It sounds so simple. Start each class with a written reflection on the readings required for that day.
I discovered this strategy last fall, in response to CUNY’s new rule eliminating credit for attendance. In essence, CUNY’s rule turns the focus to participation.
Participation, it acknowledges, “plays a major role in determining overall student academic achievement.” Moreover, participation may include “submitting assignments, engaging in in-class or online activities, taking exams, and/or participating in group work.”
Although this change forced me to drop my prior attendance policies, I could see the merits of keying participation. True, a student must “be there” to make the most of the classroom experience; yet merely “being there” is not enough.
But how to credit participation effectively?
I found my silver bullet with in-class writing, a useful method in all courses that regularly require reading assignments.
Because this 15-20 minute activity begins promptly at the start, students are motivated to arrive on time; and because it entails a reflection from memory or from their notes, they are motivated to come prepared.
To enrich the critical thinking component, I usually invite students to write three paragraphs, each with seven to ten well-developed sentences. The first two paragraphs summarize key ideas, and the third paragraph invites students’ personal reflection on the content.
To enrich the writing component, I typically provide an opening Topic Sentence for each paragraph, a guide that keeps responses on target. I also require students to use their best writing skills—a practice that encompasses grammar and mechanics, formal style, and logical development.
To improve clarity, students use regular notebook paper, and they also skip lines as they write. This method allows them to revise or insert ideas easily, and it greatly improves readability. Also, I occasionally announce the time in an encouraging tone of voice, so students can pace themselves with confidence.
I use my time productively while students are writing. Sometimes I review completed assignments for quality (and more participation credit). Other times, I move around the room, assisting students in their writing and answering questions, thus individualizing instruction.
Regarding the grading process, it takes less than a minute to skim the sample—ensuring that content is specific and well-organized, and occasionally circling an error or starring a strong observation.
In my gradebook, it’s a three-credit system: one credit if the student completes at least two strong paragraphs, two if all three paragraphs are completed, and three for strong development and specific detail throughout.
Those who are not prepared receive an alternative assignment that invites reflection on strategies for improving performance. I enter this project for one credit as an R in my gradebook, so that I can track and counsel at-risk students.
In addition, students keep their writing in a Portfolio, thus tracking progress and ensuring fairness.
In my courses, the participation grade also includes discussion. So credits accumulate rapidly. Every four weeks, I assess the Participation grade on an approximate scale. For example, if the top number of credits is 32, that means 28-32 is an A, 23-27 is a B, 19-23 is a C, etc.
Thanks to this new system, students are motivated to be present, on time, and prepared; they have an opportunity to reflect on key concepts and hone their writing skills; and I have additional time to track and individualize instruction.
The in-class writing process is so simple. And it’s a win-win-win-WIN.