Assessing participation in case classes - the issues

By Emma Simmons

class assessmentThe class discussion is an integral part of the case method. In this first of two articles, we look through the eyes of case educators worldwide at the issues around assessing student participation in class.

Why in-class assessment?

One of the constant challenges facing case method instructors is how best to assess and grade their students. While formal individual exams, frequently using a case, group project work and presentations are widely used, many schools also carry out continuous evaluation, often including the assessment of class participation, sometimes contributing up to 50% of a student’s course grade.

Debapratim Purkayastha

For many, this process is an essential component of case pedagogy. “To achieve the objectives of the highly student-centred case method of teaching, it is vital that class participation is assessed and is made a key component contributing to the final grade of the students, and it ensures that the participants go through the real rigour of the case method,” says Debapratim Purkayastha. “The class is where most of the learning takes place, which goes towards making students industry-ready by the time they complete their programme.”

Kamran Kashani

Kamran Kashani also regards participation in class as a fundamental element of the learning that will help students cope with the future challenges they will face in the workplace. He describes the case classroom as “a lab, a low risk environment” where students can practice how to improve the performance of their future team members. “Management education is also about practice; real world managers face problems beyond those covered in the theory.  Just sitting back in a future job and not speaking will be a problem. Leaders speak up and try to convince others.”

Bill Ellet

Unlike a lecture, just attending a case class does not suffice for learning; participation is essential and carries with it responsibilities for the individual and the group. Bill Ellet writes:  “Case learning comes from collaboration among the students with the help of the instructor. All members of the class have a responsibility to be prepared, share their knowledge, and help each other learn.” Carrying out this responsibility is one of the elements instructors must evaluate.

Participation or contribution?

Fraser Johnson

So, assessing participation in class cannot just mean that those students who speak up most often will get the highest marks. On its own, ‘participation’ may be a limiting and even misleading concept for both instructors and their students. “I prefer to refer to class ‘contribution’ not ‘participation,’” says Fraser Johnson, “since the fundamental purpose is to contribute to the learning of other students in the class. Just speaking up in class does not always add value to the learning experience; it’s about contributing and learning alertly.  So, it is essential to communicate to students that the quality of their class contribution will be also be assessed.”

Uchenna Uzo

Uchenna Uzo concurs: “While participation will usually demonstrate that students have prepared before class and read the case, it is also important for them to understand that their contributions must move the discussion on. Some interventions can actually move the class backwards, and there will always be those who just want to talk regardless of real meaning.” It seems, therefore, that valuable contributions to class discussion presuppose not only that the participant has something to say that advances the discussion, but that he/she is fully engaging with what is being said, not just by the instructor but also by their peers. “Listening is critical to the case method,” writes Bill Ellet. “Even in a case classroom, you spend most of your time listening. To participate effectively in a case discussion, you have to listen attentively when others speak. It also shows respect for the people in the room.”

Resources from the C. Roland Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard Business School* highlight this: “Experienced case instructors evaluate class participation based on a student's contribution to the collective learning during class discussions. Establishing objective assessments of these contributions can be challenging. The quality of individual contributions relates not only to the content, but also the delivery and timing of comments within the flow of the class discussion. More frequent participation is often a positive factor, although excessive attempts to comment may lead to lower quality contributions and may reflect a bias toward speaking over listening.”

Measuring contribution

student with hand up

Obviously, evaluating and documenting class contributions and their quality, rather than just participation and its quantity, constitutes a much more complex undertaking for the instructor. Debapratim Purkayastha observes: “It is very important that assessment is done in a fair, consistent and transparent way. However, it is not sufficient that it is fair, but also that the instructor comes across as fair in the eyes of all the students.” He recognises that in many teaching situations “students are unfamiliar with student-centred approaches such as the case method and do not always understand what is expected of them. As a consequence, it is imperative for instructors to formulate clear criteria on which class participation will be assessed, which can be challenging for faculty, and communicating these criteria to the students is yet another challenge.  Moreover, assessing class participation also ensures that the participants get timely feedback on their own efforts and can take corrective action if necessary.”

Dealing with student reaction to the grades they are given for their class contributions is a problem all of its own. While those given good grades seldom seek to debate them, those who feel they performed better than their grades pose a difficult challenge. Responding authoritatively to their concerns underlines the need for instructors to keep detailed records of each class and all contributions. This can also be the point at which faculty require the most support from their institution and colleagues.

Challenges of assessment

instructor talking to student

A prerequisite is getting to know all your students. The bigger the class, such as on large undergraduate courses, the more challenging this becomes. Instructors and students need patience. “It takes time to really get to know my students, and they are generally better able to present later in the programme when they have become comfortable with the process,” says Fraser Johnson. “A large class does not allow enough time for everyone to contribute. I may have more than 70 students in my core courses and perhaps only 40% to 50% will be able to contribute in a session.” This observation suggests the need for a holistic view of student assessment and a wider definition of ‘contribution’. “Everyone does have something to contribute; for some people, written and analytic skills are stronger and the instructor needs to get to know each student well enough to form a picture of their overall abilities and learning.”

Michael Netzley

Further challenges arise when different backgrounds mean that students are not all equally used to contributing aloud. Michael Netzley illustrates this from his experience of teaching in Asia, where ‘losing face’ can be one of the more frequently perceived cultural risks**, and something that needs to be managed in the discussion, especially when it develops a competitive edge. “It can be necessary to help participants from certain backgrounds to speak up,” he says. Uchenna Uzo finds that it is important to consider the language used in class, and to encourage those students for whom English is a second language: “While most of our participants are Nigerian and generally very comfortable making contributions to class, we need to pay special attention to our minority of francophone students who need time to adjust to the cultural and language ‘barrier’.”

Sharing responsibility

In fact, it is not just down to students to prepare for a class discussion and then participate. For Kamran Kashani, a successful session begins with clearly defined learning objectives and, crucially, a well chosen case. “A good case discussion is a shared responsibility between the students and the instructor,” he says. “For students to be able contribute to the class, the instructor needs to facilitate the best outcome for them; to enable them to enter into the world of a learning environment.”

Michael Netzley uses new media widely in his case classes, developing his own custom ‘live’ cases, which means that class contribution sometimes takes the form of real time, online, communication, which he monitors and assesses. “Social media no longer restricts the conversation to the classroom walls,” he says. “An additional benefit of using social media in class is that it can encourage less confident individuals to participate because they feel more empowered expressing themselves virtually than face-to-face.”

David Garvin

The Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard Business School* offers a framework for measuring class outcomes: 1. Are the principal learning objectives achieved? Does in-class learning substantially exceed pre-class learning? 2. Are students stimulated to think beyond this class and develop insights through linkages across classes, modules, and courses? According to David A. Garvin: “[J]udging the success of a case method session is one of the toughest challenges ... sometimes you won’t know [the outcome] for twenty years … [Sometimes, you can judge success by the] level of engagement … people really following and listening and building on one another. Sometimes it is highly enthusiastic … Sometimes, though, it can be slow because people are listening.”  It would seem that the act of assessing the quality of student class interventions holds a mirror up for the instructor to reflect on how successful the case class itself has been.

In Part 2, to be published in the January 2017 edition of Connect, we will explore practical strategies and techniques for assessing students’ class contributions.

* © 2005 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College
** Such cultural issues are explored extensively by James E Hatch and Fengli Mu in Use of the Case Method in Chinese MBA Programs, Archway, 2015.

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