B09: Participation Questions and Answers Handout

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This is the online version of the handout “Participation Questions and Answers”. This handout will make the most sense after you read the short participation handout, which you can access by clicking here.

Revision history:

  • 11/01/2018 Changed some wording for clarity. Added links. Added #13.
  • 07/01/2018 Original handout posted.
  • Any revisions will be noted here.

PHLB09 2018 Participation Questions & Answers

For students registered in C’s tutorials, 2018


Here are the questions that this online handout tries to answer. (If you click the question in the list, it should scroll down for you)

  1. What is the purpose of this handout?
  2. Why are we doing reflection exercises?
  3. Does this mean I never have to attend tutorials?
  4. Where can we find the reflection submissions?
  5. Are there bonus assignments if I want to improve my participation score?
  6. What are we being evaluated on?
  7. How much do we need to write for each answer?
  8. Why do we need to provide reasons or evidence?
  9. What counts as reasons or evidence? What if I don’t have clear evidence?
  10. Will we get feedback on responses?
  11. What happens if I don’t submit on time?
  12. Why are there due dates at all if there is such a wide submission period?
  13. How did you use to grade participation, and why has it changed?
  14. What if I have a different question that isn’t included on this handout?

I have tried to anticipate questions based on previous students, and by sharing drafts of the participation handout for feedback. If you have other questions not mentioned here, please contact me and I’ll update this list to reflect them!

1. What is the purpose of this handout? The notion of “participation” can be really unclear and scary, and when part of our grade depends on it, it may help some people to have more guidance on what participation is. This handout is designed to explain some of the thinking that has gone behind how participation will be graded to try and make “participation” seem less scary or unclear. This open communication particularly important, I think, as this is the first time I am trying to grade participation in this way.

Click here to return to list of questions

2. Why are we doing reflection exercises? As you’ll see in the handout online and in tutorial, we will be grading participation through reflection exercises this term. Some of the primary purposes of this exercise are to

  • learn more about how we are collectively trying to engage with each other and how we are each engaging the course on our own terms; to
  • encourage self-reflection on the ways we can better support and be supported by others in the course; to
  • reflect the ways that needs can differ and develop over time, and provide the TA and our peers more information on how to better facilitate a dynamically inclusive course community; and to
  • help reduce bias or ambiguity in evaluation by focusing on the completion of a reflection, with clear scoring thresholds, rather than evaluating the “quality” of any individual attempts at participation.

But this exercise is also an attempt to move away from the way participation is usually evaluated in philosophy, which prioritizes physically attending tutorials and verbally contributing to class discussions each week. The goals in moving away from that style of participating are to:

  • avoid grading standards that exclude people who may be less able to attend or engage in dialogue, such as some disabled people, poorer people, people who know multiple languages, commuters, people with anxiety disorders, people with communication disorders, people with family and work obligations, and so on; to
  • challenge the norms around what can count as “participation” in philosophy and bioethics through students’ own ongoing feedback, where the discipline’s norms have typically been constructed around a small subset of people and their interests and abilities; to
  • recognize that different people learn and engage differently, that not everybody plans to continue in philosophy or higher education, and that these lead to different values around the kinds of engagement are important to different people; and to
  • recognize that ways of engaging with other people can and should change over time, alongside our changing classroom dynamics, social and political environments, and personal lives.

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3. Does this mean I never have to attend tutorials? Attending tutorials can be one way to start participating, and can be included in your reflections, but it is not required. Requiring people to attend for points, even if exceptions can be granted, generally excludes or requires more labour of disabled people, people who have less access to transportation, people who are sick, or just about anyone when life intervenes. My hope, rather, is that we will make tutorials valuable enough for students to want to attend. Some of the value I see in attending tutorials includes, but is not limited to:

  • Meeting, engaging with, and learning from our peers;
  • Developing a learning community of support within the course;
  • Exposure to diverse experiences and ways of thinking that will enrich our learning and help strengthen or challenge our own beliefs and styles of thinking;
  • More available interactions with your Teaching Assistant;
  • Further learn and develop styles of reasoning, with more opportunities for individual and group feedback to develop skills over the term;
  • Practicing, learning, exploring, and witnessing different styles of participation;
  • More opportunities to learn and ask questions about course content, evaluation expectations, or other learning and writing resources; and
  • More direct exposure to critical forms of thinking around case studies, to interdisciplinary approaches to biomedical ethics, and preparation for scientific, clinical, or philosophical practices.

That said, these are definitely things that can be developed outside of attending tutorials, and I’ll do whatever I can to try and help provide access to these educational goods for those who cannot or do not attend tutorials. You do not have to attend tutorials, but they are one place that can make all of these goods available.

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4. Where can we submit the reflections? During the weeks that reflections are due, I will post a link to an online form where you can submit your answers, and I will announce this through our tutorial website. I will also bring physical sheets to the tutorial(s) during those weeks in case people prefer to submit during tutorial hours. If these are not working for you for any reason, reach out to me and we’ll navigate the problem together.

Click here to return to list of questions

5. Are there bonus assignments if I want to improve my participation score? If you miss a submission window, or want to otherwise try to replace a lower reflection score, you can submit an optional fourth reflection during the last week of class. If you’re looking for ways to navigate and improve engagement during the term, I’m always happy to try and discuss strategies. If you want guidance on topics you might choose for a critical reading response, etc, for example, I can try to provide some topics or articles for reflection.

Click here to return to list of questions

6. What are we being evaluated on? Our working definition of “participation” in the tutorial is “collaborative engagement”. This means engaging with course materials, engaging other people in any ways that relate to the course, and supporting a community of learning both in the classroom and in your life more broadly. This is what we’re being evaluated on, broadly understood. The reflection exercise does not grade the type or quality of participation, for some of the reasons mentioned in the second question of this handout, but instead encourages and rewards attempts and reflection on how we each try to participate. In that way, this exercise encourages and rewards: (i) attempts to participate, whether or not they are “successful” and whether or not they represent what philosophers usually think of as “participation”; (ii) demonstrations of critical thinking and self-reflection; and (iii) attempts to support other people in their participation, and critical reflection on how we relate to each other in this course.

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7. How much do we need to write for each answer? There is no minimum or maximum wordcount. You can write however much you need to until you feel you’ve answered the questions being asked. And you can write even more if you want!

If this is not a helpful answer and you want more concrete guidance, I would suggest you write at least four full sentences for each. For example, if giving an answer about how you participated, you might have one that gives a simple answer to the question, at least one that explains why you gave the answer you gave, one that tells your reader if there is any evidence or support for your answer (and it’s okay if you don’t have evidence or support: just tell us why you don’t!), and however much space you need to describe your evidence or reasoning.

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8. Why do we need to provide reasons or evidence? This requirement for full marks on reflections is aimed at three main goals:

  • to encourage depth of our critical reflections by trying to find support that makes our answers more compelling; and from that to
  • develop practices that will help when we write our other assessments in this course; and finally to
  • develop skills that are conducive both to philosophical reasoning and to bioethics as a discipline and practice.

Philosophy and bioethics are highly discursive, meaning that we tend to engage in regular collaborative dialogue, decision making, and exploration. A main goal in conversations around philosophical and bioethics questions is to come up with an agreeable conclusion or a solution, but also to try to provide compelling reasons why other people should also accept the same arguments and conclusions.

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9. What counts as reasons or evidence? What if I don’t have clear evidence? There will be different kinds of reasons or evidence for different styles of engagement or different answers to the question. The main goal we should be aimed at is convincing someone that the answer we gave is true, right, or otherwise convincing. Ideally, anyone reading your answer should be inclined to believe it. If there is no available evidence, that’s totally okay! For full marks, you could try to explain why there is not or cannot be evidence, and why someone should accept your answers without. The goal overall is to try to support our claims in case someone might disbelieve, and this will help as practice for when we write our term papers.

This all said, you might still be hoping for some specific examples of what might count. Here is an incomplete list: submitting your in-tutorial discussion sheets and mentioning that in your answer; giving examples of some of the ways you tried to support peers during specific conversations or tutorials; including screenshots of engagements online in forums, social media, wikipedia pages, or wherever; reminding me of discussion prompts you submit by email; giving a summary of a discussion you had with a family member of friend; sharing links to things you have been reading, watching or listening to, and how they’ve affected the ways you engage with the course; giving links to example of engagements online; submitting samples of critical writing, journals, or reading responses; and so on. (Note: If you’re giving screenshots, photos, etc, try to do so in ways that don’t identify other people by blocking out names or faces, unless they give permission: we should respect others’ rights to privacy!).

If you are unsure of what might count as a reason or evidence for the ways you have been participating, please reach out to me and we can try to come up with an answer together!

Click here to return to list of questions

10. Will we get feedback on reflections? I generally will not give feedback on individual responses, for the simple reason that I generally do not have enough time. I will try to reach out to individuals if there appears to be an issue that needs addressing. If there are any common themes or issues, I will try to address them to the class as a whole. That said, if there is something you want direct feedback on, you can indicate that in your answer or send me a separate email and I will do my best!

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11. What happens if I don’t submit on time? For each reflection, there is a two week window during which you can submit your reflection. The hope is that students can pick the timeline that works best for them and their schedules. If for some reasons you cannot submit a reflection in that window there are two main options: (i) submit the optional fourth reflection in the last week of class, or (ii) contact me directly to work out an alternative such as an extension. Remember that even if you don’t have the time to answer all the questions, if you submit anything during the submission window, as long as it has your name on it, you will receive part marks!

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12. Why are there due dates at all if there is such a wide submission period? My hope is that people can pick “due dates” for themselves within each of those two week windows that work best for their schedule so that the reflections are as least stressful as possible. There are two main reasons that reflections are due during these periods only and not at any time: (i) to ensure that there is enough time between reflections that individuals can change their activities or adapt to different needs, and that the assignments reflect possible changes; and (ii) to make it easier for the TA to set aside time to receive, read, and keep track of the reflections as the come in.

Click here to return to list of questions

13. How did you use to grade participation, and why has it changed? I will upload an example of an old handout as soon as I can find one so you can see the differences directly, but I will describe some reasons for changing below. In general: while I did not receive student complaints about how I used to grade participation, I don’t feel that my actions and policies represented what I believed in as strongly as they could. And even if nobody actually complains, if it is ever possible that they could have something to complain about, those are things that I think could and should be changed. It’s possible for people to be uncomfortable sharing feedback, and we shouldn’t always require feedback to critically reflect on or try to change our practices.

To explain all the specific reasons I wanted to change how we evaluate participation would be a very long essay, but here are a few things:

  • While I tried to be very accommodating and flexible, this often required students to reach out to me and do the labour of asking and navigating conversation. If I knew I was willing to provide alternatives or forms of accommodating, I think I should have made them available upfront and built them into evaluation as much as possible.
  • For example: I used to make attendance count for part of the participation grade, alongside emailing me prompts, filling in discussion sheets in tutorial, and other active forms of engagement. The hope was that this would help students who felt less comfortable engaging in discussions and activities to be rewarded for attempts, attending, and listening, and thus be less likely to receive very low participation grades. But, as I mention in a previous answer, I believe requiring attendance can be exclusionary. And offering accommodations still made students do work to be accommodated when ideally more students would be included from the beginning.
  • Related to the above bullet point, in our new model, I try to reward things that I used to require (things like attending, submitting prompts, etc), but as options or styles of participating, so if they don’t fit the styles of engagement best for some people, those people are not penalized, while others for whom it does fit engagement styles, they can be credited. I believe the new self-reflections helps to avoid requiring styles of engagement and helps treat them more equally.
  • It was a lot of work and time to keep track of all required instances of engagement (up to four things per student each week!), and there was a risk of misplacing an email or other possible grading nightmares. It was an unsustainable amount of work that I was totally willing to do if it helped make things more inclusive, but I think the alternative is less work while being even more inclusive.
  • While I provided handouts on what active participation could look like, the phrasing and structure of the handouts still looked like they were prioritizing verbal participation. Other styles of participating seemed to be merely accommodated rather than actively built into the evaluation, and this ran counter to my goals and intents.
  • Other reasons are generally different cases of the same general issues outlined in the bullet points above. If you have further questions though, totally feel free to reach out and I’ll try to clarify.

Click here to return to list of questions

14. What if I have a different question that isn’t included on this handout? You can email or talk to your TA! I definitely cannot anticipate everyone’s questions or needs, and am always open to adjusting expectations and answering questions where possible. You can also comment directly on the online version of this handout [scroll down].

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