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Formal discussions are a fantastic form of authentic assessment. When students are placed into small groups and the teacher is removed from the discussion, they must engage each other in true dialogue, not just search for the magic words they think the teacher wants to hear. They can practice authentic tasks of the historian, discussing and critiquing interpretations of the past based on evidence.
How to remove the teacher from the environment but allow for teacher assessment is the challenge. There are several solutions to this problem. Each group can hold an online text discussion. Instant messenger programs generally have a feature that allows users to keep a record of conversations. The teacher assesses the discussion using the record. Online forums provide another form of discussion that leaves a record. Moodle and most other educational web content managers allow the creation of forums. A private blog for the purpose of student discussion can also be created. Accessible only to teachers, administrators, and students in the discussion (using password systems) these blogs provide a reasonably secure discussion forum.
A solution in-between online text and face-to-face discussion is recording conversations using Skype. There are a number of free Skype add-ons that allow users to record their conversations and export them as MP3 files or video files. Some training is required to use these: one student must be responsible for recording the conversation and submitting the file to the teacher.
For face-to-face discussions, all that is needed is a digital recorder that can record for at least 20 minutes. Recording both audio and video is the most convenient for assessment because it allows the teacher to identify easily who is speaking at any given point. Find a quiet classroom where a group of four to six students can discuss a topic while video-recorded, and the camera quickly fades into the background and students focus on the discussion. In a pinch, the teacher can remain in the room but sit far outside the circle and stay quiet.
Whatever the medium, preparation is the same. Prior to the discussion, students should be given a set of one to four questions. They should also receive evidence to analyze: primary and secondary source excerpts. The questions can be anything that is open ended and can be addressed using the evidence provided. Here are just some examples:
- To what extent did the abolitionist movement contribute to the outbreak of the Civil War?
- What actually happened at Lexington Green and why? What accounts for the disagreements in the sources?
For preparation the students read through the sources, make notes, and prepare for discussion on the assigned day. During the actual discussion they may bring their notes and sources.
There are a number of ways to assess a formal discussion, but the key elements are the content of students’ contributions and their style and manner. There is unavoidable subjectivity in assessing discussions, but providing a rubric to students is a critical part of the learning experience. It helps them identify ahead of time the behaviors essential to an excellent discussion. When designing such a rubric, consider the following. First to what extent did the student demonstrate his or her understanding of the core concepts? Demonstrate is a critical term here. Students must be evaluated on what they do say, not what they might have said. Second, to what extent were students able to support their assertions with evidence? The extent to which the evidence provided was from clearly identifiable sources, and the quality and variety of sources used are all important considerations.
Finally, the style and manner of a student’s contributions are very important. After all, a productive discussion has as much to do with the character of interactions as with the validity of the comments. Students should be assessed according to the positive contribution they make to the discussion. Participation in the form of offering relevant comments and the tone of participation are both core considerations. Students who are polite, civil, and avoid interrupting others should earn higher grades. Additionally, higher grades should be earned by those who listen actively, clearly connecting their comments to what others say.
When first assessing graded discussions it can be a bit overwhelming. An effective strategy is to review the discussion record with a log sheet and record each time the student offers substantial input using a column and simple symbols to evaluate the offering. So, for example:
Note, this is just an illustration of how one might record contributions and assess them. Perhaps the first comment expressed something insightful, but used evidence that was not cited and was offered in a way that did not build much on previous conversation. The second comment was similar, but this time the student offered little or no evidence (but the comment was insightful and could have been supported if the student had tried to do so). The third comment made an excellent conceptual statement about the question, drew from clearly quoted, cited, and interpreted evidence, and did so in a way that built off and directly acknowledged what other students had already said. In the fourth comment, the student made some erroneous statements, was light on evidence, and interrupted another student.