Grading Discussion

A thought about assigning grades to students in a Harkness discussion.

Behold the flower garden. A variety of individual plants come together to fill us with inspiration. That effect is a result not of sameness or conformity to any one standard of beauty or flower-ness, but of variety--each plant contributing in its own way. Some flowers are red, others yellow. Some are tall, some close to the ground. Some bloom in the morning, others in the late afternoon, some early in the season and others toward fall. Some are big and showy, others small and delicate. If all the flowers excelled in the same way, it would be a very dull garden indeed. Imagine trying to come up with a system of evaluation that would assign each separate plant a numerical ranking of value!

How discussion factors into your grade:

I'm opposed to assigning a numerical grade for class participation. I worry that grading encourages competition and extrinsic motivation; Harkness discussion is all about collaboration and it is intrinsically motivating. Your grade for the term will be based primarily on written work and tests. Everyone is expected to do the reading every day and to participate meaningfully in class discussions. If you do that, discussion will either have no impact on your grade or it might improve it. There are only two ways in which class discussion might reduce an individual's grade, but these are rare:

1. Persistently hogging the conversation--that is, being a weed in the Harkness garden. This is to be avoided not only at the Harkness table, but in life. Usually, individuals in my classes notice if they are hogging the conversation by looking at the Harkness diagrams that I frequently draw and they correct the problem themselves. In some cases I need to speak to them about it, and then they take care of the problem. Only those who still, after all that, persist in speaking too much will have their grade reduced.

2. Never or only rarely speaking--the flower seed that never germinates. I understand that some people are extremely shy and have a hard time speaking up in any class. If you fall into this category, I will not reduce your grade if you follow the suggestions on the Course Requirements page and make an effort to get involved in the class.

There may be a few students whose participation increases their grade above their average grade on papers and tests. These folks also fall into two categories.

1. People who do a good job in discussion every day, but whose grades otherwise are below average.

2. Individuals who consistently go above and beyond what's expected. Their comments frequently show superior understanding of the material and they participate frequently but not too much. They might be good at getting others to develop their ideas more fully; ask particularly pertinent questions; play the devil's advocate effectively and at appropriate times; foster a cooperative spirit in the classroom. These are the Harkness sunflowers, you might say. Well, I'm partial to sunflowers. . . .