Sunday, August 12, 2018

On assigning grades for class discussion

Grading—that is, giving a numerical rating to our students’ work—is at best a necessary evil. I suppose there may be some teachers who enjoy this aspect of the job, but I haven’t met any.

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons why we think we must grade:

1. To motivate our students to work harder than they otherwise would work. Grades are both carot and stick.

2. To help sort our students into categories for the benefit of society: our grades will help the college admissions people determine who gets into the pre-med program at Harvard, who studies pre-med at Northwestern (#10 ranking according to this website:, and who goes to plumbing school. If I ever need an appendectomy, I hope the guy who performs my surgery, will not have had grade-inflating teachers who deprived my surgeon of his true calling of unclogging drains.

3. To give the students feedback, so they will know how they are doing and what they need to work on—and how hard they should work on it.

We teachers spend a lot of time grading our students. We agonize and we complain about it. We haggle with students and parents. We condemn grade inflation, and yet we keep giving in to the pressure and our grades keep going up.

And we are not alone in obsessing about grades. Education professors, pundits, bureaucrats and policy makers have a great deal to say on the subject. A very brief internet survey reveals the following headlines:

Confessions of a Grade Inflator: Between the grubbing and the blubbering, grading fairly is just not worth the fight. (Slate)

The Techy Teacher: Rethinking Grading (Educational Leadership)

Why Teachers Secretly Hate Grading Papers: For many, it's the most stressful part of the job -- partly because it's so hard to be fair. (Atlantic) (“Secretly”? Really?)

How to Escape Grading Jail (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Seven Strategies to make Grading Easier (Edutopia)

Grading students’ contributions to class discussions is particularly difficult. A quick perusal of a book put out by the Harvard Business School on “The Artistry of Discussion Leadership” (which has been on my bookshelf, mostly unread, for many years) contains the following paragraph:

Grading classroom participation remained a puzzle. I emphasized the importance of participation—it represented 40 percent of the students’ grade—yet I didn’t quite know what I was grading. How do you grade a good listener? How do you even know if someone is a good listener? How do you grade the overtalkative? If the teacher is the catalyst for discussion, isn’t the participation grade really the teacher’s self-evaluation as well? (59).

I’m hoping my surgeon didn’t have that teacher!

About 15 years ago during our last major curriculum review, the Exeter Curriculum Review Committee gave every member of the faculty a book with a different perspective on grading, and I did happen to read most of that one: Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

Kohn's book is an argument against grades. He says they are counterproductive, especially in relation to our first reason for grading: motivation. He argues that external rewards teach people that the thing they are being rewarded for isn’t intrinsically rewarding—thus, in the long run, they reduce motivation for learning rather than inspire it. He also argues against grading to achieve aims 2 and 3, ranking and giving feedback, and he cites lots of studies along the way. I take this social “science” with a grain of salt and have no time or inclination to do my own objective evaluation of the research. Most likely, though, I find the argument persuasive because it coincides with my own assumptions about human nature. This passage from the book resonates with me:

Children do not need to be motivated [to want to learn]. From the beginning they are hungry to make sense of their world. Given an environment in which they don’t feel controlled and in which they are encouraged to think about what they are doing (rather than how well they are doing it), students of any age will generally exhibit an abundance of motivation and a healthy appetite for challenge (198-199).

Another author who was invited to the school to rail against grades and whose way of thinking also resonated with me was Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. He argues that grades constantly remind our students that they live in a “world of measurement,” and that what matters most in life is how you measure up against other people, that “life is about staying alive and making it through—surviving in a world of scarcity and peril,” and that this “keeps the universe of possibility out of view” (17-19).

If learning can be intrinsically motivating, as Kohn argues, class discussion adds another layer of incentive because participation in stimulating conversation is one of the finer pleasures of life, at least in my opinion. Every person has a built-in desire to participate in conversation with other people. The originators of the Harkness method seem to have appreciated this. In explaining how Exeter would use Edward Harkness’s generous grant, Principal Lewis Perry predicted that with the “conference method of teaching” “boys who seem to have few intellectual interests, who are shy or who think they are dull, can be made to have interest in their work.”

Perry seems to have agreed with me about the intrinsic value of conversation and with the author who wrote an article with this title:  “Conversation: The Greatest, Most Lasting, Most Innocent, Most Useful Pleasure of Life.” 

The fundamental disagreement over grades, parallels the political divide in America today. If I subscribed to the Lord of the Flies view of human nature, and thought that people need to be coerced to do the right thing in every instance, including wanting to learn, then I would be more likely to conclude that grades are an essential motivational tool—and I would probably vote Republican. But the whole notion of Harkness and student-centered-learning reflects a more sunny view of human nature and of the inclinations and capabilities of young people. A book of essays about Harkness teaching written by Exeter teachers in the 1980s carries the title “Respecting the Pupil,” borrowed from Emerson, who wrote: “Respect the child, respect him to the end. … Be the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of his virtue.”

The 2003 Exeter Curriculum Review did not lead to the elimination of grades at the Academy, I’m sad to say. I don’t even recall there having been much conversation of the book at the time, much less a serious consideration of changing our approach to grades, though the book had an impact on those of us who took the time to read it. My own conclusion was that for pragmatic reasons we were not likely to be getting rid of grades as an institution any time soon--and that individual teachers could not unilaterally stop grading students--but that as much as possible we should try to de-emphasize grades, to think of them as a necessary evil that we must engage in solely for reason number 3: ranking our students for college admissions. This function is probably unavoidable because of the demands of parents, administrators, and college admissions departments.  And we may be doing students a favor by steering those who got lower grades at Exeter away from particularly competitive and demanding colleges and universities into ones where learning is more important than status. As for motivation and feedback, we should see grades as counterproductive and try to minimize the damage.

Unfortunately, trends have gone in the opposite direction. Our students have become more, not less focused on grades in the intervening years, and teachers feel more and more obligated to put more emphasis on explaining grades to anxious students and parents and to grade more facets of student performance. A good example of this is the growing emphasis on giving students grades for class discussion.

When I got to Exeter in the late 90s, most teachers were hesitant to give a specific letter grade to students for their class participation. The legendary history teacher Bruce Pruitt put it this way:

I expect students to participate and I don’t give them a grade for work in class. I move students whose work is in the middle either up or down on the basis of their class participation; otherwise I do not penalize quiet students. Often I move students who have been outstanding in class up a grade even if their average isn’t in the middle.

Bruce once said to me, echoing the Harvard Business School essay quoted above, that if a student doesn’t speak in his class, he blames himself and doesn’t feel justified in penalizing the student.  The late Exeter English teacher Peter Greer wrote: "I don't do anything formal in way of assessment" of class participation.  "I do it by a combination of memory, intuition, and feel.  I can't remember a complaint in that regard."  I was influenced also by my mentor, Mike Milligan, who wrote that he assigned no more than 20 percent of the grade to class participation, and assessed the student's discussion based on how they contributed “in a holistic sense, to the demeanor and rigor of the classroom experience. Hard to know what to do with the shy, but well-prepared student.”

Hard indeed. And yet, since Bruce and Mike left the school, things have gone in a different direction. Some teachers now base as much as 50 percent of the final grade on class discussion. Their arguments seem persuasive.  Milligan’s students were assessed mostly on how they did on papers—80 percent of their grade. Yet most of their time during the term was spent reading the daily assignments and participating in class discussions. Is it fair to give so much credit to students who happen to be good at writing, and so little to those who excel in verbal conversation? Perhaps not. But I’m just not convinced that I could come up with a fair way to assign a numerical value to what one student does at the table and then be able to justify it when challenged. And let’s face it, a grade is a number, whether you call it a B or an 85 percent. Some teachers even do use the 100-point scale for discussion grades, sometimes even making one-point distinctions among students. We all agree that discussion should not be assessed simply on the basis of who makes the most contributions to the discussions. So how then do you rate quality? Plus or minus for asking questions that reveal ignorance? When do you start subtracting points from students for citing the text too much? Or for speaking too frequently or at too-great length? And how do you manage to pay close enough attention to 12 different students while facilitating a class discussion and thinking about your next question? (See my piece on “The Improvisational Teacher” for an account of the ongoing inner dialogue of the discussion leader.) And finally, how much written feedback do you owe your students to explain how you arrived at 50 percent of their grade? From what I’ve seen, no teacher, even those who count discussion very highly, gives nearly as much feedback to this part of the student’s work as they do on the other fifty percent—writing.

I do have to concede that the heavier emphasis on grading has led to more systematic efforts among my colleagues to give more concrete and regular feedback to students and give them suggestions for improvement. But, supposing that the feedback is all good. Can’t we deliver it without connecting it to a grade so as to avoid the negative impact of grades?

As corrosive as grading may be in general, I believe it is particularly problematic when assessing class participation. I worry that rubrics will steer every student toward the same sorts of behavior and can’t capture all the subtle nuances that go into a good discussion. Like a beautiful flower garden, a discussion is best when students contribute in a rich variety of different ways. Grading may lead to too much uniformity of student behavior and instill a sense of competition. I want my students to think of themselves as engaged in a collaborative process of moving their group toward deeper understanding of the topic. Assessment of class participation is more difficult, more subjective and harder to explain. When a student challenges my grade on a paper, we can look it over together and I can sometimes be convinced that I was wrong. When it’s a discussion grade, there’s nothing concrete that we can look at together to support my judgement or to show that I’ve made a mistake. When I know I am being observed and my performance is being assessed, I am more guarded, ill-at-ease, and less willing to take risks. I assume this is true of at least some of my students, too. I think a conversation goes better when the participants do not think they are under surveillance and being judged.

I’ve bucked the grading trend as much as possible, though increasingly I feel the pressure to succumb. A few years back, my department added this comment to our “Standard Operating Procedures”: “In particular, class participation shall be factored into the final grade for every student in History at Exeter, though the weight of this factor in relation to other graded work varies from teacher to teacher. Teachers should provide the student with class participation feedback at least once during the term as well as in the comment slip at the end of the term.”

So, I must grade class participation even though I agree with Kohn that “teachers and parents who care about learning need to do everything in their power to help students forget that grades exist” (206).

So, here are some of the ways I try to fulfill my grading responsibility but to de-emphasize grades so my students might pay more attention to history than to how they are doing in my class.

1. I try not to emphasize grades in my verbal comments to the students or use grades as threats by saying things like: “pay attention, because you’re going to be graded on this.” Or: “that was a weak discussion. If you don’t do the reading it will hurt your grade.” I do say, “you’ll need to understand these concepts to write the next paper.”

2. I don’t mention the discussion grade unless they ask.

3. But when they do, I explain my approach and the reasons for it, as outlined here. I have it spelled out on my web site. I’m negotiating the tension here between my desire to de-emphasize grades and my belief in the importance of transparency in grading. A student should not get smacked with a grade at the end of the term without any kind of warning. 

4. My grading policy is more carrot than stick. My goal in writing it was to reduce anxiety among an increasingly anxious people.

 5. My feedback is always qualitative and concrete, never numerical. I think it is impossible to be precise enough in judging a person’s participation in a conversation to be able to assign a number to it. Can you really explain the difference between a score of 85 and an 86?

6. I don’t grade on a curve. As Kohn says, “under no circumstances should the number of good grades be artificially limited so that one student’s success makes another’s less likely.” Yet we do have pressure to hold the line against grade inflation. (More of Kohn’s suggestions for de-emphasizing grades, which I found to be only of limited help, are on pp. 208-209).

I realize that other teachers at other schools, where there is less classroom autonomy, may find it more difficult to de-emphasize the grading of classroom discussions. Students and parents may be more insistent on getting constant updates on “how they are doing.” School policies may require more frequency and transparency in grades—even, God help us—in online grade books that are expected to be updated daily. Or you may agree with the author (not an Exeter teacher) of a piece in the Exeter Humanities Institute Discussion Dynamics reader who said: “To cause students to take Harkness seriously, they need to see evidence of this in the weight of their participation grade. Thus, teachers should heavily weigh participation.”

To those teachers who do decide to assign 40 or 50 percent of a student’s final grade to discussion, they better provide lots of qualitative feedback along the way. If a student writes four papers for an Exeter history teacher, they can expect to get four lengthy comments at the end of each paper, along with a lot of helpful comments in the margins. We put a tremendous amount of time into writing those comments, and all of them are designed to help the student do a better job on the next paper. If half the grade is determined by class participation, should they not get an equivalent amount of feedback on that? And teachers will need to pay a lot of attention to what each student is doing every day in order to gather the material they need to write that volume of comment.

I find that my comments on papers are able to touch on many of the various aspects of the student’s work: their mastery of content; their historical thinking skills; their composition skills; and their ability to write coherent sentences. Within each of these categories there are an almost endless number of skill subsets. Take content, for example. I can comment on accuracy, chronology, missing evidence, and use of contrary evidence because I have the time to look closely at and think deeply about each and every paragraph. The discussion-grading teacher will probably need to take some notes in class to be able to reflect critically and concretely to that degree on each student’s handling of content. They should also reserve some time after each class period or the end of each school day to jot down notes on each student’s performance. That would be very time consuming and hard to fit into a busy day.

One area of assessment you will want to evaluate is preparation for class. You want to give better grades to students who prepare adequately for class than those who don’t. Some students are so good at seeming to have done the reading that you can be easily fooled (their work on papers may be a better reflection of preparation—less easy to fake). One way around this problem is to give the occasional pop quiz.

Nothing I’ve said here should be interpreted as opposed to teaching students how to participate productively in a Harkness discussion. Our students are hungry for feedback and to learn how to be good conversationalists. Teachers should not hesitate to pass along good tips, on what not to do: Don’t hog the conversation. Don’t raise your hand.  Don’t interrupt. Etc. You will be doing them a big favor if you break them of such habits, and they will appreciate it, especially if they don’t think you will also be punishing them during the learning process with a bad grade. And we can tell them what they should do: Learn (and use) the names of the people in your group. Express humility. Practice active listening. Show interest in others’ ideas. Ask people to clarify or elaborate on something they said. Support claims with convincing evidence. Cite the text being discussed. Invite others—especially quieter participants—into the discussion.

References and resources for teaching discussion skills:

Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life (Penguin, 2000).

C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet, eds., Education for Judgement: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership (Harvard Business School Press, 1991).

Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes (Houghton Mifflin, 1993 & 1999) 

Meg Foley, “Sentence Stems to Enter Discussion,” Teaching Around the Oval blog,

On my website: "Discussion Templates." (

I could be wrong.  Two articles that give me some pause about the above: 

Shane Trotter, Grade Inflation is Ruining Education, Quillette, April 24, 2021.

Catherine Rampell, "Why getting rid of grades would help rich students — and hurt poor ones," Washington Post, May 11, 2017.

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