April 8th, 2010

Online Discussion Boards: Assessing What’s Important

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Editor’s Note: In an article in Distance Education Report, the author outlined five factors she feels contributes to successful online discussions in her literature course. We’re featuring just one of these factors below.

Discussion boards are for discussion – not grammar or spelling lessons. This was not always the case. When I first began teaching online, I believed that anytime students wrote anything, they should be held accountable for both spelling and grammar, and my discussion rubric reflected that. As a result, I got very brief, very stiff, very formal discussion posts in which students were clearly speaking to me rather than to each other.

I hadn’t yet considered that what I was really doing was asking students to write what they would normally be speaking in a classroom. I didn’t correct their grammar every time they spoke and I didn’t have the opportunity to edit their spoken words for spelling – why was I doing so in the discussion boards? I quickly realized that I needed to prioritize content over form in class discussion or there would be no real discussion. Here is the preface I use to introduce the discussion boards:

“Discussions are the way we “participate” in class. So it’s important that you post thoughtful messages that move the conversation forward in some way. “Yeah, I agree.” is not an acceptable posting and will not earn any points. Your participation in discussions can earn you up to ten points for each thread. After the due date for the discussion, you will be graded on your overall participation in that discussion thread. Late posts are welcome for their intellectual value but will not be considered in your grade.

Your posts should show that you have read the material in the text as well as your group and/or partner’s posts and have applied all of that to the question at hand. You should do more than merely spit back what the text says; you should engage with the material by analyzing and interpreting it. While I won’t be grading based on grammar or spelling, your posts should be grammatically clear enough not to present anyone with a problem in understanding your point. It’s not a formal writing forum but it’s not Facebook either.”

And here is an excerpt from the rubric I use to grade the posts. To earn full points:

  • Initial postings are completed early in the week
  • Follow up posts (generally more than the minimum of one per discussion) are timely
  • Content is complete, on-point, thoughtful, and offers new ideas. Supporting detail is abundant and appropriate (ie, references from the pieces read and/or other sources)
  • Content often encourages further discussion on the topic or follows up on others’ thoughts
  • Postings are characterized by originality, engagement, and relevance to the topic
  • Postings demonstrate an understanding of the material assigned and familiarity with the ideas of the students partner and group members (in other words – it’s obvious that you’ve read and understood both the literature assigned and what your peers have written in their postings).

As you can see, the emphasis is on ideas rather than grammar or spelling. With the pervasiveness of email, instant messaging, text messaging, and the like, students are used to communicating ideas in abbreviated formats. By tapping in to that ability and comfort level, I can raise the bar on the intellectual demands and give feedback and suggestions on improving technical skills in other areas such as formal writing assignments.

Stacey Curdie is Director of Online Education, Plymouth State University.

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Excerpted from How to Get the Most Out of Online Discussions: Five Points and a Rubric, June 15, 2008, Distance Education Report.