Grading a Harkness Discussion

Circle of desks

I’m sure one of the first questions I would ask of someone attempting to persuade me to use a new teaching method would be, “Now, how do you grade this?”

Here’s basically what I do.

I use a rubric with 10 categories, fashioned on samples from other teachers. As inspiration for my rubric, I especially like Jody Rice’s Round Table Expectations.

I currently teach with 48 minute class periods. A typical class period with a discussion will look as follows:

  • 5-8 minutes: announcements, minilesson, relevant information on the day’s readings
  • 35-40 minutes: the students discuss
  • 3-5 minutes: observing students partner with the one or two classmates they observed to share their observations

During those last few minutes of the class period, while the students are conferring about the feedback from the observers, I refer to the transcript from the discussion to quickly fill out the 100 point rubric.

In general, everyone who discusses receives the same grade. I consider this initial grade to be a sort of base grade. If a student was an average participant, she will receive the grade on the rubric. If she was incredibly prepared and actively promoted the flow of conversation, I will grant a higher grade than the base. Similarly, if a student does not participate or is obviously not prepared, I will grant a lower grade than the base.

The observing students will receive a grade based on their written observations during discussion. I am in the midst of preparing a holistic grading scale with detailed explanations of each scale score. I use a version of the AP English Literature Exam 1-9 essay rubric, but any holistic scale will work here. If I were teaching in a class with a state assessment, I might adapt the rubric for that assessment to create descriptors for each scale score.

I’d love to hear any other ideas you have for grading Harkness discussions. Let me know what you’ve tried!


  1. I’m new to the Harkness method – in fact, I heard about it for the first time today when I found this blog! I have tons of questions, but specifically – how do you grade the observers? Do you check out their notes as they are writing, do you collect them, do you move around the groups as they share with the students they were observing? I start school on Monday and I’m a little bummed I didn’t have the summer to research this, but I would like to incorporate it ASAP. Any feedback would be helpful. Thanks!


    1. Hi! Thanks for reading! Each observer fills out an observation record which they fill in like a double-entry journal. I think if you click on the “Classroom Discussion” tab in the menu, you should find that I have a couple of posts about the observation process. If not, I’ll write some more! I collect the sheets and grade each one. This counts for their daily grade for that discussion. When I use this in AP Literature, I have an adapted version of the 1-9 scale that I use to score the observation sheets.


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