Student Participation in Class – how important is it?

Alex Steel, UNSW Law

There is a lot of research around that argues that students who are more engaged in class learn better.  For law students the simplest form of engagement is to contribute to classroom discussion.  That’s not always been the case – until the 1970’s Australian law students received most of their legal education via lectures.

Since then more emphasis has been placed on encouraging student discussion as part of the learning process – often called active learning.  For some law schools this participation occurs in tutorials, for others it occurs through seminar style classes that replace lectures. In some law schools this participation is part of the formal assessment (assessed class participation (ACP)).

At UNSW the law school has always taught in the seminar style, and student involvement in discussion is not only encouraged, but made compulsory by assessing their contribution as part of the final grade for each course.

Back in 1976 students were surveyed on their attitudes to this approach to teaching.  75% of students considered that class participation should be assessed.  When we ran a similar survey in 2012 we also got a strong result. 63% of respondents thought that class participation enhanced their learning, and 69% thought it made classes more interesting. Significantly, 77% of respondents thought class participation should be worth 10% or more of their final grade.

So there is, at UNSW at least, a strong student demand for discussion in class – and that it should be a part of the overall grade a student receives.  But why would we do it?

In a recent article Class Participation as a Learning and Assessment Strategy in Law: Facilitating Students’ Engagement, Skills Development and Deep Learning (Alex Steel, Julian Laurens and Anna Huggins (2012) 36 UNSW Law Journal 30) we argue that there are a range of benefits to including student participation in an assessment scheme.

  • Unlike exams and essays, ACP is a form of continuous assessment that encourages both deeper learning and social engagement with other learners.  Whereas exams and essays encourage student effort only at single points of time, ACP encourages a consistent level of effort throughout the semester, and reinforces the importance of being prepared for class.
  • ACP gives students a reason to attend class, and consequently helps develop a shared student learning experience.
  • Because student activity, feedback and even possibly grading occur within the classroom, it is a form of assessment without significant workload increases for either teachers or students. ACP is thus arguably unique amongst other assessment practices in that the assessment does not take place externally to the learning environment in which the students participate (and also create).This promotes the creation of an authentic learning space which further supports students’ engagement and motivation.
  • ACP encourages the development of skills in analysis and communication with instant feedback from other students and teachers. The student involvement enhances a peer-learning environment, and allows all students to develop experience in making judgements about quality around those contributions.
  • It can build a range of skills and values in the students.  Clearly communication skills are inherent in ACP, but by constructing discussions along particular lines, ACP can also be used to build awareness of professional ethics, social tolerance
  • It can help to build stronger teacher student relationships, making it easier for students in difficulty to approach their teachers.  It can also help teachers to discover those who are struggling.
  • ACP, as a form of continuous classroom-based activity, is an inherently formative form of assessment. Feedback is inherent in the response to any contribution – and the feedback can come from both teachers and peers. Significantly, this is feedback that can be immediately utilised and put into practice by the student and other students for whom the feedback is relevant (in an example of ‘feedback’ and ‘feed-forward’).  ACP is thus a highly efficient method of providing meaningful feedback to students – not just in the time saved, but also because the feedback generated within the classroom is immediately able to be used in an ongoing ‘loop’.

What if students don’t want to talk?  We think that even then many may still find a classroom that encourages discussion to be a significant learning benefit. They still hear the perspectives and voices of other students, perspectives that do not come from the teacher. They remain exposed to an environment that encourages them to critically assess their own opinions and to reflect on their persuasiveness. Immersion in such classes reinforces the decentred and conflicting nature of much opinion, particularly legal opinion.

Does it need to be formally assessed as part of the final grade?  We think it does for a number of reasons.

  • it emphasises the values of engagement we want to instil in the students (making explicit the so-called ‘hidden curriculum’
  • it’s recognition and reward for the effort put into preparing and contributing to group learning by the students.
  • it allows Law Schools to demonstrate larger program learning outcomes related to communication and professionalism skills.

4 thoughts on “Student Participation in Class – how important is it?

Add yours

  1. “What if students don’t want to talk?”…the best take on this I have heard came from Cathy Sherry, who made the very blunt (but necessary!) point that if a student can’t participate/share their views/explain a particular legal point in a classroom, then they’re not going to be able to participate in a meeting in a professional setting. Learning how to express your views to a group of your peers is a pretty important skill not just for lawyers, but for all professionals – and it’s one that students should be encouraged to develop.

    On a more personal note, class participation was always one of my favourite parts of law school. I miss that sense of back and forth debate and discussion immensely.


    1. You can fully comprehend the material, have normal social skills and still get As and Bs, without ‘participating’ or I should say talking much in class. Sometimes I like group discussions or teachers that make fun group games to teach us stuff. Sometimes a class is just so boring and meaningless that you don’t have anything to say like in Lifespan development (XD). Usually ppl might speak up if someone says something totally ignorant that you have to call them out on but either than that, You pay attention to lecture, take notes go home and study and repeat. boom! A+ or whatever. I think that maybe it should be encouraged at a young age at least but eh, at this point in my life, I just want to get the classes over with and get the degree and move on, and not be bothered with some person I don’t know telling me to share whats on my mind in an 8am class especially if im not in a good mood.


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