Grading a Harkness Discussion: Helpful Resources

Clipboard and penDaveCrosby / CC BY-SA 2.0

Thinking about going back to school today has me thinking about how to refine the hallmark of my classroom: student-centered discussion.  When I start talking or writing about discussion, one of the most common questions I hear is about assessment. English teachers have a huge grading load, so we never want to adopt any practice that will add hours of grading to our already full desks.

When I assess discussions, I have to keep the reality of my situation in mind:

  • I usually have around 100-120 students who regularly use Harkness. It is the primary way I (don’t) teach my class.  Any rubric I choose cannot be overly time-consuming.
  • I am not a detail-oriented person.  I’ve tried.  I can do it (I even spent a short time working in accounting), but it exhausts me.  I’m a philosopher, a global thinking, a lover of ideas and abstract reasoning.  If I have to fill out too many spreadsheets or checklists, I want to poke out my eyeballs. Any rubric I use cannot have too many descriptors or places for me to nit-pick about a student’s performance.
  • My students are overly concerned about their grades and their class ranks. I don’t like this; I rail against it frequently in my classroom. But this is how it is.  While many Harkness teachers give one grade for the entire class, that doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it–it didn’t make the discussions much better. However, I do believe that there should be a measure that depends on how the entire class does.  I grade the group, and then I use that group grade as the base for individual grades. The higher the group grade, the higher each individual grade can be. I give incentive for everyone doing well, but I also make it possible to have individual moments of brilliance.

The following links are some of the documents and rubrics that I have found helpful while trying to refine my own grading practices:

From the Punahou School’s Critical Thinking Institute

This link is not a formatted grading rubric, but rather more of descriptors of what “A,” “B,” and “C” discussions would look like in terms of the whole group. Descriptors like this are helpful for me as I’m thinking about the quality of the discussion overall. Because I base all students’ grades on an overall group grade, I like to have these ideas in mind as I score.  I also like to use these kinds of descriptors as I’m teaching students to discuss and while we reflect on our discussions.

From Community School

This rubric lists specific skills that students should do in a Harkness discussion. I don’t find this rubric to be all the helpful for grading, but it is very helpful as a list of objectives.  A Harkness teacher could even take this and create a minilesson for each particular skill on the list.

iRubric: Harkness Literature Discussion Rubric

This rubric give the student a score point in each of the following categories:  Participation, Critical Thinking, Text References, and Table Behavior.  I love the concision and simplicity of the descriptors in each of the four categories.  Although, in interest of time, I would not give every student a rubric after each discussion, I find that this would be a helpful sheet to hand a student maybe after every few discussions.

Lynn Schofield’s Discussion Rubric

(from the Dallas Area Network for Teaching and Education at University of Dallas)

This rubric is a similar format to the page from iRubric. I find this one helpful in its focus on the student’s preparation for the discussion, including their work in careful reading and marking passages to discuss.

Alexis Wiggins’ Wiki

Alexis Wiggins is the daughter of Grant Wiggins (Understanding by Design), and she has done much of her own work on Harkness discussion. She has adapted it to her own method that she now calls Spider Web discussion. This Wiki contains several helpful documents, including rubrics for both secondary and elementary classrooms.  In the secondary rubric, I like the nine descriptors that she lists for an excellent discussion.  These descriptors are what I have adapted into a rubric that I can quickly score in the last few minutes of class while observing students are sharing feedback with discussing students. While I do not give all students exactly the same grade, I use this group grade as a base for determining individual grades.

Harkness Rubric from

This rubric is really pretty. Maybe that’s shallow of me, but I have an affinity for documents that are well formatted. I really love the checklist on the left side of the page for students to self-assess. That might be really helpful as a poster in the classroom or as a permanent bookmark.  Again, I do not give each student a rubric, but I’m thinking of adding some of the information on the right side of the page to the observation sheet.  One piece of feedback I received from my students this year was that they felt that the part of the observation sheet where they had to comment on a classmate’s discussion skills was “pointless.” Instead of having to think of subjective comments, it might perhaps be more efficient to have observing students circle a score point in specific categories.

Do you have any resources or thoughts about grading Harkness discussion?  I love new ideas–please share in the comments!



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