Small Group Discussions and Self-Assessment

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I try to keep Fridays a low-tech, relaxed, community day in our class. In reading, that means time to get into groups to discuss books.

It’s our third week together, and I want to know how students think, talk, and behave in small groups.  I also want to hear them talk about what they are noticing in their books. In a class of 30 students, it is challenging (to say the least) to observe seven small groups in order to assess their small group collaboration and reading skills.  In the past, I recorded book group discussions with a digital audio recorder; I thought this was great until I learned about Screencastify, which is a free camera recording extension that captures voices and faces, what they say and how they say it to other readers. Screencastify creates an artifact — evidence of students demonstrating what they know and can do– at one point in their learning. When they post this artifact on a blog to share with their teacher and group members, it also becomes a learning tool.

One Friday, I asked students to get into groups of four or five with one member responsible for recording their discussion. I offered a small handout with questions related to our work during the week to a group leader. After the discussion, the group leader posted the recording to our class blog.

On Monday, I asked students to analyze their discussion by 1) diagramming with arrows the interactions within the conversation and 2) marking when each member asks a question, responds, uses text evidence. Then, I asked students to self-assess their group skills based on the evidence in the video. None of this is for a grade; it is purely diagnostic so that we can discuss and move toward growth.

What students quickly discovered is that the discussion was much more Q & A — the group leader asking questions, members taking turns responding, not too many follow-up questions or connections.  Some found new books they’d like to read, and many enjoyed the experience of just getting to talk about their reading.

We discussed how questions can get the conversation going, but within the responses, there are spaces to go deeper with analyzing why things happen in the story and how characters are changing. As group members, we can help one another think more deeply with questions. In sharing our reading experiences and books, we can find connections in the characters, subjects, stories — similarities and differences in how authors represent them. Also, a conversation is much more dynamic — the conversation arrows don’t have to be back and forth but can go in all different directions.

That Friday, we had another group discussion. This time, students wrote their own questions — not all that different than mine the first time around, but this way, each member had a question to contribute to the discussion.

We recorded the discussions again, but I suggested that no one even looks into the camera because that would mean they are not using eye contact with their group members. I used this mnemonic device — Word PEACE — to help them consider the features of a good small group discussion: use words related to the topic (academic language/jargon); be prepared having done the reading with notes or questions; encourage equal contributions among members; ask follow-up questions to help each member get at the how and why of their reading; connect ideas also as a way to get at deeper understanding; use eye contact to be sure you are attending to the discussion.

It should be no surprise that the second group discussion went significantly better than the first. That’s the nature of learning: understanding, skills, and confidence improve with informed practice.Students also had more fun. We will now take time on Monday to look at the second discussion and do a play-by-play analysis — again charting the discourse with arrows, noting the balance of contributions, and reflecting on small group collaboration skills. This is learning. Here is a link to one discussion; the books include Flora and Ulysses, Inside Out and Back Again, All in Pieces, Girl on a Plane.


Alex Corbitt was kind enough to pass around a chart I made for my talk on assessment at nErDcamp, Michigan.  I was glad to see people were intrigued by the distinction between assessment and grading, which is important because informed feedback with time for practice is essential for learning. What we did here with our small group book discussions was essentially observational feedback, which increased an awareness of how conversations can flow. The first was more like a quiz, and the second was more exploratory. The students were the change-agents, and my role was to gently guide and reinforce academic language and collaboration skills as they practiced, which was, for the most part,  reminding them to ask follow-up questions like “How do you know that?” or “What makes you say so?”.