Third Teach-meet Edlab about assessing student participation
MAASTRICHT. Is it a good idea to assess student participation in tutorials? Some believe in it, others argue passionately against it, or will see it as a necessary evil, said Mark Vluggen, associate professor at the School of Business and Economics, in his pitch. And that was exactly what happened during the well-attended third UM teach-meet organized by the Edlab, last Thursday.
PowerPoints were forbidden, five speakers expressed their vision in an informal atmosphere (with snacks, drinks and standing tables). Josje Weusten from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences set the ball rolling with the critical question: “Should we be assessing student participation at all? What do we want to achieve by doing so? More active participation in the tutorial group?” Then this is not the best strategy, she continues. “You are giving students the implicit message that they have to participate, because they are being assessed. This could lead to calculating behaviour, which completely defies the university's objective of training students to be critical, independent and involved thinkers who can work in a team.” Besides, you create an “unsafe learning environment” in which students compete with each other (who gets to speak?), instead of working together, and also one in which “students don’t dare to say something wrong”. Last but not least, Weusten pointed out that this “one size fits all solution” ignores the many different reasons why a student doesn't speak or speaks very little. “Assessment of participation may veil causes not attributable to the students, including poor teaching practices or teaching design.”
How should we go about it then? Talk to the student, ask (after the lesson) why he doesn't participate (“for example: a first-year student had problems participating because of shyness and stuttering. Together, we drew up a plan”), show your vulnerability as a tutor, and be courageous enough to adapt your teaching. As an example, she mentions an introductory course on Cultural Studies, in which students became acquainted with the French Humanist Photography that emerged in Paris in the 1950s, and certain sociological theories of art movements. When the discussions remained tepid, Weusten and her colleagues approached it from a completely different angle: “We changed the way in which students were to report their findings: we divided them into subgroups and asked them to make a picture that could be considered an example of French Humanist Photography.” It worked; the presentations became livelier, as did the discussions. “The fun that they had working on the assignment could be seen on their faces.”
Peter Vermeer from University College Maastricht pitched into it even more fiercely, but with a dose of humour: “Dealing with a controlling teacher who doesn’t trust you, is killing. It’s bankrupting PBL.” Students will no long see the tutor as a teacher, but as “a despot whose only desire is to wall up their students until the only thing they see is the participating grading criteria.” They become more dependent on their tutor, Vermeer argued, instead of trusting their own creativity and capacity to think. They lose the autonomy over their own learning process, with the associated consequences: “No one will step outside the proverbial box or go the extra mile for a task.” And the tutor will spend a lot of his time filling in forms instead of communicating with his tutorial group. “Teaching becomes a chore and is no longer a sharing of enthusiasm and knowledge with interested third parties.”
"What does it say about PBL that we need to talk about a measure like participation grading? I think it’s a symptom of PBL suffering from a disease.” The UM wants to train students to be independent, critical thinkers, who dare to take responsibility and who can solve problems. You won't achieve that with participation grading, Vermeer emphasised. You will achieve that with a good PBL environment and that is what is often lacking at the moment. “We need task construction skills, we need to train students in group work skills, in the roles that help groups move smoothly over difficult terrain. We need to demonstrate that the 7 steps are not the core of PBL but they are self-evident consequences of any attempt to work in a group in a productive way. If we manage this, we don’t need participation grades.” Only to end with “If you want them to behave like adults you should treat them like adults.”
The last of the five to speak was Mark Vluggen from SBE. Just like Catalina Goanta from the Law Faculty (Law students receive bonus points if they participate well), he sees the merits of participation grading. “It’s an incentive to promote the kind of class discussion that benefits all students. It promotes study behaviour; it allows us to tap into some aspects of academic performance that are not necessarily measured by exams. And it’s difficult to fake. There are fewer opportunities for academic dishonesty compared to written work.”
Vluggen also sees the disadvantages at SBE: grade inflation, or the constant pressure on teachers to increase participation grades, quite a bit of negotiation over e-mail, students who complain about subjectivity, the administrative burden for the tutor, students fighting for air time, and the potential risk that extrinsic motivations crowds out intrinsic motivation over time. How to tackle these problems? Vluggen on intrinsic motivation: “Keep the weight of participation grades relatively low in order to avoid this.” Concerning the subjectivity of the assessment: “Embrace it. Tell them that the nature of performance feedback will always be subjective, also later on in their professional careers. Tell them that the grading of essays and a master’s thesis is subjective. But explain to the students what you consider to be important and instil a sense of procedural justice. In the first tutorial meeting, I highlight some aspects. Such as, listening and reacting to fellow students, showing an interest in what others have to say, and showing a willingness to try out ideas.”