HBS Shares: How to Make Class Discussions Fair

The Participation Tracking Tool

Yesterday, we got to learn how our friends at Harvard Business School are thinking critically about call patterns and grading in case-based classes. HLS Case Studies came together with case-based programs across the university on Tuesday for the second meeting of the Harvard Affinity Group for Case Studies, an open partnership forged to share best practices and advance case-based learning.

Paul Craig

Paul Craig

At the meeting, Paul Craig, Associate Director of Learning Technologies at HBS’s Educational Technology Services, shared how HBS tracks class participation. Based on an earlier tool developed by Professor Benjamin Edelman with input from other faculty and the Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, HBS created a custom tool that helps professors not only record participation, but also learn about their students.  Professors utilize the tool to understand both semester-long and class-by-class trends in discussion.

HBS operates primarily on the case study method of teaching. Professors are presented with a challenging environment for facilitating discussion: required courses at HBS enroll about 90 students in each section, all in seats preassigned by the registrar. At an institution where participation comprises up to 50% of a student’s grade, professors must fairly facilitate and assess discussions that last over an hour while avoiding distracting and scrutinizing behaviors like taking notes.

Willis Emmons, Director of the Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning at HBS, chimed in to explain that quality is co-produced by student and instructor: the more a professor stays with and probes a student, the more that student can develop a quality response. To grade fairly, professors must manage the discussion with both equity and depth.

Designed to address these concerns, the participation tracker is a web-based tool for easily logging the student’s name and comment, with live time-stamping enabled. While the professors lead discussion, staff scribes use the participation tracker to record comments. The tool also allows scribes to note whether a student was observed to be absent or cold-called. Rather than keep a full transcript of the class session, the scribes make brief notes to jog the professor’s memory about the comment. The scribes never read the case and thus intentionally cannot suggest the quality of the comment. The scribes rotate through the class sections to preclude any favoritism or student influence.

After class, the professor can review and edit the scribe’s notes, assign values to the participation, and mark excused and unexcused absences. The tool also provides web-based and print-out class cards with a student’s picture, background, and name pronunciation.

Once the participation grades are assigned and finalized, the tool offers the professor statistics that can improve her classroom facilitation. A color-coded report presented as a seating chart displays who spoke most recently, who participated the most or least, and who has gone the longest without participating in a class session. Statistics in other reports compare the demographic breakdown (male/female and US/non-US) of the class with the percentage of comments and cold-calls for each demographic. The same comparisons are applied to the rows and sections of a room, to see if a professor tends to call on, for example, the back of the class or the left side. To show progress, the tool also provides data about a student’s participation and a professor’s call patterns over time. With this information, professors can be more thoughtful about how to avoid bias and give every student a fair chance to speak.

The tool was designed to support the professor’s discretion: it is flexible enough to accommodate different participation grading systems, and the design of its analytics favors neither quality nor quantity of participation as a standard. Craig explains that the tool needed to be flexible to be adopted widely.

Craig’s team is exploring LTI (learning tool interoperability), with the potential to bring the participation tracker to other institutions.

About Elizabeth Moroney

Case Studies Editorial Assistant
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