Assessment Strategies for Discussions

In my last post, I talked about participation, specifically participation as engagement.  And one of the activities that allows you to most easily see and gauge a student’s participation is the discussion.  Now, there are many site you can go to for information on specific discussion activities and strategies for facilitating successful discussions.

For example, Debbie Morrison has posted a three-part series on discussions on her blog:

You can find ideas for discussion activities at:

And you can find information on effective facilitation, on crafting questions, and on setting expectations and encouraging students’ participation in discussion activities at:

So, in this post, I am going to stick to talking about some assessment strategies for discussion activities.

Assessing discussions

There is a wide range of strategies for assessing online discussions.  When deciding which one (or which ones) to use, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why is it important to you to have discussions in your online class?  I.e., how will discussions help you meet your teaching goals?
  • What do you want students to get out of the discussions – what skills and knowledge?  I.e., how will discussions help students meet the course objectives?
  • How are your discussions related/connected to the assessments in your course?

So, here are some assessment strategies you might consider:

Number of postings

While an easy way to grade discussion postings, counting postings does not really encourage critical thinking or the peer interaction that is fundamental for a real discussion.  So, while you may want to keep an eye on how often a student posts in the discussion forums, I would encourage you to use more than number of postings as grading criteria for discussion.

Length of postings

You might use length of postings as a criterion to ensure that students don’t just post a “yes” or “I agree” response to a question.  It can also rein in those students who want to post 10-page essays as discussion postings.  In your instructions to students, be clear with students as to what a post of adequate length looks like.  Is it no less than 250 words?  Is it no more than 500 words?  Why?

Responses to other postings (thus, a “discussion”)

This is a pretty critical piece.  If you are going to call an activity a “discussion”, you should probably attach a requirement for students to post responses (Yes, it’s true – you will likely get more activity if you attach a grade component to this.)  And you might also consider giving them some guidelines as to what comprises an adequate reply (i.e., more than just “I agree”).

Follow-up questions

To take it one step further, requiring that students ask follow-up questions of fellow students to lead the discussion in new directions would increase the level of critical thinking.

Integration of content and/or readings into the discussion postings

Requiring students to refer directly back to the readings in the course will hopefully ensure not only that they will complete the readings, but that they will discuss how the readings relate to the question(s) posed.  Here is an example of a rubric which integrates content knowledge and interaction:

“Quality” postings

We all want our students to compose quality postings, but what is “quality” in the context of your discussions?  Does this mean that:

  • Questions have been answered thoroughly?  (And what does “thoroughly” mean?)
  • There is evidence of critical thinking and reflection?
  • There has been contribution of original ideas?

Once you’ve established what quality looks like for you, think about how these different levels of quality would look as grades.  A rubric for this kind of activity should clarify for the students what a “high-quality” posting would look like to you.  For example:

Of course, the criteria you set for discussion participation in your course most likely contain several, or all of these strategies, and more.  The most important thing you can do once you’ve decided on the appropriate set of criteria for your course is to make the criteria clear to your students, be consistent with your grading, and provide timely feedback to encourage them to meet, and continue to meet, your expectations.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

In the end, the most important thing you can do is to prepare your expectations and instructions in advance so that they are clear to your students.  Provide a rubric/list of criteria so that they are not taken by surprise when they receive their grade, and make sure to provide timely feedback on postings where required by your expectations.

For more ideas on assessing online discussions, see the following website:

In my next post, I’ll be talking about assessing group work in online courses!

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