Teaching Political Participation in Polarized Times

Michelle D. Deardorff: Department of Political Science and Public Service, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

This past fall, I was contacted by two students at a local residential high school who wanted to join with my college students to assemble a panel discussion before they left for break. The students noted that they thought they shared a common problem — going home for vacation and interacting with family and friends who hold beliefs diametrically opposed to their own. We offered one of our most popular sessions ever — “How do we disagree and still be friends.” Held the last day of classes in the fall term, the room was packed and the audience had to be dismissed after two hours. Hungry for strategies to negotiate the complicated tension of being faithful to their own views, while maintaining good relationships with those they love but with whom they disagree, high school and college students along with community members were passionate in their engagement with the topic.

In our current hyper-polarized political climate, party identification seems to supersede other values and policy priorities. Reasoned discourse and thoughtful disagreement is not modeled in our current popular culture. Consequently, it is not surprising our students do not know how to negotiate this difficult terrain.

It may be one of the most important tasks we have in our AP and college courses to model and help educate our students on how to disagree over ideas respectfully and advocate for their interpretation based on analysis and evidence.

To address these goals, I have increased class participation in many of my classes to 15–40% of their course grade. With such a large percentage of the final grade based on a subjective category, I have worked to systematize and clarify my understanding and measurement of class participation, ensuring it is consistently and clearly communicated to my students.

My first step has been to expand my definition of meaningful class participation. We know some students do not respond well to free-for-all discussion and others need time to pull their thoughts together, synthesizing available material. To ensure that all learning styles and personality styles are respected, I have adopted five different ways that students can participate in class. While these work for the classes I teach, others could adapt them to meet differing pedagogies and class content.

  • in-class comments and questions
  • reading notes or answers to reading questions
  • written responses to class discussion (not a summary of the class discussion)
  • emailing responses to readings or class discussion
  • in-office discussion of material

These are shared with the students on the first day in the syllabus, but I provide constant reminders throughout the term as to the value of personally engaging with and practicing their understanding of the material. I also provide a rubric that articulates what is valued as strong participation and classroom engagement and what is not.

We talk through the rubric and discuss the elements of stronger and weaker arguments, as well as what enhances and clarifies a position and what is merely unsubstantiated opinion. Each day in class I code participation on a seating chart (for instance, T = use of text; ? = Question; C = provision of context; P = personal experience; X = connection to prior discussion) and then before the next class I incorporate all of the contributions provided through email, reading notes, class notes (only the student’s contributions), and personal discussions. I then summarize for each student a participation score for each class that ranges from a 0–5.

On a regular basis, I share with the students where their participation grade stands in order to make this a less subjective process and to motivate students to engage more fully in the class.

As a student gains confidence in discussing and questioning less controversial topics, when we move to a more difficult and polarized issues the skills of discussion develop with them. I have used this approach in classes from 30–50 students and it is a time intensive pedagogy; but, I have found that as students’ analytical skills mature and they observe how seriously I respond to their ideas and how we model discourse, they learn to practice it themselves. As citizens — in our popular sovereignty-based democracy — this may be the most essential skill they learn to practice.


Michelle D. Deardorff, PhD is the Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Government and Head of the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) where she teaches courses in American politics, constitutional law, and political philosophy. She is on the author team of the McGraw-Hill text American Democracy Now (with Harrison and Harris) that has both an AP and college edition. Before UTC, she spent ten years teaching at Jackson State, a historic black public university in Mississippi, and another decade at Millikin University, a small private college in Illinois. She can be reached at Michelle-Deardorff@utc.edu.