Assessing Historical Discussion, pp. 2 of 6

A related reason for assessing discussion is that students need feedback in order to improve (Hess, 2002). That is, we do not want students simply to “participate” in a discussion; we want them to increase their skills so that they become increasingly adept at this form of historical communication, just as we want them to master skills of writing and presentation. Without assessment, there can be no improvement: Simply repeating an activity over and over does not lead to increased expertise. Students need to know what the standards are, how well they have achieved them, and what they need to do in order to do better. If we truly value discussion, then, we owe it to students to let them know—in very specific terms—how to improve. This means clearly identifying the skills students need to master, and then teaching them to students, so that our assessment of their discussion is helpful and transparent (Parker & Hess, 2001).

Skills of Discussion

Like any important academic or social activity, “discussion” is made up of many component skills. We would never tell students they should simply “do research,” “write well,” or “show respect,” and leave it at that. Instead, we would help them understand the specific elements of those activities and what they look like in practice. So too with discussion: As teachers, we have to decide what we’re looking for—what makes for good discussion participation—and then teach those specific skills to students, so that we can provide them feedback on how well they’re doing.

There is no master list of such skills. This is due in part to the fact that history educators—whether scholars or practitioners—have not devoted enough sustained attention to the topic to develop a consensus over what makes for a good discussion. It is also due to the fact that context does matter: The skills students need to learn may vary by school or cultural context, and those needed for one type of discussion may differ from those needed for others. Although some sources do set out lists of discussion skills, these may be too simplistic or generic (e.g., “take turns,” “differ with dignity”) to be of much use in assessing specifically historical discussion. (Such skills may, however, be important for managing effective discussions in particular circumstances.) Ultimately, teachers will need to identify a limited number of skills that they consider historically important and that match their classroom context. The list below, adapted from Harris (1996) and Larson and Kiefer (2013), provide an initial list of possibilities that teachers might draw from.

Substantive skills: These skills focus on how students use logic and the content of history to make an argument. They do not differ substantially from what might be expected in an essay or presentation, but students’ achievement in settings in which they can prepare and revise their work does not always transfer easily to the more spontaneous and interactive sphere of discussions. In addition, the phrasing of content is often different in a discussion than in a paper. For example, claims typically have to be stated in less qualified terms, statements need to be more concise, and the connection between claims and evidence may need to be more direct. Among the most important substantive skills are:

  • Making a claim: Making one’s position clear, concise, and comprehensible
  • Elaborating on claims: Providing details, examples, or other statements and explanations that clarify the meaning and implications of one’s claim
  • Using historical evidence: Citing the historical patterns, original sources, bodies of evidence, or arguments of historians that support one’s central thesis or supporting statements

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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