I have always included a participation grade in my upper year geography class, because I highly value the contributions that my students bring to the class environment. In addition, the skills they develop by participating in class are not only key for deep learning, but it’s also the skills that help them to be good colleagues and community members in their time after university.

However, participation has always bugged me a lot, from an assessment point of view. I used to keep an intense set of check-marks and meticulously watch students, writing down my observations of their contribution quality and quantity.  But, how am I the best person to make a judgment about their participation? How can I ensure that my judgments are fair? How can I recognize diverse ways that students contribute to the class environment, including in ways that I cannot see? 

So, 3 years ago, I started asking students to self-assess their participation.  The first year, I kept my old approach and the students self-assessments matched my own assessment nearly 1:1 (they were a bit harsher on their performance than I was).  Now, I have moved to entirely self-assessed, though I still keep my own abbreviated observations, student reflections, and exit tickets, so I have more data in case there are any issues.

Additional context: Upper year undergraduate, 30-35 students.

Here is the approach Stephanie Horsley and I developed together. We use it and we swear by it (I have some data, but for now, all I can do is swear by it).

Reflection Activity 1: Goal setting, mindsets, and professionalism

(at beginning of the course)

Students read the context of this initial goal setting, summarized below.

  • Introduce growth and fixed mindset.
  • By discussing learning, mindset, and setting goals, I hope that you will feel empowered to
    • tackle tasks throughout the course that feel new and uncomfortable
    • allow you to identify and work on areas of growth rather than just demonstrate what you are already good at
    • articulate the skills you have developed during this course
    • practice setting and working towards goals
    • prepare to work on and assess your own participation and professionalism. Self-assessments are common in workplace performance appraisals, so are good practice.


Students then complete their own initial goal-setting in an online form, which includes an initial brainstorm about professionalism. This professionalism is used as a starting point to set our class norms and contract.

Reflection Activity 2: Midterm Participation and Professionalism Self-Assessment

Sometime before the mid-point in the course, I send students goals back to them. This is made really easy using a tool we have called “Post’em”. It allows me to upload a spreadsheet with each students username, and they receive only the messages intended for them. Students receive their initial goals and comments from me about the goals. Students are asked to review the goals and comments before completing their mid-term self-assessment. Doing this at the midpoint gives the a chance to change their behaviour. I will point out that I use a google form on this and the next form because it allows for the matrix style questions (MS Forms does not).

Reflection Activity 3: Final Participation and Professionalism Self-Assessment

Again, students receive their goals via the Post’Em tool with comments from me. Students are asked to review the goals and comments before completing their final self-assessment.

How do I turn the reflections into marks?

The midterm and final assessments ask students to give themselves a numerical grade. In 95% of cases I take these assessments directly (i.e., they truly are giving themselves a mark). Students are very honest, and I find that having to answer the matrix questions helps them to see if they are really deserving of a mark as high as they want to give themselves. (i.e., if they don’t answer “Always” for all components, they ought not to be getting an A+).

Frequent comments and feedback on goals

It might be useful to know what kinds of comments and feedback I most frequently give on student goals and self-assessment.

  • Thanks for your reflection. I see you are hoping to improve your ability to speak up in front of the class. That’s a great goal, though I’ve noticed you’ve overlooked some of the other ways that you add to our class environment, so consider recognizing and building on those strengths too. (e.g., speaking up in the smaller groups, helping others, writing thoughtful reflections, etc.)
  • Thanks for your reflection. I see you have a goal to _______. That’s a great goal to have, though I’d like you to take some time to consider how you’ll keep yourself accountable to that goal. How will you ensure that you make progress towards that goal?
  • Thanks for your reflection. Please take the time to expand on your goals next time so that I can learn more about how your strengths and growth align with your self-assessment of your professionalism and participation.