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Grading Online Discussions: Evaluating for Quality & Quantity

The first step in building richer, more meaningful online discussions is to establish expectations.

teacher sitting on laptop in library

Something interesting is happening in the world of online teaching. For some faculty, pivoting to online learning is an opportunity to reassess their curricula and identify what really matters. Others are finding that students are using online tools to ask different, more pointed questions. Still others have remarked on the emergence of a “quiet minority”— students who are finding that online discussion boards provide a new way for them to voice their ideas.

Those of you who have been teaching online for some time might be seeing changes as well. As more–and more diverse–diverse students join the online ecosystem, behaviors and expectations are shifting in ways we are all still figuring out.

In short, we’re learning that the online discussion platform does have pedagogical advantages. Students can take more time to reflect, participate more equitably, and share dissenting opinions a bit more easily. And because online discussions happen asynchronously, they provide an opportunity for students to practice their critical thinking more consistently over the course of a class, rather than being assessed only periodically through exams or papers. In online discussions, every post is an opportunity for skill-building.

In the online discussion forum, students can explore a subject more deeply, assess the value of that information with their peers, and integrate different ideas from different people to find their way to something new. Posting to the online discussion board isn’t just busywork. It’s an opportunity for students to put their learning into practice and, by doing so, deepen it.

Of course, none of this happens without some clear direction. The first step in building richer, more meaningful online discussions is to establish expectations. Without a clear understanding of why discussions matter, what constitutes a good post, and how those contributions will be evaluated, students (and, for that matter, instructors) often flounder.

Defining Quality

Whether the online discussion forum is a vehicle for engagement and connection, a platform for argument and debate, or a collaborative learning environment, students will need to understand what constitutes a “good” post.

  • How well does the post incorporate material from a text, lecture, or other sources.
  • Is the post carefully  constructed, thoughtful, and original?
  • Does it respond to another student’s post in a substantive and relevant way?
  • Does it move the discussion forward?

Without a working definition of quality, students are less likely to use the discussion board to engage thoughtfully with the course material.

Defining quantity

Your syllabus typically outlines quantitative goals for your course: texts, papers, exams, participation. Contributions to the online discussion board can be–and should be–quantified as well.

  • How many posts should a student contribute during the term?
  • How many words should those posts be?
  • Should initial posts be longer than subsequent posts?
  • How will define that?
  • Should a student contribute to the discussion board once a week or more?
  • How will those contributions be staggered to avoid last-minute posts?
  • How often should a student respond to a post by a classmate?

And yeah, you can go a little crazy with quantitative criteria. The point is to help your students understand what constitutes poor, satisfactory, and superior participation–by the numbers.

Design your rubric

Expectations around the quality of work, how much work is appropriate, and student participation are often described in the instructor’s (sometimes lengthy) syllabus. If that’s you, it might be time to try mapping your expectations into a rubric. Why? Rubrics are a handy way to capture assessment criteria in a simple chart that your students can refer to throughout the course. Some institutions and programs provide discussion board rubrics that can apply or adapt to your course and many of these are online. A rubric can vary in complexity and should, of course, align with the goals you’ve established for the online discussion component of your course.  Whether you’re using a pre-defined or building your own, be sure to take the time to explain the purpose of the rubric to your students. It’s a tool that can help them  track how well they are meeting course objectives. And it’s a tool that provides you with a fair and objective way to evaluate their work.

Get creative

As we grapple with how to ensure good teaching outcomes during the pandemic, evaluating students will need to remain flexible. Students today are having trouble focusing (aren’t we all), their schedules have been upended, and they are often dealing with personal or financial stress. It’s important to remember–especially now–that a rubric is only a guide. How that rubric gets applied will shift as circumstances change:  some graded courses are moving to a pass/fail model, instructors are easing posting requirements as they learn that some of their students are having difficulty accessing the internet, Zoom fatigue is a real thing. In response, many instructors today are focusing on quality and relevance rather than checking the boxes. So don’t be afraid to change up how you’re doing things. Ask students to evaluate their own posts: it can help them apply a critical lens to their own work—and use that knowledge to improve it. Or think about giving a single discussion grade to the entire class. (Take a look at this rubric). Whatever you do, keep talking to your students about the value you see in online discussions and how those discussions can help them move their learning forward.