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This post was adapted from a Kaneb Center mini-workshop. For additional resources, suggested reading, and sample rubrics, check out the mini-workshop presentation slides, as well as this Kaneb Center presentation on creating and using class-based discussion boards

Now that classes have moved online for the remainder of the semester, many instructors have implemented online discussion boards as a course requirement. But it can be tricky to evaluate student participation on these boards, especially for instructors who have little experience with them. What follows are some tips about how to assess online discussions. 

Establish expectations and craft a rubric: Before you begin grading discussion boards, you’ll want to be clear, both to yourself and your students, about the purpose of the discussion board. How does the board fulfill your learning goals? What are the ideal learning outcomes for your students? Let these questions guide your evaluation criteria, and make sure those criteria are communicated to students as early as possible. Consider creating a rubric to share with students that clarifies both the quantitative and qualitative expectations for student participation in the discussion board or forum. 

Prioritize quality of engagement: While your rubric should include quantitative elements and objective measures—like post frequency, post length, and timeliness—make sure to emphasize qualitative ones as well. Discussions might be graded on elements like the demonstration of critical thinking; strength of argument, analysis, or interpretation; use of evidence; and application or synthesis of concepts. Likewise, though considerations like grammar and mechanics are important, the point of these boards is to help students exercise their skills in higher order thinking. Make sure your rubric prioritizes and rewards this kind of substantive student engagement. 

Prioritize interaction and collaboration: Discussion boards work best when students substantively engage not only with the discussion prompt but also with their fellow classmates. Make sure your rubric evaluates students in part on the frequency and quality of their interactions with others. Productive interaction doesn’t always come naturally to students, so consider providing frameworks that help them learn to advance the conversation. For example, you might ask students to respond to each other using a 3CQ, in which each student’s reply must include a compliment, a comment, a connection (3C) and a question (Q).

Keep feedback and grading simple: If you have a large number of students posting to a discussion board every week, it can be difficult to provide frequent individualized feedback. Instead, you might try providing collective feedback for students. Have a class conversation early in the process about participation in the discussion boards: what’s working and what could use improvement? To give students some ideas about how to improve their participation, you might also consider allowing them to evaluate their own contributions according to a set of criteria you provide. When it comes to grading, keep your systems as simple as possible: consider credit/no credit grading; roll discussion boards into a holistic participation grade; or use a simple points scale. 

Discussion boards can be tricky to evaluate, but they’re great tools for developing higher order thinking skills and for building classroom community. With a little thought and planning, you can create a set of evaluation criteria that not only make grading easier but also help your students realize these goals.  

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