of their personal journeys through the course. These reflections provide me with additional insight into what they feel they’ve gotten out of the course and, often, what else is going on in their lives. They also encourage students to reflect on how much effort they devoted to the course and how that relates to what they learned, as well as how to build upon their strengths and areas of development in subsequent courses.

These activities take some thought and planning but in the end require only minimal class time. Ideally, students are more motivated to participate in constructive ways if they see the connections between their engagement and learning themselves. My hope is that by committing even just a little time to this type of reflection, I can support students in planning, monitoring, and evaluating the impact of their participation and active engagement in class.


Nilson, L. (2013). Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students’ self-awareness and learning skills. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science, 26(1–2), 113–125.

Bridget Arend, PhD, is an affiliate faculty member with the Morgridge College of Education and the former executive director of the Office of Teaching and Learning at the University of Denver. She consults with institutions and faculty about teaching, course design, curriculum, and faculty development initiatives.