An Alternative to Poker Chips: Encouraging and Assessing Student Participation

In response to a post of mine on my use of poker chips in the classroom my friend and colleague, Dave Clark, sent me the following via email.  I asked for permission to post it as I think he has created a really innovative system.  Should you have your own system, please tell us about in the Comments.

Hi Will,

Knowing (and liking, though I’ve never used) your poker chip method for participation, I thought I’d share what I do – maybe you’ll find it interesting. It’s worked extremely well for me over the last ten or so years.
I usually make participation worth 15 or 20 percent (regardless of level of class). Students have a single mandate about participation – the class has to be better for their being in attendance than it would have been otherwise. If they improve the quality of class, they write a sentence or two regarding what they contributed and why it mattered on a piece of paper and hand it to me on the way out of class. It has to be handed to me (not left on the lectern). I either accept or reject it. Students have to do this in something like 80-90% of classes to earn the full 15-20 percent for the course.
The things I like about this are (at least):
-students are responsible for themselves, and have control of their participation grades. I like that they are empowered and control this active part of their own learning.
-deterrence – bullshit will get handed right back. I have to reject very, very little.
-I learn students’ names pretty quickly – I’m handed a piece of paper, and say “thanks >>>>” – this was an unintended but nice consequence.
-I think students get something out of writing down what they’ve contributed and why it mattered – it’s a small bit of reflection.
-students who are shy etc. and have a hard time taking part I urge to come with 2 or 3 things written down, promise themselves they’ll say at least one of them, and I try to make eye contact to invite these things. A lot of kids have sort of broken out of their shells this way. Would they have done so anyhow? Unknowable, maybe, but I suspect this invites them to take part in a way they find pretty non-threatening.
-quality of discussion – this is hard to know, but I sure think my classes with this are worlds better than they were without. Students learn fast that they just can’t get credit if they don’t read, so reading *seems to be better.
-paper trail – On the rare occasion somebody says I’ve miscounted their participation points, I invite them to come plow through the mountain of papers from the semester, weed out their own, and count. On rarer occasion, they’re right.
I’ve used this in our upper-division lecture courses (40-50 seats), in undergrad seminars (15 seats), and my TAs use it in the discussion sections for our big intro class (350 seats). It’s been really successful, at least compared to anything else I’ve ever tried.
Anyhow, sorry for the long account, but I’ve long admired the chip deal, and thought I’d share another approach.
Hope all’s well.



About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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One Response to An Alternative to Poker Chips: Encouraging and Assessing Student Participation

  1. Sara Mitchell says:

    Here is the modified version of your approach that I use. The grade is based on positively making contributions (in 50% of classes to get an A) and I find it works well. Sara

    Class Participation (30%): This course will be run as an upper division seminar. Each class period (26 in total) will involve a discussion of the readings assigned for that day. You can gain or lose class participation points each day. To gain points, you need to make a positive contribution to class participation. Positive contributions are comments that build on, react to, challenge, or request clarification on the reading. Students may raise their hands and contribute to discussion, although remember that only those comments directly relevant to the readings will earn points. Your final participation grade will be based on the total number of positive contributions (minus any points lost, see below), and will be calculated as follows: A (13 or higher), B (9 – 12), C (5 – 8), D (3 – 4), F (< 3).

    If no one volunteers, then I will randomly call on people. Each person will be assigned a number in the first week of class, which corresponds to a poker chip in a bowl. If your chip is drawn, then you must answer the question I raise. You will have the opportunity to pass once if you are unprepared for a particular question, although on the second strike, you will lose one point from your overall participation total. In short, if you are called upon and unprepared or absent, you will lose 1 point that day. But you will only lose points if your chip is drawn. Also, because your chip goes back in the bowl, such sampling with replacement suggests that you can be called upon more than once in a given class. This system will obviously work best if everyone volunteers and I never have to use the chips!

    You may wonder why I have created such a system. The answer is that I want you to do the reading, so I have given you an incentive to do it. All of the papers and exams will make extensive use of the assigned readings, thus it is in your best interest to read everything. Given the size of the class, it will be necessary to create a seating chart the first week of class. Please make sure you find the seat you want for the rest of the semester by Thursday, August 26th.

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