Mapping and tracking discussion in Humanities using OneNote Class Notebook

As a Humanities teacher, I love having full class discussion on the books we read, particularly when the students drive the conversation. Getting students to work together and successfully navigate and sustain a discussion on complex topics is often as important to me as the content they are talking about. Since a large part of my teaching uses the Harkness Method, participation is a large part of my class grade, and I want to be sure my students feel they are being assessed fairly.

It’s always a challenge to track a Harkness discussion: how do you take something nebulous, organic, and by its very nature, ever-changing, and turn it into a concrete score for the grade book?

One answer to this conundrum is Harkness mapping, a technique often done on paper each class by the teacher while the students speak. Using an oval or a square to represent the table, you write the students’ names around the edge. When a student makes a comment, you draw a line connecting their comment to the previous one, and then to the next, back and forth, until the 40 or so minutes are up – essentially creating a visual web to represent who has spoken to whom.

When I started teaching at Eastside Prep last year, I was mapping discussions with my pencil on paper and clipboard. At the end of the class, I’d show interested students the completed map. They’d look for their name and I’d file the piece of paper away in a folder.

Having been introduced to OneNote last year, I thought I’d try mapping in OneNote as a way to cut down on paper, not realizing the possibilities for further student engagement and tracking overall progress.

A daily page showing map and notes, with names removed.

Using the draw tool in OneNote, I make a blank map each day. I title it with the class name and the pages they have read. I also add a key for the students to access in their OneNote folders, matched with what I look for in discussions. Using the stylus, I can quickly jot down what is happening at the rate of the conversation. Being able to zoom in and out from a student’s name allows me to write multiple notes or symbols near their name, and the erase button is just a quick click away.

In class, I sometimes project the map on the board so students can watch the discussion happening live and use it as a reference point.  By projecting the map wirelessly, I let students check themselves and see how much they’ve been speaking and either make room for other students’ voices, or start to chime in a little more. As students are assessed as a class, they can also see if anyone has yet to contribute and invite their opinion. At first I worried the map would be a distraction, but the students have gotten used to glancing at it, or are more interested in the conversation at hand than a line on the screen.

OneNote solves another challenge of discussion by remembering what is said. It’s a challenge to get students (and adults) to remember conversations, especially ones which happened during last class, last week, or before a long winter break. When we look at the map, I also have students debrief the discussion and the points covered, tracking their content knowledge along with their skills profession. I take notes in the side of the map and at the end of class, using the ink-to-text function to clean up my scribbles. Next, I’ll ask the students to offer any other important points we covered. I’ll type these into the page on OneNote as a set of class notes for the day, minimizing the need for students to take notes and therefore allowing them to remain present in the discussion. If a student is absent, they can first check the day’s map and see what themes or topics were covered. If we are reading a longer work, we can go back several weeks into the past and see if we covered similar ground, or built on any of those ideas.


The maps get stored in a folder for each class period. If a student wants to talk to me about their participation grade, these maps offer a good starting point. We also store class goals in the Discussion Folder.  This can be referenced or used as rubric for self-assessment. If I want students to write a longer reflection on the day’s conversation, I’ll put a few questions in the folder, along with the maps, so all the materials for discussion are housed in the same place.

By tracking discussions and storing them in the OneNote, students have constant access to their own participation and can self-advocate about their role in class. If there is a note I’d like to make on a particular student, I can copy the page to the Teacher-Only space, jot down some notes that I don’t want to reveal to the class, and keep a separate copy for myself.

Ultimately, the more maps the students create, the better we can see their progress and the ways in which they contribute. It can be hard for some students to be aware of their progress over the course of the term, but Harkness maps are a concrete indicator of their improvement. At the end of the term, it’s always fun to see how students go back to the first map and interpret their progress as a class.

An early version of Harkness Mapping, beginning of a term.

The same class as above, one month later. You can see the different types of comments students are making in different colors.

Starting a new term – we’ll use this map as a base to assess the rest of the term.