Field Note Friday: Creating a Transcript for Classroom Discussion

One of the pillars of my classroom is Harkness Discussion, a method developed by the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. 

One more the more difficult issues surrounding classroom discussion is how to assess the students, and more specifically how to have data to be able to assess accurately.

I have gone through several record-keeping methods myself.  In the beginning, I printed out a roster and placed a check next to a student’s name when she or he spoke in the discussion.   I used this method for a couple of years, but I wasn’t completely satisfied that it was recording all the skills I wanted to teach. 

This is my current method:


I know, I know. This looks a little bit like I should be institutionalized.  So let me explain how to understand my secret codes. 

  • The check mark indicates that a student has contributed a substantive comment.   (Substantive is the key word here—comments like “Yeah” or “I thought that too,” or “I agree” don’t get recorded.)
  • The star indicates that a student has used textual evidence to support her point. This is a key skill for me. The students must ground their comments in the text.  Any student who does not use textual evidence, no matter how insightful their thoughts, will not receive an “A” for that discussion. The skills of analysis depend on being able to point to a specific moment to prove an assertion.
  • The “F” means “Facilitation.”  The “F” is something I didn’t always use. Some students don’t like it when I use “F” because they are so conditioned to thinking of it as something bad; perhaps I’m being subversive here by reclaiming it. This indicates a conversational move: using a student’s name, connecting to an earlier idea, making a transition to a new topic, clarifying differences of opinion, etc.  I want to see that students are not simply making pronouncements but also trying to engage in a discussion.
  • The “y” or “n” indicate that a student has or has not brought the text to class. This is an important part of preparation and the only way to really be able to point classmates back to the text.
  • The lines in the middle indicate the flow of conversation. Some people call this a spiderweb discussion because of these lines.  I’m looking here to see if the discussion is fairly evenly distributed or if some students are trapping the discussion in one small part of the room.
  • Around the outside, you will notice I have written comments. These comments are my best attempt to capture insightful contributions of the students.  When a student brings up something worth remembering, I notate it next to his name.

As you can see, this gives me plenty to do during the discussion, which is good because it keeps me quiet (or quieter than I would be if I didn’t have as much to do). 

After we finish, I score the discussion based on this transcript and then make the transcript available to the students. I used to photocopy it, but now I post it in a folder on our class website. 

How many of you use Harkness discussion in your classroom? Or perhaps another method? What are your techniques for record-keeping?



  1. How long does a discussion like this usually last? It looks like it would be quite chaotic.

    I generally do discussions in smaller groups, five or so. I have been using Class Dojo to keep track of these kinds of things. I use the website on my laptop with projector and give or take points using my iPad. ClassDojo allows me to add in my own positive and negative behaviors, too.

    Afterward, we come together as a class by using Students are bringing their own discussion questions and they send the most fruitful questions to the poll so that we can talk about it as a whole class.

    This is the first year I have really loved doing discussions.


    1. It really does look a lot more chaotic on paper than it really is! This represents a discussion that lasts for a class period–about 45 minutes. However, recently I have started doing discussions a bit differently with smaller groups, and I’m liking that even better. I’m hoping to do some follow up posts to share some of the ways I’ve tweaked it. I’m really interested to check out the app and websites you mentioned, though–thanks for the tip!


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  3. I like this idea and am going to try it myself!

    I am curious how you use this to generate a numeric grade. Do you do a points system if they have addressed each of the notes (Facilitated, brought a book, posed a question, etc) or do you have another more reliable way to translate to a grade?


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