July 20, 2022
Grading discussion is an age-old challenge rife with questions: Should I do individual or group assessment? How can I not punish introverts? Can I accurately record and remember all that was said? What exactly am I grading: content knowledge, discussion skills, leadership, all of the above?
When I started teaching, I found myself answering these questions with a “B+ group grade.” It was imprecise but safe: high enough to not threaten the highest performers and low enough to not inflate the struggling students. In most cases, my goal was essentially to have no students come to complain about the grade or ask me to justify it (I wasn’t confident I could). It always left me feeling queasy.
The one semester when I opted for individual discussion grades made me even queasier: I realized that the students who were most successful in discussion in my classroom—per my grade book—were extroverted males, mostly white. As a teacher who in all other contexts made an extraordinary effort to know and challenge each individual student, this didn’t sit right. So I got curious: what was it about how I was defining essential skills in a discussion that made it so certain kids were more likely to succeed? How did my colleagues—most of whom had decades of hard-earned wisdom on their side—solve for this pattern?
I interviewed dozens of middle and high school Humanities teachers and discovered that I was not alone. Assessing discussion was a common Achilles heel—and no one wanted to talk about it. I think many of us were ashamed. The shame makes sense: student voice and student-led discussion is a deeply-held value for most educators in theory—but in practice, it was a place where many teachers felt insecure. It would take me 10 or 15 minutes into each conversation before arriving at the admission that, even decades into teaching, discussion assessment still felt slippery and inauthentic. Many teachers quietly craved a method to stand behind, a go-to grading practice that realized ideals of rigor, belonging, and growth for all students. As one thoughtful educator put it: “I want a method, the development of some kind of rubric that captures effective discussion skills. But I also wonder: is it even possible? What about the student who says little, but is completely engaged in the conversation? What about those who process ideas more slowly, and thus rarely make a contribution in a timely manner? And what about those days when a student just doesn’t feel like participating?”
I then turned to research—only to find another gaping hole: discussion was well-established as a high-value learning activity, but there was little to no consensus on methods for teaching and assessing discussion skills as a learning objective in and of themselves. This meant that discussion assessment practices were not fleshed out beyond recommendations for how to interpret discussion participation as evidence of engagement with course material. There were, however, exciting ideas in adjacent spaces: portfolio-based assessment as a way of emphasizing growth and making progress visible (Project Zero); the importance of using standards to proactively “demystify success” so all students can achieve it (Joe Feldman), the power of metacognitive frames in promoting deeper learning (Glenn Whitman), the use of routines to decrease anxiety and increase equity in classrooms (Zaretta Hammond), and the list goes on.
How might we use discussion portfolios to differentiate success, empower students, and promote evidence-based reflection and assessment? What if students had a record of their work throughout discussion—preparation, self-tracking, note-taking, reflections—and were able to reflect on it themselves, rather than their performance being assessed in a 90-second comment? And better yet, what if students didn’t just have a portfolio but had a shared language—a discussion skills taxonomy—to use to make their self-study specific and differentiated?
I spent about a decade answering these questions and can honestly say that the combination of developing a clear taxonomy for discussion skills and using a portfolio-based approach to discussion assessment transformed my students’—and my own!—experience with student-led discussion. It gave the power to the students: I was no longer the one responsible for documenting and making sense of everything. I never needed to go the route of a “B+ group grade” because I had clear evidence of each student’s engagement—and was able to offer individualized feedback.
I was speaking with a teacher the other day who commented that discussion portfolios—which he assesses primarily based on the depth of the students’ reflections—have unlocked new levels of authenticity among his students. Since they are not graded on the discussion—but on their individual demonstration of the discussion skills—they are less anxious, less competitive, more willing to share about their lives, connect with classmates, and ask tough questions. Discussion is no longer about looking smart, it’s about building relationships and ideas together—and documenting that process. Portfolios show student growth towards the skills that matter to them.
Using a portfolio-based approach to grading discussion might result in higher grades—as mastery approaches often do. But that’s not a bad thing: it will let you out of the doom loop of being the omniscient discussion assessor and re-position you as a coach, there to assess each student’s discussion skills.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Liza Garonzik for Intrepid Ed News.