I was recently involved in a really healthy discussion about discussions, facilitated on our online forum by Donna Ferguson.
The question I was most intrigued by was:
Describe ways you can evaluate classroom discussions. Or should you?
My initial reaction was no way.
My reasoning was that evaluations of classroom discussions can’t be accomplished with any reliability or validity. I believe that given the same rubric and evaluating the same classroom discussion, my colleague and I would not be able to arrive at the same grade for every student. Further, what were we even trying to measure?
Don’t get me wrong. I totally believe in the merits and value of classroom discussion. It’s something I’m constantly engaging my students in. My program, for instance, has a number of outcomes that involve teamwork, communicating with all levels of management, and even being persuasive and engaging in professional relationships. Classroom discussions help our students achieve those outcomes by the time they graduate. But those type of criteria don’t show up as learning objectives that have to be evaluated on a course outline. That’s why I’ve always viewed classroom discussions as an instructional strategy or an assessment technique – not as an evaluation.
There were, however, some strong advocates for evaluating classroom discussions and they backed up their arguments with experience. That’s why I was really glad to learn how to differentiate between the various types of rubrics. I quite liked a holistic rubric that was presented to grade class participation, by the Center for Teaching Excellence of the University of Virginia:
While I would still find it difficult to justify using this rubric for evaluation, I would definitely consider introducing my students to this rubric as a way of explaining the purpose and objectives of a classroom discussion. This may help to facilitate more effective discussions in my classes. Taking some additional advice, I could have students peer-assess the other students in their small groups using this rubric.
So at the end of the day, I won’t be grading classroom discussions or participation any time soon. But I will definitely be incorporating a rubric and peer-assessment into classroom discussions to increase engagement with the learning activity and to provide students with formative feedback on their progress towards program outcomes. I think what I’m after is a culture of conversation, as suggested by this recent tweet from Teaching Channel: