Koosh!
Enhancing Class Participation

by Maria K. Robinson, Seattle University

Traditionally, mathematics courses are not heralded as participation
courses. Many students come to their math classes expecting simply
to listen or at most take notes rather than to actively participate.
Typically, they are rarely called upon to answer questions that have been
asked by the professor. As the effects of Reform Calculus are hitting
the country many professors are now expecting more interaction with their
students. But how can this participation be assessed? This
note describes a quantitative way of assessing class participation that
reaches students with different learning styles and promotes interaction
between the students and the instructor.
I believe that students learn better when they are actively engaged
in the lecture. In order to promote this, I ask my students questions
that I expect them to answer. I try to avoid ?yes/no? questions;
the questions I ask are generally openended. I may ask a question
to introduce the topic, or for an idea on how to approach a problem.
In many classes the participation grade may be assessed at the end of the
course when the instructor is trying to decide if students with a borderline
grade should receive the higher grade or not. This system relies
on the instructor?s memory of the entire semester. Others assess
participation by recording the student?s name as soon as they participate.
However this method interrupts the flow of the lecture and gives the appearance
of grading students. I have devised a way of assessing the participation
grade that does not rely on my memory and minimizes the interruption to
the lecture. When a student answers a question, either correctly
or incorrectly, I toss him a Koosh Ball. Also, when students ask
their own questions or answer each other?s questions, I toss them a Koosh.
I typically only let a student earn one Koosh per class meeting.
An exception can be made if a student provides a really insightful response
or asks a really insightful question. At the end of class the students
who have received a Koosh come to the front of the classroom. While
there they write the number of Kooshes they received during that lecture
on a spreadsheet with their name and the date of the class. They
also use this opportunity to return the Koosh to me. The spreadsheet
facilitates tabulating each student?s participation grade. Since
the participation grade is only 5% of a student?s total grade there is
not much incentive to cheat.
I try to create an environment where every student is encouraged to
participate in class. However, not all students are comfortable speaking
in front of their peers. In order that these shy students not be
penalized, I have devised other ways of awarding Koosh points. A
shy student who has many questions can earn a Koosh point by attending
office hours and asking questions about the material. If my office
hours are inconvenient a student can also earn a Koosh point by emailing
me questions. However, not all shy students will attend office hours
or email me. They can also earn Koosh points by completing a variety
of small written assignments. In a proof class, for example, these
assignments might ask the student to prove a statement that is beyond the
scope of the standard exercises. By this I mean that either the proof
technique required has not been taught in class or the concepts in the
statement have not been covered in class. In other classes I may
ask the students to write a paper on a topic that was covered briefly during
a lecture. For example, in a Calculus II class I ask the students
to research Gabriel?s Horn. I may ask students in an Introduction
to Linear Algebra class to write a summary of an article from either a
journal or the Internet where concepts from linear algebra are used.
They may choose any article they desire. I only ask that when they
submit their written report that they also submit a copy of the article.
Because these writing assignments are often more intense than answering
a question in class or attending office hours, I will award up to five
points per assignment.
I have used this system, with slight modification, for six semesters.
This past year, I collected feedback from my students. The following
questions had an answer that was significantly (a=0.05)
above neutral. Students in my Introduction to Statistics course at
the sophomore level agreed with the statement ?Participation of other students
helps me learn the material.? Students in Calculus II also agreed
with that statement. Students in Linear Algebra agreed with the following
statements: ?I like the ?Koosh? method of assessing class participation?
and ?I feel the ?Koosh? system is fair to all students.? Finally,
students in Engineering Math, a junior level course, not only agreed to
all the statements already mentioned, but they also agreed to the following:
?Participating in class helps my performance (grade),? ?The participation
grade has encouraged me to pay more attention in class,? and ?I learn more
by participating in class.?
I am quite excited by the results of the survey, especially for Engineering
Math. I was apprehensive about incorporating the participation grade
in this particular class because the stereotypical engineering student
does not participate in class. Therefore they would thrive in environments
where they only take notes. This particular class was comprised of
hardworking individuals who really enjoyed the stimulating interaction
of the class. I think that the participation grade actually made
the course easier for some students because in order to participate in
class they needed to stay current with the material that was being presented.
The survey to which the students responded also allowed them to make
additional comments or suggestions. Here are a few of these comments:
?In general, I like it. The class atmosphere tends to be
more enjoyable.?
?I know that there are some kids who are shy and don?t like to
speak up in class, and I think this encourages them.?
?People told me that it was a difficult class, but it has been
made so easy.?
?I like to participate when I want to, not have to for a grade.?
{I see this as a negative comment ? but it?s fine that not everyone is
happy with the system, particularly if the class learns more.}
?While the system did not completely motivate me to overcome
my reluctance to speak in class, it did help considerably.?
Overall, I believe that the Koosh system is a successful way to encourage
students to participate in a mathematics class and to assist students to
be successful in the class because they are motivated to stay current with
the material. It promotes an activelearning environment, most students
believe that they benefit, and it does not disrupt the flow of the lecture.
Maria Robinson (
robinsonm@seattleu.edu)
is an Assistant Professor at Seattle University. After graduating
from Emory University with her PhD in 2000, she spent three years as a
teaching postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona. Her interests
include studying lowdimensional topology, research with undergraduates
in the area of Knot theory, and working towards improving the teaching
of undergraduate mathematics.
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