Grading, Discussions, Participation, …

by Mike Gleicher on February 3, 2015

This class is an experiment. I’ve never done anything like it.

Here are some more thoughts on discussions. Hopefully, you’ve seen my discussion of discussion (in fact, read that first if you haven’t).

Some people have asked (to Alper, not to me directly), some variant of:

  • How do I participate in a discussion?
  • How do you evaluate a discussion?
  • What if I have nothing to say?
  • What do I need to get an A?

If you think you’re panicked about how you will be evaluated in this class, we’re even more panicked about how we will be doing the evaluation. Let’s try to make it easier on each other.

If you haven’t seen the course philosophy on grading, you might want to look at that.

It can be intimidating to join in a discussion. There is a diverse range of people in this class. There might be someone who knows more, who has thought about the topic more deeply, is a more eloquent writer, … You might have a great idea, but someone else beat you to it. You might have an idea that you’re unsure of, or that you don’t know how to express clearly. You might not understand what another person is talking about, or might misinterpret what they said.

And then, there’s this issue that these discussions are the primary data we have for evaluating your performance in class. So, you might not want to say things that are wrong.

Ideally, we can make the discussions be a “safe” place where people can express their ideas without being intimidated. Where people will support each other in learning. This requires all the participants to be polite, to help each other, to be supportive of each other – both giving and receiving. As far as we can see, people are doing a good job of that. We can’t police everything in real time, but it doesn’t seem like we need to. (if someone does something you think is inappropriate, please inform Alper and I immediately).

As far as grading: what we care about is that you participate effectively, and show some basic understanding. The discussions are set up (or we try to set them up) so that you can achieve the demonstration of basic understanding in your initial post. The discussion part can be hard: sometimes, there isn’t anything to add. In an in-person discussion, everyone can nod in agreement: on Canvas, a dozen people making “I agree” posts can get tiring, and dilute the content. Although, it’s a nice gesture to be supportive. There’s a fine balance, and hopefully it will work itself out (in some systems, they have mechanism for this).

So, here are some ground rules:

  1. It’s OK to disagree, if you do it respectfully. If there was a question with a clear right answer, you wouldn’t need a discussion.
  2. It’s good to ask questions if you don’t understand. This can be a great way to give people feedback on how they express their ideas. It’s best if you are specific, and critical that you are respectful. You can even ask questions about the content.
  3. Be tolerant of others: the responses are often “off-the=cuff” – written hastily, sometimes in someone’s non-native language, without tons of time to think everything through.
  4. If you don’t have anything to add, you don’t necessarily need to add it. Although, it can be nice to be supportive – especially if you can add a little, and be specific. Saying “I agree, and you explained it well” is a nice complement – but might not add too much to the conversation.
    Trying to add: “I agree, but I might have phrased it like X” might help everyone understand by giving a new perspective, and is a vote on the idea, but can be a subtle put down that you think you can express it better, and that you want to claim some “ownership” of the idea. For a class discussion, I think it’s more OK than in other settings. Especially since there is no way to enforce fairness in turn taking (some people will respond quicker)
  5. For evaluation, in the original post, we are mainly looking for evidence that you did the required assignment (reading or design), and have given it some thought. It’s less about right answers (again, the interesting questions don’t have obvious right/wrong).
    Beyond the original post, we are mainly looking for evidence that you are thinking about things.
  6. We understand that the opportunity to participate in discussion involves an element of luck. If no one says anything worth responding to, you can’t make a good response! If someone posted your idea before you, it’s hard to sound original. Hopefully, things are structured such that there will be enough opportunities.
  7. If you say what you got out of a reading, or your opinion, it is correct (it is true that it is your opinion). We can try to (constructively) change your opinion, or help you get more out of a reading.

Trying to “grade” discussion is challenging, subjective, and possibly a fools errand. That’s why we’re more looking for consistency over the whole, and only “scoring” in broad buckets. And, we might need to replan if need be.

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