Student participation and contributions


In addition to assessing students' assignment submissions and formal assessment tasks in the biological sciences, students' participation in class, or their contribution to online discussions is sometimes also assessed. Student participation manifests itself in a number of ways. It can range from relatively informal contributions to a class discussion, to more formally assessed and carefully structured contributions. Assessment of participation is particularly common in structured problem-based learning (PBL) environments, where students work collaboratively in regular meetings, facilitated but not led by a tutor. Participation is typically assessed based on verbal or written contributions in a small group environment. For instance, students may be given a set of questions to answer prior to attending class. They may be expected to complete certain readings in order to respond to these questions. Participatory opportunities are then provided for them to verbally give responses as part of a class discussion. Alternatively, students may be required to make a contribution to an online discussion board that is assessed on some predetermined set of criteria.

By encouraging students' active participation in biology learning environments throughout the semester, academics are more likely to engage students in learning. We were told of a number of creative approaches to fostering student participation, though we also heard of growing concerns about students' lack of participation due to poor preparation and low levels of class attendance. In seeking to enhance assessment in the biological sciences, we encourage staff to consider ways in which they might facilitate and maintain student participation by integrating this important learning activity into subject, unit and course-level assessment plans.

[see also: Peer and self-assessment; Student motivation]

Approaches - from the interviews

University staff interviewed shared a number of instructive examples of how they encourage student participation in, and contribution to, their own learning. On the whole, staff believe it is valuable to combine assessed and non-assessed activities in tutorials. This allows for a combination of informal, unassessed contributions, along with assessed participation activities such as submitted written work [see also: Written assignments] or group presentations [see also: Groupwork].

In one case, students in a large first year class were asked "If you had the job of assessing 100 students or more in biology, what type of assessment would you use, and what types of questions would you ask?" Students were asked to write their own examination questions and answers. While some found this very challenging, it nevertheless encouraged students to think about assessment from a different perspective and to actively participate by designing their own examination questions. Clearly, this approach requires careful monitoring and quality control on the part of the teaching staff. Nevertheless, the activity allows several options. At one level, the task could be a non-assessable activity that is completed in or out of class, individually or in groups. Staff may ask for a selection of questions from the group and discussion could revolve around analysing each question and various approaches to constructing a response. At another level, staff may select the best questions and include these in a final examination or test for all students to answer. In this way, students are included in the learning and assessment process and their contributions are seen to have a practical outcome.

In first year Aquaculture at one university, participation is facilitated when students are asked to present a draft of their contribution to a major group project in class. Students discuss each group member's draft in tutorials. In this way, student participation is focussed around an ongoing assessment task. It has a distinct purpose and outcome, and students are motivated to prepare their draft and contribute to the discussion for part of the group mark is based on students' assessments of other group members' contributions [see also: Groupwork].

Assessing an online discussion (discussion board, online forum)

There is a growing interest amongst academics in developing ways of assessing students' contributions to discussion boards as Learning Management Systems (LMS) increase the use of this form of online communication. Although some discussion boards remain venues for students to interact informally about matters of interest or concern, others are being used by academics as more formal assessable components of their courses. The assessable discussion boards are moderated by a staff member or sometimes by a roster of students whose role as a moderator is also assessed. Large classes are generally broken down into smaller groups, such as tutorial groups of perhaps 15 to 20 students, in order to create a sense of community within the discussion board.

Some students say that discussion boards are a useful, engaging way of learning. They appreciate having time to reflect or look up references before they make a contribution to the discussion, and they like being able to participate on a computer at any time in any place. Students from language backgrounds other than English, and who may therefore require more time to express themselves effectively in English, often find it easier to participate in online discussions than classroom ones.

Discussion boards are being assessed in a range of ways. Some academics pose a searching question each week on the LMS and give a mark to students who respond to the question directly, or to the online discussion that follows the question. A variant of this is to ask students to respond to a certain number of questions, such as five (e.g. worth 2% each), during the semester. Some academics take the quantity and length of student responses into account when assessing responses. A more useful, though more challenging strategy, is to assess the quality of students' contributions to discussion boards. Bloom's taxonomy* may be used to evaluate the level of thinking displayed in a student's contribution. Some staff have developed an assessment rubric (matrix) to assess online discussions so that students are aware of the kinds of responses that are rewarded [Example: Noble]. One academic gives a proportion of marks for succinct, summary titles to online contributions as he sees the ability to summarise key points as an important skill for students to learn - it also makes it much quicker for other contributors to follow the online conversation.

One academic introduced an assessable online discussion in order for internal and distance students to take part in a discussion equally, and to give students more intellectual interaction.

10 different peer reviewed papers and topics were used, one for each week, and students posted their opinions and thoughts online, based on these topics. Students were granted 1% for making a significant contribution to the discussion ... and the teaching staff monitored the discussion sometimes posting "anonymous" comments to inspire debate. A contribution was deemed significant if it demonstrated a good grasp on the issue at hand and displayed original thought. [Example: Cavanagh 3]

[*see also: Outcomes and assessment for a more detailed description of Bloom's taxonomy]


Student contributions in class are typically followed by immediate verbal feedback from staff, from peers or from both. If these contributions are to be more formally assessed, however, teaching staff may design a feedback sheet, listing a set of headings or criteria to guide feedback. Alternatively, students may be asked to design their own feedback sheet as a class. Ideally, feedback should be provided by both staff and peers at various stages through the year.

[see also: Peer and self-assessment]

In the case of assessable participation or contributions - whether verbal or written, whether online or in the classroom - students should always be aware of the criteria on which they will be judged. Some examples of criteria include:

  • Quality and depth of response
  • Evidence of wider reading
  • Evidence of critical analysis and interpretation
  • Quality of verbal communication
  • Quality of written communication
  • Style appropriate for the intended audience or set task

Issues and strategies/solutions/tips for managing these issues

  • Students don't attend class and therefore don't participate - what can I do?

  • If class attendance is expected, it is important to communicate this expectation early and respond to non-attenders as quickly as possible. Let students know that they are accountable to their classmates, to themselves and to you. Their presence and contribution matters.
  • If attendance continues to be an issue, you may consider a form letter for non-attendees, signed by you, or a more senior colleague.
  • Consider including an assessable attendance and/or participation component in tutorials.
  • Students don't prepare and therefore don't participate - how do I motivate them?

  • Place emphasis on student accountability and don't lower your standards or expectations. If you have made your expectations of preparation explicit at the beginning of semester, these should continue to underpin your practice.
  • If students have not prepared, you may ask them to read and respond to written questions in writing while you actively engage the rest of the class in discussion.
  • On some occasions, you may require those who have prepared to explain what they have learned to the non-preparers; however this should only be done infrequently as it may build resentment among those who have done the work.
  • Consider including an assessable participation or contribution component in tutorials. This may be written or verbal.

[see also: Student motivation]

  • What criteria do I use for class participation?

  • Some staff use a global assessment (e.g. a mark out of 10) for quality and extent of participation over the course of the semester.
  • Others use a combination of student self-assessment, peer-assessment and teacher assessment. Typically, these assessment tools contain a list of criteria and a rating scale (e.g. ranging from 1=unsatisfactory to 5=highly satisfactory). These ratings may then be totalled to form a final grade if appropriate. This can be very time-consuming, but may also be a useful activity that encourages students to reflect on how they have contributed to the class. Any self- or peer-assessment tool should be given to students at the beginning of semester so that they begin to reflect on their participation and contribution from the start of semester.
  • Assessing online contributions - what criteria should I use?

  • Many of the class participation approaches, above, can be applied in online environments.
  • Online discussions have the benefit of allowing close analysis of written contributions. These contributions may be assessed according to a) frequency; b) depth and quality; or c) the extent to which they provoke further discussion and debate on relevant topics.
  • How do I achieve a balance between quantity and quality - what happens with non-participants who may feel shy about speaking out in class?

  • Ensure a balance of spoken and written participation opportunities.
  • Structure opportunities for the reticent participants to speak - include activities where students are expected to speak with a partner or in a small group of three before presenting a response to the whole class.

Generic skills development

Student participation, particularly in small group settings, helps to develop their:

  • Confidence in verbal communication and testing out new ideas
  • Respect for others' points of view
  • Capacity to critique peers' responses in a supportive and collegial environment
  • Openness to new ideas
  • Critical analysis and interpretation skills

Authentic assessment

Assessing student participation in and contributions to class discussions is an authentic form of assessment in that it prepares students for the real world environment in which they will be expected to share their ideas, contribute to discussion, listen to and respect the views of others, and assess multiple perspectives and divergent opinions.

To reference material from this site, please use:

Harris, K-L., Krause, K., Gleeson, D., Peat, M., Taylor, C. & Garnett, R. (2007). Enhancing Assessment in the Biological Sciences: Ideas and resources for university educators. Available at: