Assessing Participation

Picture of a classroom full of desk
old school by alamosbasement via flickr, cc licensed at

Whenever I discuss grading or assessment with a teacher, participation ultimately comes up in some form. One part of the conversation usually focuses on the goal of assessing participation such as improving verbal explanatory and argumentative skills, and then turns to how that assessment is recorded in a learning management system. Although there is plenty to discuss in terms of the goals of assessing participation, this article will focus on the logistics of recording participation in an LMS and differing ways of configuring this in Canvas.

First, a few things to consider:

  1. Do you want students to see their participation grades as they progress through the course? Are you using this as a barometer that students can use to improve their participation?
  2. Is completion of assignments factored into a part of your participation grade?
  3. Is attendance factored into participation?

Sharing Participation Grades

If you want your students to see their progression in this area you will need to:

  1. Make sure that your gradebook is visible to students on the Canvas menu
  2. Design your gradebook so that a weekly participation grade is entered/calculated

Factoring Attendance into Participation

We suggest calculating a daily amount for attendance and manually awarding points based on the students’ attendance for the week. However, you will want to consider what you will do in the case that a student is absent due to a cause that is not under their control.

Factoring Assignment Completion into Participation

If these assignments are only assessed based on completion this can be set up in Canvas for assignments and discussions. However, if you are also assessing the content of the assignment/discussion forum post, you will need to consider an alternate assessment method that may involve dual scores if you want to be sure to break out the participation component.

Questions of Pedagogy

All of these considerations will provoke additional pedagogical questions. For example:

  • What role does attendance play in the learning process? Is it possible that that role is actually conveyed in another assessment tool that you are using?
  • Similarly, does assessing the completion of assignments demonstrate the achievement of a learning goal?
  • Are you providing multiple means of participation to ensure that you involve all your students?

Assessing participation on a weekly basis can be time consuming so you’ll want to ensure that this time is accomplishing your goals. In many cases there are alternate methods that will result in the same or a similar outcome.

What’s a grade distribution graph?

Picture of baseballs with Ted Williams batting averages written on the balls
Ted Williams Batting Average Chart – National Baseball Hall of Fame by Dan Gaken via Flickr at

Did you know that by default your students are able to view grade distribution graphs in Canvas? This feature allows students to see the high, low and mean scores for the class. However, faculty can disable this feature while still retaining the ability to view this information for themselves.

To disable this feature for students follow these instructions.

Small move #4: Student-centered course design using Canvas

Picture of an old teacher's desk
Teacher’s Desk – Linn School, by Todd Petrie, cc licensed on Flickr at

This is the 4th in a series of posts to cover small actionable steps you can make to create a more student-centered course design in Canvas. These moves were developed from the Zoom session hosted on October 25th.

Small Move # 4: Virtual office hours

How convenient can you make it for students to have one-on-one time with you? By coupling Canvas’ scheduler function with your personal Zoom room you can offer flexible office hours without having to adhere to a set physical location meeting space.

To set up online office hours using the scheduler in Zoom follow these instructions.

To get started using Zoom visit help documentation here.

What does this look like to students?

To view this functionality from a student perspective contact me to be added into a course space designed to demo this feature.


Small Move #3: Student-Centered Course Design Using Canvas

Image of tired student with text "What are your students' concerns?"
How do you know unless you ask?

This is the 3rd in a series of posts to cover small actionable steps you can make to create a more student-centered course design in Canvas. These moves were developed from the Zoom session hosted on October 25th.

Small Move #3: Interest Surveys

To be able to tailor some of the content or options available to your students throughout your class is helpful to know their interests and questions as early on in the semester as possible. You can use the ungraded survey (quiz) option in Canvas to construct some quick questions that can help you collect info that would be helpful to you when making these adjustments.

As you create your questions think carefully about what information is helpful to you and how you might use that info in your course. Most will find this to be an iterative design process that they tweak each semester to best serve their needs based on previous semesters’ responses and your unique course content.

Connected Canvas Help Topics:

Creating a survey in Canvas

Viewing survey results in Canvas

What does this look like to students?

To view this functionality from a student perspective contact me to be added into a course space designed to demo this feature.

The Connection between Motivation & Exploitation in Education

Image of sky with Nelson Mandela quote: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use the change the world."

A synopsis of chapter 9 “Technology to Support Learning” of How People Learn.

As a technologist I was most intrigued by this chapter’s title and was curious to see whether words written in 1993 would accurately reflect the current direction of educational technology. As you could probably expect a lot of the suggestions and ideas were aspirational and hopeful of technology’s promise in an educational context. Many of the concepts are still relevant and more easily possible and commonly practiced in education such as distance interviews and opportunities for teacher learning.

However, I was most taken by the last paragraph of the chapter which reads:

“Good educational software and teacher-support tools, developed with a full understanding of principles of learning, have not yet become the norm. Software developers are generally driven more by the game and play market than by the learning potential of their products. The software publishing industry, learning experts, and education policy planners, in partnership, need to take on the challenge of exploiting the promise of computer-based technologies for improving learning. Much remains to be learned about using technology’s potential: to make this happen, learning research will need to become the constant companion of software development” (HPL, p. 230).

The use of the term ‘exploiting’ seems almost prophetic to me. Unfortunately, I think what has actually happened is the reverse of the suggestion above. Software companies are largely exploiting schools and their students. How People Learn may have overlooked or underestimated the impact of money on motivation within the software industry and the way in which our capitalist economy rewards profit over care. In order for software companies to prioritize learning science over their own interests, they have to value altruistic principles over money. This is one of the reasons that I feel strongly that our government has to stay steadfastly committed to excellence (and FUNDING) within our public school system. Although the promise of privatization often centers on innovation and flexibility, I think we overlook the impact that individual company’s motivations can have on the direction in which education is driven when we are financially reliant on their funding mechanism. It is essential that the singular motivation for our educational system is care for our students and an expectation of excellence for all.

Vulnerability, messy learning & research — How can we be better?

Picture of a sunrise
Every new day is a new chance to learn.

A synopsis of chapter 8 “Teacher Learning” of How People Learn.

This chapter of How People Learn (HPL) focused on ways that teachers continue to learn once they are in their own classroom and how those compare to what we know about how people learn. The authors categorized the opportunities for learning for practicing teachers into three buckets:

  • Their own practice
  • Interactions with other teachers
  • From teacher educators in the schools (HPL, p. 191)

What I found most intriguing about this chapter is something which I have personally noticed about my teaching practice: the impact that being a parent has on my ability to teach. The authors noted that teachers “…learn about the intellectual and moral development in their roles of parents” (p. 192). This is not to say that a person without children cannot teach, however being a parent provides a unique longitudinal perspective of children’s development over years rather than semesters that can significantly impact an individual’s understanding of where a student might currently fall on that developmental spectrum.

The learning opportunities for teachers were also examined using the framework of learning environments that I discussed in my last blog post here. As a refresher those environments were:

  • Learner-centered
  • Knowledge-centered
  • Assessment-centered
  • Community-centered

I was most interested in the section on being knowledge-centered as it focused on the ways in which teacher prep programs impact this centering. For a little personal background, I attended an undergraduate college with a primary focus on education majors (k-12) that was founded as a teacher’s college. I was an English major with a focus in Secondary Education, however I was friends with several students in the Elementary Ed and Early Ed degree programs and I found it fascinating to see the differences in our curricula. The difference in comfort-level with specific subjects was very interesting. In my quick summary – it appeared that secondary ed majors were trained as specialists in content and generalists in pedagogy, whereas the El Ed and Early Ed majors were specialists in pedagogy and childhood development and generalists in content. It was satisfying to see this observation reflected in the HPL authors’ inventory of challenges facing teacher prep programs:

“4-year undergraduate degrees make it difficult for prospective elementary teachers to learn subject matter and for prospective secondary teachers to learn about the nature of learners and learning” (HPL, p. 202)

Consequently many student teachers feel vulnerable in various components of their student teacher placements. As the authors note:

“Learning involves making oneself vulnerable and taking risks, and this is not how teachers often see their role” (HPL, p. 195)

I immediately thought of all of my observations when I was student teaching and teaching in high school and how those lesson plans were always my least ‘risky’. I wanted to be in complete “control” of those lessons and project a classroom that “looked like good learning”. The problem is, in my experience and through much of what I’m reading in HPL, students often learn the most in very “messy” environments.

“When they [teachers] encourage students to actively explore issues and generate questions, it is almost inevitable that they will encounter questions that they cannot answer — and this can be threatening” (HPL, p. 195).

Raise your hand if you want to tell a student “I don’t know” while being observed by your direct supervisor. This is especially true if the culture of the school does not support the significance of this type of learning.

“Beginning teachers are especially influenced by the nature of the schools in which they begin their teaching” (HPL, p. 204).

Lastly, the authors attention to the way in which educational research is detached from classroom practice demonstrates one of the most wide-reaching negative impacts on the teaching profession as it is seeded at the beginning of most teachers’ careers.

“…a message is sent to prospective teachers that research in education, whether on teaching or learning, has little to do with schooling, and therefore, that they do not need to learn about the findings from research” (HPL, p. 202).

The example that always springs to mind is the many times I have heard teachers talk to other teachers and students about learning styles. In 2008 Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer and Robert Bjork authored an article titled “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. In their paper they outlined the research methodology that would be required to prove or disprove the science of learning styles and concluded that “…there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number” (“Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence”, p.105).

In 2017, in an article titled “Evidence-Based Higher Education – Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important?” in the journal Frontiers in Psychology by Philip M. Newton and Mahallad Miah, the authors point out that “…a substantial number of participants (32%) stated that they would continue to use Learning Styles despite being presented with the lack of an evidence base to support them…” (“Evidence-Based Higher Education – Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important?”) which reinforces the authors of HPL’s stance that teachers are taught that

“…educational theory and research have little to do with classroom practice” (HPL, p. 203).

So my question to you – how does this change? Why don’t we listen to the research?

The child is at the center

picture of a child in snowstorm catching snowflakes
A child’s environment fundamentally impacts their learning

A synopsis of chapter 6 “The Design of Learning Environments” of How People Learn

I am currently working on building out a series of blog posts in connection a session I presented on creating a more student-centered Canvas course site. You can view what I’ve written so far here. So I was very pleased to see a reference to learner-centered environments as I read through Chapter 6:  The Design of Learning Environments, in How People Learn. In particular the authors point out:

“We use the term “learner centered” to refer to environments that pay careful attention to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that learners bring to the educational setting” (p. 133).

It struck me that this also connects tightly to the focus of Chapter 3 and how transfer occurs for learners of all abilities and the significance that both prior learning and experiences impact both learners and their environment. Cultural practices are also addressed – “Learner-centered instruction also includes sensitivity to the cultural practices and the effect of those practices on classroom learning” (p. 135). I’d encourage you to take a look as they provide some specific examples of how these different practices can drastically impact the instructional method chosen by teachers.

In addition to a focus on learner-centered environments this chapter also examines the ways in which environments are centered on knowledge, assessment and community. When considering how knowledge-centered an environment is the relevance to a student’s day-to-day life is critical as is the balancing of “…activities designed to promote understanding and those designed to promote the automaticity of skills necessary to function effectively without being overwhelmed by attentional requirements” (p. 139).

An assessment-centered environment also seeks balance by offering opportunities for revision, and adeptly utilizing both formative and summative assessment to foster students’ learning. It was reassuring to note the way in which a learner-centered focus wove its way through each of the other “centers”. For example, when concentrating on assessment the authors point out that “Effective teachers continually attempt to learn about their students’ thinking and understanding” (p. 140).

Assessment can also be used for teachers to self-reflect on their instruction. “Appropriately designed assessments can help teachers realize the need to rethink their teaching practices.” (p. 141). This emphasizes the iterative process of teaching and the way in which a teacher’s methods should evolve over time as they learn more about the different environmental levels they are working in and the students they are working with.

Lastly, the authors discussion of community-centered environments took into account the different levels of communities including classroom, school, homes, community centers, after-school programs and businesses (p. 147). Special attention is paid to the way in which cultural practices can impact classroom communities and what practices are well-received which is a good reminder that norms are not globally or even regionally standardized. Some of my favorite quotes from this section include:

“Teaching and learning must be viewed from the perspective of the overall culture of the society and its relationship to the norms of the classrooms” (p. 147).


“A key environment for learning is the family” (p. 148).


“Children also learn from the attitudes of family members toward skills and values of schooling” (p. 148).

Every passionate educator that I have ever met understands that the child is at the center of every educational experience. It was reassuring to see that focus reflected in this reading as well. Learning is a personal thing and I remain convinced that it can only be done really well when an educator is aware and receptive to all of the impacts that a child’s many environments have on their view of the world.

Small Move #2: Student-Centered Course Design Using Canvas

“If teaching is conceived as constructing a bridge between the subject matter and the student, learner-centered teachers keep a constant eye on both ends of the bridge.”

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, 2000, p. 136

Picture of a bridge
University Bridge by Brandon Giesbrect, cc licensed on flickr at

This is the 2nd in a series of posts to cover small actionable steps you can make to create a more student-centered course design in Canvas. These moves were developed from the Zoom session hosted on October 25th.

Small Move #2: Virtual introductions – one end of the bridge

Ideally this can happen even before the class starts so that students can start to make connections and have a chance to share some of their interests and perhaps even outstanding questions about the course topic.

This is a great way to introduce learner-choice options including the opportunity to use the text, video and audio options within the discussion forum in Canvas. Be sure to enable threaded replies so that students can respond to each other and start mini-conversations along the way.

Connected Canvas Help Topics:

How to create a discussion in Canvas

What does this look like to students?

To view this functionality from a student perspective contact me to be added into a course space designed to demo this feature.

Small moves to make your Canvas course more student-centered

In this series of blog posts I’m going to share some of the small moves that were discussed during the online session Student-Centered Course Design Using Canvas. If you were not able to participate in the session feel free to follow along here as I share some of the activities and design elements that you can implement in class to amplify the connectivity in your class.

So let’s get started with small move #1 – making a virtual tour of your class site.

Move #1 – A Virtual Tour of your Class Site

One step that you can take in designing a student-centered Canvas site is that once your site is designed you can take time to give your students a virtual tour of the class space.

This can be done in-person via projection in a classroom, or asynchronously by creating a video-walk through of your course space. Below is a rough sample of what a course tour can look like. It was created on one take (with a script) using Panopto.

When you are making or sharing your course tour be sure to include your expectations for how often and how students should be accessing your course as well as:

  • How they will know new content is posted?
  • What components of Canvas are you using for your class?
  • Where can students find due dates?
  • What do they do if they have a question about the course?
  • What do they do if they have a question about Canvas?

This is a time to distinguish how you are using Canvas. Although students will encounter Canvas several times in their classes, it can be set up and configured many different ways. Taking time to introduce them to your layout and help them understand how your space works is a great way to try to avoid confusion and surface course site questions early on.

Connected Canvas Help Topics:

Canvas Course Home Page Options

We don’t know what we don’t know

Rain lifting of a field in Vermont
We don’t know what we don’t know. Like when the sun will come out after the rain.

A synopsis of chapter 3 of How People Learn

This week I decided to start working my way back through How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School from the National Research Council. It’s a text that’s been consistently used in my education classes and a staple I reach for whenever I’m starting to wonder whether a learning design that I’m working on actually makes sense.

I find transfer to be one of the most fascinating (and impactful) concepts to consider, so I decided to jump right into Chapter 3: Learning and Transfer. A few of my highlighted quotes include:

“All new learning involves transfer based on previous learning, and this fact has important implications for the design and instruction that helps student learn.” (p. 53)

“Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorize sets of facts…” (p. 55)

“…learning cannot be rushed; the complex cognitive activity of information integration requires time.” (p. 58)

The authors also discussed how motivation impacts learning and highlighted three main motivational impacts:

  • “Challenges…must be at the proper level of difficulty in order to be and to remain motivating…”
  • “Social opportunities also affect motivation.” (like participating in a wiki)
  • Being able to see the usefulness of a piece to others (p. 61)

Some helpful methods for encouraging transfer include:

  • graduated prompting (p. 66)
  • reciprocal teaching (p. 67)
  • procedural facilitation (p. 67)
  • building on pre-existing knowledge (p. 69)

This really feels more like a fast drive by of all the interesting information that’s included in this chapter. I’m hoping it’s enough to make you curious to read more. 😉

But if not, I’ll leave you with my biggest takeaway: we don’t know what they don’t know. So if a teacher dives into a lesson with a preconceived notion of what pre-existing knowledge all students have to build upon, they may be building their lesson on a foundation that includes individual misunderstanding and misconceptions that can severely impact the way that students are able to process the new information being shared. The authors point out that prior knowledge can be impacted by individual experiences, developmental stages, and cultural practices (p. 71 – 72). Given the diversity of cultures and individual experiences students bring to the classroom, it stands to reason that determining levels of pre-existing knowledge through metacognitive activities would be a practice that all learners would benefit from.

National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


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