If you teach high school, you probably love hosting classroom discussions. They are a great opportunity for peer-based learning, and students genuinely seem to enjoy them. But if you’ve hosted your fair share of discussions, you might also have dealt with a few issues: some students don’t participate, while others dominate; some students come prepared, while others effectively “wing it.” Sometimes, discussions digress into arguments or leave students walking away offended.
These are all issues that I’ve dealt with in my classroom. I’ve troubleshot by implementing a number of different styles: the Harkness Method, the Socratic Seminar, the Fishbowl Method – while they all have their benefits, they also permitted some problematic behaviour amongst my students. This is because when students are placed in the position of being evaluated on something as lucrative as a conversation, it can seem logical for them to want to talk as much as possible, get defensive when challenged, or cower in the background to avoid saying the wrong thing.
This left me wanting to implement a format of discussion that offers qualitative and quantitative feedback to demonstrate exactly what I was looking for, and provide a visual form of assessment that would indicate whether or not my students met my learning goal. In this blog post, I’ll show you how to facilitate fruitful class-wide discussions as a summative assessment.
Comment Keys: The “Key” to Conversation Management
Think about the types of responses that characterize a great conversation; in arts-based courses, these include connections to the text, connections to the outside world, opinions supported with evidence, and inquisitive comments that connect to larger themes. The first step to creating a Comment Key is to write all of these down.
Next, paint a picture of a more realistic classroom conversation – the good, the mediocre, and the ugly. Comments might include opinions without evidence, insights, personal attacks, questions, interruptions, and attempts to involve others. None of these types of comments are inherently “bad,” but they are the types of comments that might pass as active participation without digging deep into course content or reaching higher-level thinking skills. But since they are comments that still count towards an academic discussion, write them down as well.
Now, group all of these comments together based on common skills or characteristics, and organize these groups using a scale from weakest to strongest. You can use whichever grouping or scale makes sense to you; I usually group comments surrounding feedback and opinions together and place this at the lower end of the scale, along with conversation management; at the higher end of the scale, I’ll include groups of comments that reflect opinions based on evidence from the text, connections to other texts or media, and insightful or thematic connections.
Lastly, give each comment a short-code and write it down next to the comment. For example, an opinion can be short-coded as “O,” an opinion with evidence can be short-coded as “OE,” and an original theory could be short-coded as “OT,” etc.
This will leave you with what I call a “Contribution Key,” which will provide qualitative feedback for your classroom discussions. I share this key with my students and keep it by me during every classroom conversation. It can seem like a lot to understand at first, but after a few conversations, these short-codes become second nature.
My complete Contribution Key includes 30 unique comments and can be found in Mondays Made Easy’s Group Discussion Outline resource.
Offering Meaningful Feedback with a Discussion Tracker
To provide quantitative feedback and share my qualitative data, I set up a spreadsheet to include a column with every student’s name, along with a column to note the short-key for each comment that is made in a classroom discussion. I will also include a column to note the number, variety, and highest level of comments made – areas that I will evaluate after the conversation has taken place. I will share this spreadsheet on an overhead projector, and annotate while I observe a student discussion. This allows students to see the grading process in action while they evaluate the discussion for themselves and understand exactly how they are contributing to the conversation.
When the discussion is complete, I will insert a column to note the grade for each student. I will use the tracked data, along with a grading scale, to determine each score. For confidentiality, I don’t share the final spreadsheet with all students; however, I do share the grading scale with them. I also copy the spreadsheet, remove the names, insert a student number, and share this anonymous form on my learning platform.
A blank discussion tracker and an annotated example of a complete discussion tracker are both included in Mondays Made Easy’s Group Discussion Outline resource.
Additional Scaffolding with Sentence Stems
Sentence stems are the final tool I provide my students with in order to prepare them for a discussion. Sentence stems, also known as “sentence starters,” are simple yet meaningful statements that guide students towards participating in group discussions in a way that best supports their unique ideas and the ideas of others. More specifically, sentence stems can demonstrate to students how to respectfully challenge ideas, involve classmates, and articulate thoughts in ways that reflect the skills and learning goals of our classroom. Here are some examples of sentence stems:
Sentence stems to promote opinions and feedback: “I enjoy/dislike the idea of __________________ because …” “The concept of ________________________ could be improved/challenged/changed because …”
Sentence stems for conversation management: “What _____________________ is trying to say is…” “Let us begin with the topic of __________________. Would anyone like to share their thoughts?”
Sentence stems for examinations, definintions, and clarifications: “I don’t understand when _______________________. Can anyone clarify this?” “I am interested in learning about ….” “My theory is _________________ because ……”
To see how I implement these strategies, take a look at the video demonstration for Mondays Made Easy’s Group Discussion Outline below:
I hope this strategy becomes of use in your classroom and supports your students in participating and engaging with academic conversations. If you have any questions about this method or find this method to be successful in your classroom, please feel free to reach out to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.