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Tool: Assessing classroom discourse

Assessing classroom discourse is one way to gain a deeper understanding of the interactions in a classroom and how they influence student learning. Included are two ways of analyzing classroom discourse, one that focuses on whole-class interactions, the other on small-group conversations.

Either of these tools will provide new insights into the dynamics of your classroom. Use them to assess a class or student or to promote self-assessment.

Whole-class discourse rubric*







Consistently remains focused on subject matter

Usually remains focused on subject matter

Occasionally remains focused on subject matter

Seldom remains focused on subject matter


Conversation involves most participants without domination or student is actively involved in the conversation without dominating

Conversation involves many participants or students in involved in the conversation

Conversation involves only a few participants or student occasionally is involved in the conversation

Conversation controlled by one or student has minimal involvement in the conversation

Higher-order thinking

Thinking skills observed at synthesis and evaluation levels

Thinking skills observed at application, analysis and/or synthesis levels

Thinking skills observed at comprehension or understanding levels

Thinking skills observed at knowledge and recall levels


Interchanges build upon prior responses leading toward an improved and shared understanding though use of active listening

Interchanges build upon prior responses leading toward improved understanding

Interchanges do not build upon prior responses nor lead toward an improved or shared understanding

Interchanges not evident


Consistently uses effective accurate language appropriate for audience, context or purpose

Generally uses accurate language appropriate for different audience, contexts or purpose

Sometimes uses accurate language with little attention to audience, contexts or purpose

Frequently uses inaccurate language with no attention to audience, context or purpose


The chart below should be used to rate each group's ability to carry on a substantive conversation in order to build shared understanding:

Small-group discourse rating*










Higher-order thinking



Building understanding






After rating each group on these characteristics, compare findings by doing the following:

  • Compare ratings for each of the characteristics.
  • Identify discrepancies and attempt to resolve them through discussion.
  • Be prepared to share any unresolved discrepancies with the total group.

*These rubrics were adapted from Hufferd-Ackles, K., Fuson, K.C., & Sherin, M.G. (2004). Describing levels and components of a math-talk learning community. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 35, Issue 2, 88-90.