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Improving Classroom Climate and

Student Achievement by Formally Assessing Student Participation

By John Shindler, CSULA 2001


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            Many of us who teach give some formal grade to the quality of our students’ class participation.  It might be called group work, citizenship, lab, or behavior, but it comes down to essentially the same thing, that is, assessing the quality of a student’s non-academic performance with a subjective criteria.  Richard Stiggins (1997) suggests, “In one sense using observations and judgments as the basis for evaluating student dispositions is a practice as old as humankind.  In another sense, it is an idea that has barely been tried.”  It might be said that few of us approach this practice as thoughtfully and intentionally as it requires. While, when approached systematically, assessing the process-related behaviors related to a student’s overall performance can help foster a psychological orientation  toward success, when used haphazardly, this practice can be just another instrument of favoritism and bias. 

            On the one hand, with a sound, well-defined, systematic, student-driven procedure that is reliable in the minds of both teacher and students, assessing “participation” has the capacity to make problem students good students and good students into leaders.  Assessing 100% student-owned behaviors promotes a sense of internal locus control within our students and consequently more self-esteem (Benham, 1993; Rennie, 1991), as well as academic motivation (Covington, 1996; Maehr, 1997).  This practice can teach students a framework for effective interaction patterns and emotional intelligence, which too many of our students do not come to us possessing.  It can give students permission to work hard, be on task and treat each other cooperatively (and so many need permission. Just look at how they treat each other on their free time).  Yet, on the other hand, giving a grade for “participation” that is vague, undefined, and seen as a subjective judgment, has little benefit, and is more likely to have a harmful effect overall.  Used arbitrarily, it is seen by students as a part of their grade over which they have little control, and just another tool for the teacher to reward students they like and punish those they don’t.  For these reasons, I feel that as teachers we should implement participation assessment thoughtfully or refrain from using it at all.


I offer the following three step process for developing a participation/process assessment component to one’s classroom assessment program.


Step 1. Operationalize what you mean by “good _______.”

Depending on the concept that you choose, be it participation, group work, labwork, etc., your system will work better the more clearly you define it in concrete operational terms.  A teacher can do this on her or his own, but it may be a good place to get students involved.  It works well to use an inductive concept attainment model to develop your concepts of a “good _____.”  Begin by asking yourself, or your students, whichever the case may be, the following question, “What are those behaviors that if we did them, would make us better students individually and collectively?” and give them the following 3 qualifications:

1.       All have to be things that each of us could do if we chose to.  In other words we need to be 100% in control of these outcomes.  These are behaviors that anyone could choose to do.  So, for instance, it can not be about intelligence, popularity, cultural capital, or material resources.

2.       None can penalize people’s personalities, learning styles, or cultures.  So, we couldn’t reward people who raised their hands a lot, or talked the most, for example, that would be bias toward the extroverts).

3.       All need to be describable in concrete specific language (i.e., instead of something like “good class members are nice to each other,” be more specific, such as good class members only say positive things about other classmates and avoid all put downs.”).  That is, we need to be able to tell pretty reliably that a behavior is or is not being demonstrated. We would “clearly” know them when we saw them or the absence of them.


Figure 1 shows an example of what one class did when asked to define the concept of a “good cooperative learning group member.” (remember this is just one example, these are by no means the only descriptors that students might suggest.  Others might include, listening, staying on task, being helpful, etc.)



Being cooperative.  Good participants cooperate with the other group members.  They share ideas and materials.  They take turns talking.  They listen to one another and expect to be listened to.  They perform their role in the group.


Having a positive attitude.  Good participants approach the task with a positive expectation.  They bring others in the group up not down.  They say only positive things to their classmates and themselves.  They look for ways to solve problems cooperatively and do not blame or quit.


Trying your best.  Good participants make their best effort when things are going well and when they are not.  They work hard regardless of the situation or the behavior of the other members of the group.  Their effort is consistent from the beginning of the period until the end.


After coming up with your definition, you may want to post it on your classroom, art room, music room, or gymnasium wall, review it regularly and use it as a behavioral covenant.  That is, use it as a collective agreement regarding the manner in which “every human being in the class deserves to be treated.”  Do not let any member of the class accept poor behavior from their peers or themselves (and its likely that you will have the most difficulty in helping students refrain from using negative self-talk). Remember, if we have done the first step correctly, our definition includes only things over which students have100% control, so if they are not doing them, it was ultimately a result of choice.  Step 2 takes our concept and puts it into the context of a quantifiable assessment method.


Step 2. Create an assessment instrument that is soundly constructed and easily interpreted.

The next step is to put the concept that you have previously cultivated into a sound rubric that fits the context in which you intend to use it. This instrument will help you and your students “systematically” put your definition into everyday classroom practice.  When designing the rubric you will need to make a choice between language in your scale that is describing either group behavior or individual behavior.  So, it should either define what a quality group does collectively (for assessment of whole groups), or what any particular student does when making a full investment in the process and/or in being a quality member of the collective.  You can have a definition and a scale for both, but it does not work to mix them as you will find later.

            The rubric needs to be well constructed or there will be problems.  Technical problems turn into human problems very quickly.  Here are 3 factors to consider when developing your rubric:

1.       Use clear, concrete, behavior language, avoiding vague words.

2.       Each ascending level should be inclusive of, but clearly distinct from, those lower.  It will be reliable to the extent that each level has observable behaviors that are exclusive from those below (see example in Figure 2).  Each performance needs to fit absolutely into one level or another.  Any subjectivity will significantly undermine confidence in the system.

3.       Try to use only positive language.  Avoid such phrases as “the student does not . . .”   For example if you want to address the issue of students talking when it is not appropriate, include in your language at your top levels words to the effect that, “students are consistently attentive to the teacher and classmates when they are speaking,” as opposed to putting in lower levels something like, “student talks when they are not supposed to.” Why have students memorize the conceptual language for what not to do?  The idea is to get away from a deficit model and encourage the development of a positive collective vision.


Using the example of the class which was discussed earlier, when they were asked to come up with what makes a good group member they decided that there were 3 main components; being cooperative, being positive, and trying.  Hence, we would take the traits generated by the students’ concept development exercise and put them into a soundly constructed rubric. One might consider creating a single holistic scale, but in this case, it would seem to work better structurally to make a primary trait or analytic type rubric using the 3 areas.  When completed it might look something like this:



Figure 2. Levels of quality for being a cooperative learning group member





Level 3

Cooperates consistently with the other group members.  Shares ideas and materials.  Takes her/his turn talking.  Listens to others and expects to be listened to.  Performs his/her role in the group

Approaches the task with a consistently positive expectation.  Brings others in the group up not down.  Says only positive things to their classmates and themselves.  Looks for ways to solve problems cooperatively and does not blame or quit

Makes their best effort when things are going well and when they are not.  Works hard regardless of the situation or the behavior of the other members of the group.  Effort is consistent from the beginning of the period until the end.

Level 2

Cooperates with the other group members.  Usually takes her/his turn talking. Usually performs his/her role in the group


Approaches the task with a positive expectation. Looks for ways to solve problems cooperatively and does not blame or quit

Makes his/her best effort.  Works hard regardless of the situation or the behavior of the other members of the group. 

Level 1


Cooperates with the other group members.  Usually takes her/his turn talking.


Mostly approaches the task with a positive expectation. Recognizes need to solve problems cooperatively.

Makes a sincere effort most of the time. 

Level 0

Did not make the effort to be cooperative this day.


Was unable to refrain from negative language or destructive behavior.

Did not make a sincere effort on this day.


You could label the levels any way that you felt best fit the class (i.e., 4,3,2,1,0 or +,v+,v, v-,- or A,B,C,D,E, etc.), and create as many or few levels as seems to make sense (but 3 or 4 seem to work best generally).


Having this scale conspicuously displayed on the wall or in a handout gives the students very specific language explaining how they are being assessed, which not only promotes reliability and meaningfulness to the grade, it provides a clearly articulated concept of the qualities that are going to make your students individually and collectively the best they can be.  The human mind can only bring about what it can conceive.  We can not blame our students for dysfunctional behavior when by definition they are acting on the best conceptions that they currently possess.  But if a student is making a conscious choice to perform less than his or her top level behavior on a given day, given that that behavior is 100% within their control, holding that student responsible sends the message that we believe that they can do better.  And I have used this system with 1st graders, and even at this age they are very aware that their behavior is a result of choice. When at the end of the day these 1st graders collectively state that “We were about a 2 today, but tomorrow we will be a 3,” one can see the cause and effect relationship between investment and learning outcomes being internalized. The beauty of this form of assessment is not only that it provides us with a sound and reliable way to evaluate what is lacking in our students, it is that the system teaches students to become a class where the expectation for the quality of interaction is very clear and very high.  As Stiggins (1998) suggests, “if we have targets that are clear and standing still, students will reach them.” Therefore, given a collectively established, visible, scale with ascending levels of quality that each student is capable of achieving, the natural tendency is to shoot for the target at the top.  And they do.  Yet, if we have no such targets, what are our students shooting for?


Step 3. Develop a system for gathering and/or examining student performances.  

If you are going to formally assess participation in some form, it is critical that you have an efficient method to observe and collect data from all students so as to obtain a sufficient and representative sample.  And you need to collect this data in a way that doesn’t lessen your ability to teach and interact with students. If you are going to use your scale informally, then it is not critical that you have students self assess each day.  But, during units where there is a great deal of cooperative work, it is a good idea to have students debrief often and for you as the teacher to use your scale to help develop the “language” of high quality cooperative work.


The more visible the scale is to the students, the more it works to reinforce the concept of “good participation.” Don’t be afraid to post it, review it, and even quiz over its contents.


Whether you decide to assess your “good ____” concept formally or informally, I would suggest taking two minutes at the end of any group activity and using it to debrief.  This investment of time will pay for itself many times over with its effect on your classroom climate as well as management.  Ask students questions such as, “Who can tell me about someone at your table that showed a positive attitude today” or “Which group solved a problem cooperatively,” or questions related to any of the traits in your concept.  At first, students are a little hesitant, but after doing this a couple of times, you will have every student’s hand up begging to brag about one of their peers.  This is a powerful time for two reasons.  Firstly, it feels great for both praiser and praisee.  Secondly, it works as a concept development exercise clarifying examples and non-examples your concept for “good ____.” 


If you try this idea, you need to be patient. If your concept is well defined, your scale sound, and you have found a way to get a substantive and bias-free sample, your system will work to the degree that you commit to it.  Most of the benefit will come in the long-term.  Yet, since you are assessing an inherently intimate and intrusive area of student performance, expect critics.  Expect students and even parents to challenge you.  It will inevitably be clumsy at first. You may not see results right away.  But, remember, much of why this works is that it gradually changes each student’s learning orientation to one that is more self-responsible and inter-relational.  Change is never easy, so give it time.


We struggle today to find ways to help our students succeed academically and develop critical forms of emotional intelligence, while developing as members of a classroom community and global citizenry.  We know too well that these skills will not be learned from television, the internet, or watching peers.  And in too few cases are they learned at home. Whether our motivation is our students’ academic success, a more positive classroom climate, or the development of critical life skills, the cultivation of “good participation skills” are too important to be left to chance. A system for assessing student-owned process outcomes can be one very useful tool in the development these crucial skills. I have seen the effective use of such systems radically transform students, classrooms and whole schools.




Benham, M.J.  1993.  Fostering Self- Motivated Behavior, Personal Responsibility, and Internal Locus of Control ,  Eugene, Oregon.. Office of Educational Research and Improvement (ERIC Document Reproduction No. ED 386 621).


Covington MV, Teel KM. 1996. Overcoming Student Failure: Changing Motives and Incentives for Learning. Washington, DC: American. Psychological. Assoc.


Maehr ML, Meyer HA. 1997. Understanding motivation and schooling: Where we've been, where we are, and where we need to go. Educational Psychology. 9:371-409


Rennie, L.J. 1991. The Relationship between Affect and Achievement in Science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 28 (2) 193-09.


Stiggins, R. (2001) Student Centered Classroom Assessment. Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ.


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