Assessing Historical Discussion, pp. 5 of 6

Three important cautions are in order for those who teach discussion skills. First, each of these skills will seem artificial at first, as students strain to make sure they are remembering to “ask questions,” “defend claims,” and so on—and that’s perfectly all right. No one masters a skill perfectly and naturally from the very beginning, and what seems stilted in the beginning will eventually become (with practice and reflection) a normal part of students’ repertoire. Second, it is critical to teach one skill at a time. Trying to teach all these skills in a single lesson, or even a few lessons, is guaranteed to be a disaster. No one would try to teach all essay writing skills at once—these take development over many lessons and even many years. With discussion, it is important to go slowly, to teach each skill individually, and to focus on it consistently over the course of multiple discussions, before moving on to the next skill. This brings us to the third caution: It will take time. Simply explaining and clarifying a skill (the first two steps) will take up a significant portion of a lesson, and reflection requires additional time. But teaching anything important takes time, and if we consider discussion an important component of the history classroom, we will devote the time needed to help students learn how to do it. Ignoring the teaching of these skills, or trying to do so in a rush, means that we shortchange students in an important aspect of their education.

Pragmatic Assessment Procedures

 As part of the teaching of discussion skills, it is crucial to give students feedback on what they are doing well and how they can improve—this is what assessment is about, after all. This can be done at both the group level—as part of practice and reflection—and in the assessment of individual students. This means that teachers must collect information on how well students are achieving each of the skills they have been taught, and this has to happen during the discussion itself. Teachers will need to take specific notes, with examples, on how students are contributing to the discussion, while at the same time facilitating or at least monitoring that discussion—a difficult task. To make this easier, teachers should focus on one skill at a time, as explained in the preceding section; trying to take notes on all discussion skills at the same time, or even a sub-set of them, is simply impossible. (However, teachers will inevitably notice outstanding examples, good or bad, of skills other than the ones they are focusing on at the moment.) Just as importantly, teachers will probably need to focus on only a few students at a time. Although all students should be practicing the skill that has been taught, it would be very difficult to try to take notes on 35 or 40 students during a single lesson; it is much more manageable to focus on a subset of students during one discussion, another subset during another lesson, and so on. (And again, teachers will inevitably take note of some other students who have demonstrated the skill, even if they are not their principal focus that day.)

Notes on students’ mastery of discussion skills should then be used to give very specific feedback. General feedback, such as “good job” or “need to improve,” do not provide students with the direction they need to learn. Instead, they need to know exactly what they have done well or in what way they can improve, through comments such as “You responded well by explaining how your evidence was stronger than it seemed,” or “You asked a question, but it would have been better if it had been speculative and more closely tied to the points other students had been making.” Of course, the range of student contributions—and the resulting feedback—is so wide that it is difficult to prepare for this kind of feedback beforehand. Teachers must know the types of contributions they are looking for, but the specifics will always be somewhat unpredictable, even more so in a discussion than in an essay.

Teachers may also want to consider creating formal rubrics or scoring guidelines, just as they use for essays and presentations. These are important not only to remind students of what is being assessed, but of what beginning, proficient, and advanced performances would look like. This kind of transparency helps to further legitimate the assessment in students’ eyes, as well as communicating its importance. Involving students in the creation of guidelines and rubrics can also help them internalize expectations as well as take responsibility for setting their own goals and reflecting on them. Reaching this level of specificity will certainly be highly classroom-specific and will depend on teachers’ (and students’) insights into the needs and capabilities found within particular contexts.

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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