Following are some ideas of how you might balance being flexible with maintaining certain expectations of learning and engagement in your course. Moving online recontextualizes the ways students participate in and “attend” our courses. This document considers ways we can define and count attendance and participation in the online classroom. It also gives some strategies for engaging students in online work. We’ve also included some language you might adopt.
Attendance and Meaningful Participation
In many face-to-face classrooms, students show up to class and participate by asking questions, contributing to class discussions, completing group work, and completing individual work.
In the online synchronous classroom, students might face an internet bandwidth issue that makes participation difficult or impossible. They might be sharing devices with parents, siblings, or children who are also completing work and school from home. They may have to miss several classes because of illness or caretaking responsibilities. As the instructor, you also might face technical difficulties or any of these other challenges.
Per CUNY guidelines, we cannot require students to show their faces or share audio on Zoom, and must remain flexible and communicative with them about their abilities to attend.
This is policy: we must tell students they are not required to use their webcam or audio. This also means that we need to become more creative with how students participate. In Zoom, they can use the chat function if they feel like it is the only way they feel comfortable participating. We can say at the start of class that we are trying our best to humanize our online class space and encourage folks to help that by showing faces (but that it is not a requirement per CUNY policy).
We offer the material here in hope to make good faith efforts in our classes to provide some backup plans to the primary ways we want students to participate. If a student cannot attend a Zoom session because they have been suddenly designated an essential worker, they might post on the class Slack, write an email to their group, or drop a note in a discussion board. Perhaps they could watch a recording later. We’ve explored some of these options for organizing your class below. Check out the full CTL site for more information about putting together your course and using educational technology platforms, or schedule an appointment with us to talk one-on-one about your class.
What’s the difference between attendance and participation?
For the purposes of this document, we’ve thought of these related categories this way: Attendance as a baseline presence in the course, and participation as meeting a certain minimum level of engagement. You might think of attendance as showing up to the dance, and participation as trying a dance move. Meaningful participation means doing something in the course as an explicit effort to engage with ongoing discussions, activities, and material.
How can I assess attendance and participation now that I can’t require students to use a webcam or microphone?
During a synchronous session on Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate, students can use the chat function to talk to the class. Our Teaching with Zoom guide offers further ideas and links to instructions in the “Facilitating a Class Discussion” section.
How can I prevent Zoom sessions from feeling like everyone’s just talking directly to me and never to each other?
One option: Try asking students to answer a question or join a discussion by “passing” to each other when they’re done responding—as opposed to the instructor calling on students or waiting for a volunteer. The class will communicate among each other, offering an opportunity for them to have low-stakes connections and conversations, and students will be incentivized to pay attention and look out for their turn.
Meaningful participation has become a popular term in online teaching, in more widespread use currently, to describe broadening our approach to counting participation and integrating it into how students earn grades in our courses. It’s a way of talking to students about expressing their continued presence in the class. This might mean offering flexibility and/or multiple avenues for engaging with the course—such as taking a survey to make up for a Zoom session, or viewing some material asynchronously. Designing your class so that students have more than one way to meaningfully participate and attend can ensure greater student access and success.
Students learning online may now more than ever desire community, yet are also dealing with real constraints. Some will be sharing space with family, and may be totally disinclined to communicate with us over voice—but eager to talk by email or text chat. So consider: are there other ways we can connect with students that don’t rely on seeing their face or voice in real time?
Some students may be looking for a space to talk about anything other than class—such as in a “random” channel on a class Slack or Discord (text-based chatting platforms) to let them exchange notes on how life is going and to share media. Students who are reluctant to come to sessions or participate on Zoom may be the most vocal on chat, discussion, or blog mediums. However, we caution against the feeling of needing many platforms: we recommend using just what you need, but try to maximize your understanding of what you use to get the platform to work for your teaching. If you have questions, you can make an appointment with us or contact BCTC (email@example.com).
Options for Meaningful Participation
Even if students can’t attend (or fully attend) or have a web camera/microphone for synchronous sessions, they could maintain engagement with the course on a weekly basis via…
- Use of the chat function in Zoom
- Updates, reflections, or journals—shared with the class, a peer group, or the instructor
- Low-stakes written reflection on course content—e.g. discussion board or blog posts
- Low-stakes completion of sample problems or quizzes
- Participation in synchronous sessions via dialing in on a phone, or using a lower-bandwidth chat program like Slack, GroupMe, or What’sApp to conduct a synchronous discussion
- An ungraded assessment or what is called an “exit ticket”) that students complete after a synchronous session or after viewing recorded material)
- Asynchronous or synchronous discussions with a peer group or a partner in the course
- Turning in other assignments that demonstrate achievement of the course’s learning goals
- Uploading video updates or responses using an asynchronous video platform, such as Baruch’s Vocat or YouTube.
- Visiting virtual office hours, or staying in contact with the instructor in some way
Ideally, you can design your class so that students have multiple ways to participate and “attend,” even if the synchronous session is not accessible to them. If you want to brainstorm opening up new avenues for meaningful participation in your courses, make an appointment with us.
Sample Language of a Meaningful Participation Grade:
Students can earn 15 points (1 point for each week) by engaging in a minimum of 1 mode of engagement from the above expectations each week. To earn a point, students might need to meet some minimum criteria that you outline through using rubrics, that you model with examples, or through negotiating assessment criteria together.
How can I check in on whether my students are understanding the material?
There are many ways you can do this with digital tools, ranging from simpler to more complex. You can ask students to update you in some form, even by email, in intervals. You can ask students to complete a questionnaire about the content—by email or on a digital tool like Google Forms. You can incorporate a space for them to respond to questions, such as on a Blackboard discussion board, in a post on a Blogs @ Baruch site, or in a Slack group channel. You could also hold conferences with them to talk about the course.
In part, the answer to this question is a matter of considering the time you have and what methods you would want to build for tracking your students’ development based on your priorities for feedback and grading.
This Fall 2022 semester requires a flexible but clear attendance policy, articulated in your syllabus and course content. We recommend using regular deadlines for establishing a rhythm and set of course expectations, which will help students track, and anticipate, their own progress through the class. Consider including their contacting you as a category of meaningful participation. When students reach out to you, they demonstrate an active effort to remain engaged in the course.
How can I help my students get caught up with any synchronous (e.g. Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate) class sessions—or create some equivalent way for them to still show that they are engaging with the material?
Try Using a “Missed Meeting Form” (or Equivalent Follow-up)
Students who couldn’t attend live meetings—or could but could not attend with video, audio, or chat for some reason—could complete a “Missed Meeting Form” (here’s a sample of a Missed Meeting Form) that asks them to (1) view the recorded session (consented to by the students present) and summarize what they missed in their words; (2) say how they would have participated; and (3) say how they are doing, how their work in the class is going, and if they have any questions.
If you choose to record your meeting sessions, you should notify them early by email and in your syllabus, and be prepared to talk to students who have concerns about being recorded. Recorded Zoom sessions, for example, can be saved to the cloud, have several sharing options for providing access to students, and produce an automated transcript of recorded sessions. You may want to share the video, transcript, or both with your class. For detailed information about how to record in Zoom and where to connect your recordings to a Dropbox, refer to our Zoom Guide.
Though you may not require participants, in a recorded or non-recorded session, to use a camera or microphone in the session, you may definitely suggest doing so. You could explain that it can help the online environment feel more human. However, punishing a student for not showing their face or using their microphone violates CUNY guidance on teaching in the time of COVID. The Missed Meeting Form can become an alternative way of participating in the course if it is suitable to the student and instructor.
Please reserve on your calendars [date and time] for live meeting check-in sessions on Zoom each week of the course. This meeting will be recorded but only for the other students in the course.
If you are not available to meet at the above time(s), send me a private email ASAP letting me know. As an alternative option for those unable to make it, you can watch a recording of each meeting and complete a short questionnaire (“Missed Meeting Form”) to confirm you saw it—so it’s easier for you (and me) if you can make the meeting in-person (less work for us all).
To receive [credit for attendance/course credit], do one of the following each week:
Participate in live check-in session on Zoom, OR
Complete of “Missed Meeting Form” (see below) when you cannot attend a live session, after viewing the session recording.
In an asynchronous course, a student may be counted as absent if they do not engage with the course at all within a specific period of time. For example, if a student fails to demonstrate any presence in a course within a week of course time, that may result in an absence.
How to earn attendance (synchronous or asynchronous courses):
Each week, participate at least once via one of the above listed options for meaningful participation.
Failure to meaningfully participate within a week’s time, with the exception of the Fall Holiday period, will count as an absence from the course.
If you have questions about your attendance policy for asynchronous work or an asynchronous course, you can make an appointment with us to discuss your course materials.
Discussion and Blog Posts
If you are planning to incorporate discussion or blog posts for low-stakes and/or interactive assignments for your students, consider how you specify what the content they write should include based on (1) your learning goals for the particular assignment; (2) the amount of time you want them to spend on the assignment; (3) the amount of time you want to spend reviewing the assignment and recording their work; and (4) the stakes of the assignment, and the extent to which you are rewarding the student for completing it as part of a learning process versus how much you want to require a degree of quality.
Lauren E. Aydinliyim, JD, PhD, Assistant Professor, Narendra Paul Loomba Department of Management, Zicklin School of Business, offers one suggestion:
For discussion boards, I created topic boards in Blackboard with suggested prompts (Ex: Chapter 10 – chapter review questions, etc.) and then required that at a minimum, an individual student must both (a) post an original thought (answer to the question, a question of his/her own, etc.) and (b) make a substantive reply to another student’s original thought (more than just “I agree” or “good point”). In Blackboard, it is very easy to verify the number of postings by running a report on the number of posts by each student in each board (although verifying content does require manual checking).
Although far from perfect, some of Blackboard’s reporting capabilities can at least let you know which students are at risk for not logging in or viewing required course components. I sent many emails last spring similar to “I noticed you haven’t logged in to Blackboard in over 10 days; is everything okay?” Although this is perhaps more similar to attendance than participation, it seemed to work well.
Each week, you will be expected to contribute one Discussion Board post either as a leader or responder. Two leaders weekly will kick off posts with questions (min 250 words) related to the course by [deadline 1], while the responders (the rest of the class) will leave comments that (1) comprise at least 250 engaged words; (2) remain engaged and on topic; (3) and meet the deadline of [deadline 2]. We’ll then bring up these written discussions in our synchronous meetings on Zoom, so please have them available then. You’ll be responsible for [#] leader posts by the end of the term and will have the chance to sign up for which weeks you take that role.
To learn more about discussion boards, including additional approaches and sample language see our slides from our workshop on this topic.
Informal Peer Groups
Even if you don’t usually have group projects or assignments in your class, it will likely be an advantage to assign students to small groups in your course. Students in peer groups can share course content and keep tabs on each other’s progress. Students can often answer questions about the course between each other before reaching out to the professor, or in lieu of doing so—time-saving and efficient!
Students can be assigned to random or self-selected groups. Each offers its advantages. Students often most benefit from peer groups when they remain the same throughout the semester, or at least switch infrequently. You may also elect to hold conferences with groups, allowing you to provide more personal feedback while also managing your own availability (when compared to the time-cost of one-on-one appointments, which depending on class size can be the ideal way to connect with students).
Groups on Various Platforms
Groups on Blackboard: If you are using Blackboard with your class, Groups are a specific feature available to you and your students. You can set up groups manually or randomly, and provide each access to a shared Group Chat, Message Board, and Documents. For more information about Groups on Blackboard, visit the Blackboard Help page on Course Groups or email the Baruch Computing and Technology Center (BCTC) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Groups on Zoom: On the Zoom browser site, instructors can access meeting settings to preload breakout room groups, or can create manual groups during a Zoom session. For more specifics on Zoom, visit our Zoom Guide.
Groups on Slack or Discord: Slack and Discord (essentially the open access version of Slack) both allow you to create channels that specify individual members of a larger group as participants—as opposed to just messaging with the whole class. After you create a channel, you will be prompted to select the channel’s participants. Both platforms also include direct messaging for reaching out to individual students.
Groups by Email: As a low-bandwidth and accessible option, you could begin a thread for each group and include each other’s email addresses. They could continue to connect and either continue to include you or remove you from the thread. By email, they can share files, links, and text easily.
The following is language from Seth Graves’ first-year-writing course in the English department. It attempts to articulate the rationale and purpose of groups, the platforms they’ll occur on. Seth did not use Blackboard for this course, which has its own suite of tools for its Groups.
During this course, you will join a peer group that will remain the same throughout the semester. This peer group may be asked to brainstorm together, present content to the class together, read and respond to each other’s writing, and support each other generally when one or more of you have questions or anxieties about the course. Let this group be another layer of course support. If you feel uncomfortable with working in a group for any reason, please email me or request to chat as soon as possible. Sending an email to express your concerns is also OK.
I will introduce you to each other by email, which you are welcome to use as an ongoing thread amongst yourselves. You will also have your own space on the course Slack, and will from a breakout group on Zoom.
All writing in this class will be considered public. Please keep in mind that you’ll be required to share just about all of your writing with your classmates. I’ll let you know when we’re doing an in-class assignment that you don’t have to share. Make judicious decisions about what you’d prefer to keep private. Come talk to me about worries or anxieties that you have about sharing work with a group.
More Ideas for Designing and Managing Student Participation Opportunities
- In a post on Inside Higher Education, professor Rebecca Vidra gives some advice for how to create opportunities for community building and engagement using an online discussion forum.
- In Educause, Edwige Simon gives 10 tips for holding effective online discussions.
- In this article, Joseph Ugoretz argues for why digression in asynchronous discussions can actually help students to learn
- Frank Harris III and Luke Wood of the CORA Institute developed this webinar on responding to racial bias and microaggressions in the online environment.
The original version was developed in response to the shift to teaching all classes online in the Spring 2020 semester due to COVID. It responded to the guidance of CUNY Central in “CUNY COVID-19 Guidance on Academic Continuity,” further articulated on August 23, 2020, by Dennis Slavin, Baruch Associate Provost and Assistant Vice President in these words:
The fact that almost all of our students are taking online classes in Fall 2020 is not indicative of their or faculty preferences in general or students’ ability to satisfy strict attendance requirements. There will be more legitimate reasons not to show up on screen this semester than there would be to miss classes during face-to-face semesters, including family/home issues at a time when many households have more members at home than usual, including children in need of supervision; issues of privacy (for the students and their families); insufficiently wide bandwidth and/or inconsistent wifi connections; inadequate hardware; etc.
The administration’s hope—as supported by comments from many students and faculty—is that members of the faculty will be as flexible as possible in dealing with attendance and other issues, listening carefully and empathetically to students’ explanations. Along those lines, we hope that “attendance” may be understood less literally than in normal semesters, which is in part why we encourage faculty to record their synchronous classes—so that students who cannot attend at the given time (or who experienced wretched connections at that time) will nevertheless have the opportunity to view the class period asynchronously.
While writing this document, the CTL recognized that conversations about participation and attendance were shifting towards more flexible attitudes towards students, who live(d) within and may be among the most affected by the precarity of the COVID health and economic crisis.
For other ideas for how to make grading criteria for attendance and participation, please schedule a one-on-one consultation with a member of the CTL staff. We would be happy to brainstorm with you!