Assessing participation in case classes - practical challenges and solutions

By Emma Simmons

class assessmentFollowing our exploration of the underlying issues, we look more closely at some of the practical challenges of assessing participants in case discussion.

Summary of issues

The instructors we interviewed from schools across the globe stressed the central role class discussion plays in case pedagogy and agreed that, wherever possible, participation should contribute to continuous and final assessment of students. There was consensus that the quality of contributions should be evaluated rather than just the quantity of participation. Assessment is beset with challenges: some students may be less comfortable speaking up in class, for reasons of personality, or cultural or business background. Equally, for instructors, accurately assessing and recording contributions is complex and time consuming, and magnified, the bigger the class. New media in the classroom pose fresh challenges, but also opportunities for assessment.

Know your students

Kamran Kashani“The first step is to know your students,” says Kamran Kashani. “You must be able to recognise everyone, and to recall their previous experience.” At IMD, he uses a tailored document including an image and details of each participant, and space for his observations, a practice shared by instructors at several other schools. At London Business School, Richard Jolly stresses the importance of preparation and getting organised for the task ahead: “Before the programme starts, I study a bespoke book we create of A4 pages, with a photo of each student and salient facts from their school profile. Each page has dated spaces for notes and grading for all of the class sessions in the course. I make sure that I can recognise each and every participant and that I know how their personal and professional backgrounds may impact on their potential to contribute in class.”

Managing evaluation

Fraser Johnson

But, it can be really difficult for instructors to know every individual, especially at the start of term on large core courses, or undergraduate programmes. In that situation, students will also get less personal class time and opportunity to have their individual voices heard. At Ivey, Fraser Johnson often finds himself teaching classes of 75 or more. “I recognise that my students know each other much better than I do, especially at the beginning of the course, and I often involve them in helping with the assessment process,” he says. “I often ask a couple of students per class to undertake ‘peer evaluation’ of the discussion on a special form I give them; this helps me as I go through the class list afterwards, evaluating and documenting the contributions. It is my responsibility as the instructor to assign contribution grades, but the information from the peer evaluation forms gives me another data point.”

Richard JollyRichard Jolly also involves his students. “I have developed a process of group evaluation by peers, which can enhance the process,” he says. “In my experience students are almost always fair observers and commentators on each other.” But even with support, the task of documenting contributions takes time and needs to be done while it is fresh in the instructor’s mind. Richard Jolly uses the 15 minute break in a two and three quarter hour class to withdraw to a quiet spot and record the number and quality of contributions up to that point. He continues the process straight after class finishes, not always immediately possible as this is a time when students often approach instructors with matters arising from class.

Commitment and discipline are undoubtedly required on the part of instructors. “Faculty members are expected to record their observations immediately after coming back from class to ensure that they don’t forget anything that transpired,” says Debapratim PurkayasthaDebapratim Purkayastha at IBS. The process of recording and grading contributions adds a significant commitment of time to case class preparation and facilitation, which less experienced case faculty may not realise. Kamran Kashani estimates that he typically spends 30 to 45 minutes after class recording contributions. “I need to accurately document the frequency of interventions and their quality,” he explains. “For example, I need to decide whether the case facts were just repeated, or a new insight was contributed and whether value was added to the discussion; to what extent were other comments built upon, showing that the student was engaged and actively listening in class? The grade I end up giving needs to be justifiable based on my notes, so that it will make fair sense to the student in the case of a query.”

Measurement criteria

flowers and tape measure

It is important that instructors try to be as fair as possible because scores from class participation can contribute as much as 50% of final grades. While some schools provide evaluation and grading guidelines, many instructors develop their own scoring systems. “Formulating the criteria on which class participation will be assessed can be challenging for faculty members,” says Debapratim Purkayastha, “and there needs to be awareness that instructors have their own opinions on what constitutes effective class participation.” He urges colleagues to be conscious of their individual biases and of their class ‘calling patterns’ which will affect their students’ potential to make valuable contributions. “All these challenges must be confronted and addressed at the institutional level with active involvement of the faculty to ensure consistency of approach,” he says.

Uchenna Uzo

At Lagos Business School, Uchenna Uzo agrees that most faculty come to class with their own approach both to discussion management (such as ‘cold calling’ or not cold calling), and to evaluating contributions, all of which have a profound impact on how conducive the session is to student participation and how well they might do. “Our school has developed a recommended rubric for faculty to follow, together with a mentoring programme which supports them at all stages from case selection and class preparation right through to evaluating their students in class.”

Communication with students

At the beginning of a programme, many students may be just as unfamiliar with the idea that class interventions – or a lack of them – will affect their final marks, as they are with the case method itself. Communicating with them is essential; putting in place a clear baseline of shared information is crucial, not least in case later complaints about class grades arise. Fraser Johnson is a firm advocate of transparency; his course outline includes a comprehensive document ‘Expectations and Class Contribution’ which sets out crystal clear guidelines for student conduct, and explains his final grading system:

‘Your participation in class will provide the basis for my judgement of your normal level of day-to-day preparation. I expect you to be fully engaged in the entire learning process and you should be prepared in each class to contribute voluntarily and when called upon. ... Collective reasoning and discovery are critical to the successful application of the case method. ... Your class contribution grade will be based on a daily assessment of your performance. ... Remember, the main objective of your contribution is not evaluation, but learning and helping your colleagues to learn. ...’

The document also includes a detailed breakdown of the criteria behind the six categories of Contribution marking from ‘Outstanding (90-100%)’ to ‘Unsatisfactory (0-49%)’.

Cranfield lecture

In fact, most faculty take great care to try to help their students perform as well as they are able. However, even provided with full information, some may still not contribute to their full potential – or at all. Richard Jolly feels that “it is up to the instructor to spot reticent speakers” and to find out what is going on with them. He routinely communicates with his students during the course itself: “I send an email indicating the mark I would give based on performance to date,” he says. “I might also take the opportunity to point out to certain students that I expect more participation. I will try to help them develop these skills, and, back in class, whereas I, personally, do not favour the ‘cold call’, I may indicate that I will be asking a question in a few minutes to allow time for thoughts to be composed. I observe that the current generation wants a more collaborative relationship with their teachers. The class discussion gives case instructors a unique opportunity to lead the way in this emerging trend.”

Uchenna Uzo also feels it is important to communicate with participants during the course: “We build into the programme interactive sessions with our students about contributing in class,” he says. “We find that they do want to know how they are doing so that they can learn and try to improve, and the faculty needs to give this feedback. Invariably students would like to do better as the term progresses.”


The final challenge of assessing class contribution is deciding on the grade to award at the end of the course. Again, some schools provide guidelines for this, elsewhere faculty do it themselves, but they naturally vary in how liberal they are with grading. Debapratim Purkayastha reports that IBS does all it can to even out such anomalies through training and by encouraging faculty to follow a normal distribution when assigning grades: “In a class of 80, for example, only around 12-15 students may get A, 20-25 a B, 30-40 a C, while the remaining few get D or E. Faculty members who find this difficult are counselled and coached by appropriate administrators and peers.”

hands reaching for stars

In-class assessment will never be an exact science. Faculty are fallible in recording contributions and students variable in performance across a programme, but most instructors we spoke to felt that anomalies on both sides tend to balance out over the weeks of a course to leave a valid picture. As social media become ever more ubiquitous, it is possible to envisage a time when classes are routinely recorded, adding transparency and accuracy to the assessment process - not a development all faulty would like in their class. But new media can be helpful in the assessment process and they will inevitably increase their role over time.

At Singapore Management University, Michael Netzley incorporates electronically visible participation in his classes: “Sometimes I have two screens side-by-side at the front of the class, the Michael Netzleyfirst shows Twittamentary and the second uses a platform like Twitterfall to show live tweets from the class as they watch a film. I strongly encourage live tweeting while students watch the film and I am careful to illustrate the desired behaviours myself.” Netzley believes that using contemporary electronic media channels still teaches the skills of communication and it represents the very world today’s and tomorrow’s executives need to be successful in.

As we look towards the future classroom, incorporating rapidly changing technologies may well emerge as one of the greatest challenges instructors face in assessing their students’ class performance. But, what really shines out from the research for these two articles is that, behind the painstaking process of in-class assessment, lies a deep seated commitment on the part of instructors, not just to get it as ‘right’ as possible, but to use the assessment itself as a benchmark to help their students do better. It is important that institutions stand behind their faculty and recognise the complex and time-consuming assessment task because that, in turn, nurtures its students.

Share your views

What are your experiences of assessing class participation? What challenges have you faced? Do you have any tips and tricks to share with colleagues?

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