How much has our thinking about participation changed? Start with your students: Do they equate participation with anything other than raising their hands to answer a question or being called on for a comment? Recent years have seen calls to broaden definitions of participation, but I’m seeing little evidence that our orientation to participation has changed much.
The case for broader definitions is strong. Teacher-student exchanges do not reliably involve others. Once a student volunteers and the teacher doesn’t need to call on someone, students no longer pay much attention. Despite being essential, listening is not usually considered part of participation. Many students never volunteer, and they avoid being called on with a range of behaviors that eloquently convey their dislike of participation. Their silence motivates other students and the teacher to talk more than they should. Students rarely respond to what other students say, nor do they seem particularly willing to help a student who’s struggling to answer.
Some changes have occurred in what counts for participation, most notably attendance. I recently saw a syllabus that also added “staying awake” and “keeping your phone in your pocket”—all essential behaviors for engagement, but a student can be awake with phone tucked away and still far removed from what’s happening in the class.
None of these problems are new. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet found an effective way to get a significant number of faculty and students to change their thinking about participation. Maybe a recent article has the answer. Authors Hard and RaoShah (2022) propose rebranding participation, calling it collaboration instead: “Collaboration means exchanging ideas cooperatively with others to find a shared understanding, solve problems, and accomplish goals” (p. 177). Students become collaborators by actively engaging with others in the class through speaking, listening, and writing.
Beyond just a name change, this orientation defines participation more broadly, starting with prerequisite steps: punctual attendance, preparation, and active listening. It proposes that students adopt a collaborative mindset. They take risks, like sharing an idea before it’s fully formed. It’s also a mindset that supports other people’s ideas, forgives mistakes, and allows for constructive disagreement. Students explore ways to contribute and do so by building on each other’s ideas, asking for clarification or offering thought-provoking and relevant questions, and amplifying with silence so other voices can be heard and credit given for their ideas. The article contains a helpful rubric that you can be use to assess the presence of these behaviors.
Success of this rebranding depends on a big role for teachers. The authors recommend “role distancing,” which moves the teacher away from the traditional “powerful, all-knowing scholar” role (p. 178). They suggest a variety of teacher actions that make collaboration easier for students: fewer teacher slides, seating arrangements that promote interaction, group work, and developing rapport with students. Teachers still stand above students, but they stand with them, no longer in front of them.
The various parts of this collaboration model have been proposed previously. They are not new ideas, as the many references included in the article attest. But the power of what’s being proposed may be the name change. If we stopped calling the engaged involvement we’re after “participation” and started referring to it by a different name, that would immediately raise the question of what we’re talking about. Perhaps defining it differently would increase the chances of behavior change.
I’m sounding more optimistic than I feel. Rebranding changes the name, and new logos make the product look different, but that doesn’t automatically change what’s inside. Pearl Milling Company is still selling the same syrup Aunt Jemima did. We can rename participation, but if we don’t change how it occurs between teachers and students and among students, I’m doubtful that a new name will make much difference. We know how participation needs to change, and many of those alterations are easy to implement. What we don’t seem to have is the motivation to make change at a scale larger than one classroom at a time.
Hard, B. M., & RaoShah, T. (2022). Developing collaborative thinkers: Rethinking how we define, teach, and assess class participation. Teaching Psychology, 49(2), 176–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320986953