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University Instruction in the Time of COVID-19 (Part 2):

Reconceptualizing Participation

By Lilly Padía, Pamela D’Andrea Martínez, Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, and Nyissia Spruill

Participation is often listed on syllabi as a large portion of students’ grades.  It typically accounts for traditionally understood modes of participation, like vocally sharing thoughts with the entire class and responding to peers or instructor(s) during class time, and sometimes on digital discussion boards.  It often mandates physical presence as a prerequisite.  Under pre-COVID-19 conditions, this narrow and normative understanding of participation is inequitable.  It privileges people who feel comfortable and entitled to take up space in public settings and penalizes those who don’t. Privileges within general society tend to show up in the classroom, so silencing due to notions of ability, race, gender, and normative appearance should be considered when planning equitable online instruction. For example,  approaches to participation can usually privilege neurotypical learners who process information and responses within the teacher-created timeframe. This may also look like white students vocalizing their thoughts and taking up a disproportionate amount of airtime to process their ideas and/or feelings as they relate to class material without regard to how their statements impact fellow students. This is not to suggest that the neurotypical learners mentioned above are always or usually white, but to highlight the ways that white people can often feel entitled to take up space and have their comforts and feelings forefronted in classroom structures that should be designed to support every student’s learning.

Participation has become a tricky element to navigate during the pandemic. Does participation mandate individuals make a virtual appearance for all synchronous sessions? What if someone is struggling with technology or internet access? What if they are currently residing in a different time zone? How do we monitor student participation asynchronously? Should we? What is the merit or value of tracking and grading these forms of participation?

Reconceptualizing participation as a result of COVID-19 could bring us into a new space of equitable participatory teaching and learning in both online and in-person classrooms.  What if we gave students a menu of participation options and let them select one or two modes of participation that they are comfortable with and able to commit to for the semester? The portion of their grade that reflects participation will then be based on the self-selected form of participation.  Options might include writing questions in the chat during each synchronous session, posting responses to classmates’ posts on a discussion board, responding to the instructor’s guiding question(s) before the beginning of each class session, filling out an exit ticket of sorts at the end of each class session, sharing a question or quote that resonated from the assigned readings, taking notes on the discussion in their assigned break-out groups during each session to share-out with the whole class, etc.

Considering how to support students in developing the sense of community that might be built during in-person participation is equally important when instruction is happening online. Assigning students to break-out groups is one way to encourage participation off the “main stage” of a whole class session. We have found that during the move to distance learning, many students kept their cameras and microphones off during whole-group synchronous sessions, but turned them on when moved to break-out rooms.  Providing spaces for students to connect with one another and explore the course content in smaller groups is very important to disrupt normative understandings of participation and center student relationships with one another. 

Ways to make participation more equitable:

  1. Try discussion forums beyond the traditional “discussion board” posts.  Consider using sites like FlipGrid that give students the opportunity to record a video of themselves reflecting on a topic, rather than requiring every response be typed. You can give students the option of pointing the camera at an object or a pet if they feel uncomfortable sharing their face, or point them to the stickers and emojis that they can use to cover their faces.  Many times, though, students leave their faces uncovered and it provides a more personal touch to discussion threads, as students can watch and listen to each other reflect, see facial expressions, hear tone of voice and inflection, etc.
  2. Encourage students’ translanguaging on online forums.  This may look like them speaking and/or writing in multiple languages, a mix of languages, or whichever language they feel most comfortable in.  When we integrate video forums, it also provides opportunities for use of gestures.  Consider encouraging students to use photos, visuals, memes, and other graphics to convey their thoughts as well.
  3. Assign students at random to small breakout groups during class breaks of 5-20 minutes.  While students are not required to stay at their computers during the break, if they choose to, it can provide a smaller and more intimate space to chat that is less intimidating than the larger group.
  4. Have discussion groups that remain constant during each class session. Encourage students to exchange contact information with their discussion group and let them know that they will meet with the same small group for a chunk of time during each class.  This can help cultivate connections between students who might not already know their classmates and help build comfort as students share weekly with the same few peers.
  5. Ask your students for regular feedback after each class session. Consider providing an exit ticket, such as a google form, asking students to share what worked best for them during each class, what they would like to see more or less of in future classes, and any additional suggestions that they have.  This will help develop a sense of how each student is feeling about the different formats of virtual learning--and may give you some new insights that you had never considered! (Be sure to implement some of the suggested changes, if not all. If students spend their time and energy providing you feedback and then you do not apply it, they will stop sharing candid responses.)

University Instruction in the Time of COVID-19 (Part 1): Equitable Online Teaching


Pamela D'Andrea Martínez (she/her/ella)

NYU Metro Center Graduate Researcher and Adjunct Professor

Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng

Associate Professor of International Education (On Sabbatical Leave 2020-2021)