6 ways to measure student participation in discussion tasks

Too often, we can give credit to the loudest pupil, when other attributes are equally desirable, says Eimer C Page

Secondary school

If a school professes to teach all of its classes using the Harkness method, a discussion-based pedagogy where students drive the direction of the class based on their preparation beforehand, you can bet that both students and parents become very interested in how participation is evaluated.

Does it form part of the final grade? Is it more or less important than written work? What exactly is a teacher looking for when grading a student’s organic participation in a class?

I can’t claim that every teacher within my own department, English, at Phillips Exeter Academy takes an identical approach, but I have reached a point here where I have a good sense of how to answer.

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I tell my students that: “Your final grade will be dictated by your paper grades in combination with your work at the table. If your paper average is a B, your work at the table can bring you up to a B+, solidify your B or bring you down to a B-. In an extraordinary case, silence at the table could even bring you down to a C+ from a B. In other words, get involved in class.”

How to evaluate student participation

While a difference of a portion of a letter grade may not seem all that much, it actually prioritises the daily work at the table over the paper grades to quite a degree.

And what is it that I am looking for in evaluating their participation?

1. It’s not about time spent speaking

I tell my students that I am not expecting every student to take an equal slice of the pie (the analogy works quite clearly when they are sitting around an oval table together), but that I am looking to see if each student has advanced the discussion in some way, and has helped us to make meaning of the material.

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2. Preparation is vital

Of course, a student who arrives at class with discussion questions and observations prepared in the margins of their reading is poised for success.

3. Listening is key

An attentive listener, who is capable of remembering what was said the last time a topic came up a few classes ago and can summarise that earlier discussion as we move to a new facet, is of huge value.

4. Contextual knowledge

It is useful when a student has looked up contextual references and definitions, and can be poised to help out when we come across a word or a reference that stumps us.

5. Evidence seeking

In addition to point 4, also useful is a student who seeks out and provides textual support for the topics under discussion— ”where are you seeing that in the text?”; “does this section on p. 13 help?”.

6. Reading the room

Those students who have expertise in reading body-language and can be the person who draws a quieter student into the conversation when that student leans in or half-draws a breath is so important to discussion tasks

It may be the case that a student employs all of these techniques and many others on any given day or over the course of a term.

I provide my students with this list of behaviours that demonstrate mastery of the art of discussion. I find that offering as much clarity as I can on what I am seeking from my students helps to reassure them and also helps them to build the skills necessary for success at the table.

Eimer C Page is director of global initiatives at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, US

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