INTRODUCTION: One of the greatest challenges in using learner-centered activities is getting learners to buy into the process and become willing partners in their own education.  Students who are habitually late or absent sabotage the process by missing learning experiences that can’t be made up by copying someone else’s notes.  To address this problem, many instructors assign points for attendance.  Unfortunately, this method never worked for me. It felt like a petty, burdensome waste of my time that put the responsibility on me for counting and monitoring all of my students’ behaviors and judging excuses. Worse yet for me were the students who were motivated to come to class only to earn the points.  Many projected the attitude that “You can make me come to class, but you can’t make me do anything.” This attitude poisoned the classroom environment and hindered my efforts to engage the other students.

It occurred to me that I needed to award students points for participation instead of attendance, and I needed to shift the responsibility for documentation from myself to the students. To this end, I decided to adapt the concept of a minute paper.  Traditionally the minute paper is a prompt given to students at the end of class period used to encourage students to reflect on the material addressed in class. I adapted the minute paper into an activity I titled “Participation Journal,” and it’s purpose is to create a classroom environment filled with students clamoring to participate in the learning process. 

I decided to use this tool with my chemistry course for non-science majors because most of the students enter with the attitude that this course is a torture to be endured, and all they really want is a passing grade with minimal effort. Motivating these students to attend class and participate has been historically very difficult. The success of the Participation Journal with these students suggests that it can be used in any course across the curriculum.


  • Motivate students to attend class and participate actively
  • Create an opportunity for students to review the material covered in class


Each student needs a participation journal.  This can be as simple as requiring every student to purchase a composition notebook and fill in the pages as they go.

I provided students with the same two prompts for each class period:

* Today in class I learned….

* I earned my participation points by….

I provide students with a grid with the date for each class and a space to record the Participation Journal score for that day.  I have them attach the grid to the inside front cover of their journal.

In the SUPPORT MATERIALS section of this article, I have included the wording I include in my syllabus to explain the Participation Journal.


1.  Explain the use of the Participation Journal. I explain, “Learning is an active process, and in class we will be doing a variety of activities designed to engage you.  It is your responsibility to document what you learn and how you participated each day.  At the end of each class, I will stop class a few minutes early and you will complete the two sentence stems in your Participation Journal. Then you will leave it for me to grade and return to you at our next class.” 

2.  Give students 2-5 minutes at the end of each class to write in their journals.

3.  Collect journals immediately.

4.  Read and grade journals based on your criteria (see below for my quick method).

5.  Bring journals to next class meeting and place them where students can claim them as they walk in.

6. After class begins, scoop up the unclaimed journals, so students who are late must come to you to request the journals to earn the points.

7.  Repeat steps 2-6 each class until the end of the semester.


For me, the experience of using the participation journal has been a breath of fresh air because it has been so simple to use while offering me a much better sense of what is occurring in my classroom. When I read journals after class, I can tell exactly who was there and who was not, who was on time and who was late, who is actively engaged and who is not, and who is learning the course content and who is not.

The scoring process I use is extremely quick and takes only 10 minutes for 20 students. I mostly write check marks to indicate that I have read a comment.  If a student entry didn’t earn full credit, I add a brief comment to explain why.  I also add occasional encouraging words or nudges as needed.  Since I always have possession of the journals, I don’t have to deal with anybody who forgot or lost it.  I record points on the grid in the journal, so it is easy to transfer them into my grade book at the end of the semester.

Perhaps most important, by reviewing journal entries, I get a good sense of what students took from the lesson that day. I can provide immediate feedback or nudge students who are coming late or not participating.  As you might guess, the quality of the journal responses varies.  For example, here are three responses for the same class period to the prompt “Today in class I learned…”

1.  I learned the History of the atom.  We discussed the theorys [sic] and different experiments that were used to discover atoms.  I also learned different atoms of hydrogen and neon produce colors.

2.  Thompson discovered the atom.

3.  How Thompson in 1897 discovered the electron.  He used the cathode ray experiment.  I also learned that the idea of atoms actually originated from the Ancient Greeks.  All matter is made of four elements- Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water (early assumption).

With regard to the participation prompt, the responses are more similar since there are only a few ways to participate in class each day.  For example, in one class period, I asked discussion questions and had students draw atoms.  Additionally, I asked students to respond to multiple choices questions using a computerized response system. Each student had a hand held devise that transmits their answers to a computer, which then displays a graph of all responses.  Students refer to this system as the “pointer,” the “clicker,” or the “transmitter” in their responses to the prompt “I earned my participation point today by…”

1. Answering the pointer question then discussing it with my group.  Copying all the notes and trying to draw atoms with help.

2. Participating in a class discussion about the periodic table when we went over the class instructions of the elements.  Also we used our clickers to answer questions.

3.  Used transmitter. Drawing the Na model. Answering that metals are in certain areas of the periodic table.


From my point of view, the Participation Journal has clearly encouraged greater student participation. From the first day, I had students clamoring to answer questions, where in previous semesters I’d ask a question and wait and wait and wait…until the one student who answered every question spoke up.  In previous semesters when I used the computerized response system to ask questions in this course only about 75% of the students would bother to click in an answer despite my multiple requests.  With the participation journal, student response is always 100% without any encouragement. As the instructor, my “job” is no longer to force or cajole students to participate; the Participation Journal places the responsibility on the student to document how they participated.  Students come into class, knowing that when they leave, they will need something to write down.  

Most important, my attendance has improved dramatically.  Unfortunately, I do not have attendance records from previous semesters for comparison, but my class attendance before typically ranged from 50% to 75%.  This semester it was common that everyone was present, and over half of the students who completed the course had perfect attendance.

Is this change in attendance and participation a result of the participation journal?  Data from a survey of the students indicates that it is.  The survey asked students to rate if the journals encouraged attendance on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 10 (definitely yes). The most common ranking was 10 and the average ranking was 7, which was lower because a few students scored it very low.  However, all of the students who scored it low indicated in the comments section that they would have come to class regardless.  This pattern was repeated with the participation question, most students said it clearly had increased their participation. A student who ranked this question as a 2 wrote, “I participate anyway, but the journal gave me easy points.”  A student who scored this question as a 10 wrote, “I would have come to class every time, but the journals pushed me to participate instead of just listening.”

These survey results are very exciting for me, because it helps reinforce that the changes I saw were because the Participation Journal was causing students who would have tended to skip class both to come to class and participate without generating the resentment of my past efforts. Additionally, the students who would have come and participated without the Participation Journal didn’t feel overburdened and appreciate that their good behavior was rewarded.

With regard my other purpose, creating an opportunity for students to review the material covered in class, the survey of my students provided me with great encouragement.  During the semester, I gave very little feedback on this section and the students never had the journals in their possession.  I was very concerned that they would view this section as busy work, and would say that it had not been helpful. Instead, the average response to a question as to whether the journals helped students think about what was learned in class was a 9, and the lowest score any student gave was a 7. No one wrote any negative comments, and a typical comment was, “It helped me start organizing my thoughts before running to my next class”.

Overall, the most interesting change for me as the instructor is that I no longer have students coming up to me and asking, “Did I miss anything?” They know that they missed content and didn’t earn the participation points.  They write in the journal that they were absent and acknowledge the absence to me and to themselves. 

Of course, mere attendance and participation is insufficient to guarantee academic success.  Still, now that the minute journal has helped me get the students to class, I can employ other methods to help increase learning.


I learned that the quality of the responses I get in the journal is dependent on the quality and timeliness of the feedback I give.  Early in the semester, I made sure to write a comment here and there in each journal to let the students know I was reading them.  I also deducted more points early on, to encourage students to write with more thought, and for the most part that worked.  However, as the semester passed by, I slacked off in my attention to students’ journal entries, and in response the quality of the students’ journal entries declined.  Additionally, I was careful in the beginning to grade each journal immediately, but as the semester progressed I graded them every few class periods.  This was a mistake as the students lost the value of quality feedback given promptly.  In the future, I will grade the journals carefully after each class period.

SOURCE:  I first read about Minute Papers in an article by Joe Cuseo (Marymount College) posted on the On Course website


Excerpt from My Syllabus:

Learning is an active process.  To get the most out of your class experience you will need to participate in our various in-class activities.  In this class, you have 27 days of instruction in which to earn your participation points.  Participation points will be assigned 2 per class day, up to a maximum of 50 points.

Participation points will be recorded in your participation journal, which you will turn in at the end of every class.  These points will be assessed based the description you provide of your participation and my observations. I reserve the right to deduct participation points for students who are chronically late to class.

–Kirsten Casey, Chair and Faculty, Chemistry, Anne Arundel Community College, MD

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