University of Wisconsin–Madison


Professor Virginia Sapiro
Women’s Studies 640

Women’s Studies 640 is the capstone course required of all Women’s Studies majors during their senior year. Different instructors use different themes. I use “women and leadership” because I believe this allows me to structure the course as a bridge out to the next phase of these students’ lives. This goal also motivates my strong emphasis on developing comfort with public speaking skills.

Despite many changes in recent decades, a disproportionate number of women continue to be silent in class even when they demonstrate in more “private” conversations after class that they have plenty to say. Years of informal study reveals this common problem: many of the women (and some men) who are silent in class regularly identify something they would like to say, but for many reasons they mentally rehearse their intervention to the point that by the time they are ready to speak, the discussion has moved on to new things. Instead of speaking in class, they may then approach the professor after class to share the idea or remain silent.

The oral communication requirement in Women’s Studies 640 is best understood not as a single assignment, or even a series of assignments, but as a semester-long project. This is how it works:

On the first day of class I point out the requirement discussed in the syllabus that all members of the class participate in all class sessions, and that this in-class work constitutes 20% of the grade.

I then lead a class discussion on speaking in class that I initiate by asking four questions:

  1. How may of them tend not to speak much in class, and find the requirement a little worrying? Many of them—at least half—raise their hands.
  2. How many of them recognize themselves in this description: At some point in class they want to make a contribution, and begin to rehearse what they will say in their mind. They figure out how they will introduce the comment or question, perhaps rewording it once or twice. They then figure out what they will say next. But now they have forgotten how they will open their comment, so they have to go back to that, etc. Many of the students laugh in recognition, and many of the students who said they don’t speak much indicate they recognize themselves.
  3. How many of the people who rehearse speaking in class normally rehearse what they will say in the same way when speaking individually to the professor or other students? Almost no one says yes.
  4. Why do they rehearse their ideas to the point of silencing themselves in public? This generates a long discussion that involves the usually silent students, who come up with an interesting but pretty standard set of responses about why they are afraid to speak unrehearsed in class. They figure out that the reasons for their silence are barriers they should overcome. (There is much more to say about how and why this works as it does, much of it related to issues of power, but this is not the place.)


I complete this discussion by asking:

  1. How many have taken classes in which class participation was part of the grade? Most raise their hands.
  2. How many have ever received specific criteria or a rubric by which to understand how the quality of your participation can be evaluated? None—or almost none—raise their hands.


I distribute the rubric I use, developed by Professor John Tyler of Brown University and presented in the Pedagogy section ( of Brown’s Decameron Web at


Guidelines for Evaluating Participation

Outstanding Contributor: Contributions in class reflect exceptional preparation. Ideas offered are always substantive, provide one or more major insights as well as direction for the class. Challenges are well substantiated and persuasively presented. If this person were not a member of the class, the quality of discussion would be diminished markedly.

Good Contributor: Contributions in class reflect thorough preparation. Ideas offered are usually substantive, provide good insights and sometimes direction for the class. Challenges are well substantiated and often persuasive. If this person were not a member of the class, the quality of discussion would be diminished.

Adequate Contributor: Contributions in class reflect satisfactory preparation. Ideas offered are sometimes substantive, provide generally useful insights but seldom offer a new direction for the discussion. Challenges are sometimes presented, fairly well substantiated, and are sometimes persuasive. If this person were not a member of the class, the quality of discussion would be diminished somewhat.

Non-Participant: This person says little or nothing in class. Hence, there is not an adequate basis for evaluation. If this person were not a member of the class, the quality of discussion would not be changed.

Unsatisfactory Contributor: Contributions in class reflect inadequate preparation. Ideas offered are seldom substantive, provide few if any insights and never a constructive direction for the class. Integrative comments and effective challenges are absent. If this person were not a member of the class, valuable air-time would be saved.

Note: Prof. Tyler obtained these guidelines from Prof. Richard J. Murnane at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prof. Murnane, in turn, learned of them from someone else. Although the original attribution for the guidelines has been lost, they continue to be so useful to so many.

[Quoted from:]

This website is linked to the assignments page of my syllabus, and I give them each a copy. The rubric emphasizes participation in class as a contribution to the learning that can take place within the group as a whole. In other words, it fits in well with the leadership theme. I invite any student with concerns about this assignment to come see me and discuss strategies for developing the confidence to do this.

Many of the class sessions included visits by different women leaders who spent about a half hour discussing how they got to do what they do, and some of their thoughts on gender and leadership. Class participation, then, involved asking these visitors questions during the hour of so of discussion with the visitor, followed by 45 minutes to an hour after the visitor left to carry on the discussion just among ourselves.

I pass out 3×5 cards in every class. Students must hand these in at the end of class with an evaluation of their class participation. Many choose to write extensively. During some classes I ask for student volunteers to take particular leadership roles in running class discussion (including two days when I had to be out of town). These roles get no “extra credit” as such, but are considered part of the overall contribution to the class meetings.

At the end of the course, I handed back the cards to each student and asked them to grade themselves on the class participation component of the course, noting that leadership requires the ability to engage in clear-headed self-assessment. I gave specific guidelines for criteria for grading, which were based on the rubric they used all semester.

Informal assessment notes: Many students showed considerable development in public speaking. Many were very self-reflective about their oral communication and what it meant. Many showed signs of becoming more comfortable with engaging in principled self-assessment. An unusual number of students took the option of doing a final project that involved interviewing people whom they considered leaders.

The full syllabus and listing of requirements are available at