Assessing Historical Discussion

Discussion can be a valuable element of history classrooms, and assessing participation can provide an important means of improving students’ engagement in this valuable form of communication. Doing so requires that teachers identify the specific skills of historical discussion that they want students to master; teach those skills systematically; and develop practical procedures for collecting information on students’ participation. This article suggests guidelines for teachers to consider in preparing for each of these tasks.

For most history teachers (and others in the humanities), classroom discussion is an inherently appealing practice. After all, professional historians discuss their work with each other—and with the public—all the time, so introducing students to this part of the discipline seems an authentic way to move beyond the traditional tests and essays found in most history classrooms. In addition, it seems self-evident that discussion can increase students’ engagement, sharpen their intellects, develop their verbal skills, and model how to take part in civil discourse with those whose ideas differ from their own. Notably, an important predictor of students’ commitment to democratic values is the extent to which they have experienced an “open” classroom climate in school (reviewed in Knowles & McCafferty-Wright, 2015), and one of the characteristics of such classrooms is that they encourage students to engage in a relatively free exchange of ideas through discussion of social and political issues (which often overlap with history). With all these reasons in its favor, most history teachers these days look for opportunities to regularly engage students in classroom discussion.

Assessing those discussions, however, is another matter. Many teachers hesitate to formally evaluate students’ participation in discussion, for a number of related reasons (Hess, 2002). First, some teachers feel—not without reason—that holding students accountable for the quality of their discussion may inhibit participation. Students may be so afraid of making a mistake, that is, and so they minimize their engagement for fear of losing credit. Conversely, teachers may worry that students will be so focused on getting a good grade that it will render discussion inauthentic: Students may simply follow scoring guidelines without regard to their true thoughts on the topic, or without concern for the inherent benefits of sustained intellectual discourse. And finally, teachers may despair at the possibility of creating an assessment measure that adequately captures the nature of historical discussion. They may feel less qualified to evaluate a discussion than the more familiar format of an essay, for example, or they may feel that forms of discussion are so diverse—even idiosyncratic—that there is no way to create a common rubric that would apply to each discussion and each student.

These are valid concerns, and teachers must grapple with them. Nonetheless, there are good arguments that the value of assessing classroom discussion outweighs such challenges. Perhaps the most important is that we should assess students on those things we consider important. With presentations and written work, we do not assess students on their memory of historical trivia, but on their ability to construct a well-reasoned argument and communicate it clearly; we therefore send a clear signal that reasoning and communication is more important than remembering trivia. If we truly believe that historical discussion is important, then we should signal that through our assessment practices (Hess, 2002). Otherwise, students may come to regard discussion as a distraction from the “true” historical work of writing—a perspective that is already reinforced by the essay-focused nature of external examinations.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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