Instructional Highlights: Megan McDermott

Detailed self-assessment tool helps students monitor, improve class participation

Megan McDermott says students sometimes point out that she “over-engineers” things in her classes. She doesn’t deny it.

“I always think it’s better to over-engineer something at the start, then take away things you don’t need later,” she says.

She approached student participation in her virtual classes last fall the same way.

McDermott, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin Law School, says she has always based part of a student’s grade on class participation and engagement. Pre-pandemic, that meant she kept a log sheet and an ongoing tally of each student’s contributions.

With virtual learning, she worried that some of the usual cues that helped her get a sense of the health of a classroom community would be gone or more difficult to catch. Her solution was to create a tool in Canvas that required students to regularly self-assess their engagement in various categories using a detailed point system. She also made class participation a more significant part of a student’s grade.

Students could give themselves points for obvious things like attending synchronous class sessions and watching class videos. But they could also earn points for, among other things, answering a poll, writing on a whiteboard or raising a hand to ask a question.

A couple of examples from McDermott’s framework:

  • Give yourself 3 points for every time you served as a facilitator, timekeeper, recorder, or reporter for a case briefing exercise or other tiered discussion.
  • Give yourself 1 point for every question posed on Canvas discussion posts and 3 points for every meaningful reply citing course material by page number, up to a total of 10 points.

McDermott gave students regular feedback and also asked them if there were additional ways not specified in her list in which they contributed meaningfully to the classroom community or to the collective learning experience. Students could make a case for how many points they should receive for those contributions.

The approach encouraged ownership, autonomy and creativity — core values in McDermott’s classroom. “I think allowing students flexibility in the ways they chose to engage in the material and with each other allowed them to draw on their natural strengths and aptitudes,” she says.

An extra bonus: Students appreciated the transparency and fairness in how this part of their grade was being calculated, McDermott says.

More from the Instructional Highlights Series

UW–Madison instructors have been investing great thought and effort into making their virtual classrooms engaging, inclusive and supportive. We asked a cross-section of them to reflect on their remote classes and to share, in particular, how they’ve worked to build a strong sense of community among students. In many cases, instructors say they’re learning new approaches and techniques that will enrich their in-person teaching once campus fully returns.

We’ll add to the Instructional Highlights series throughout the spring semester, so please check back regularly. If you’d like to pass along an approach that’s worked for you or have a suggestion for an instructor we might want to reach out to, please contact us at