Discussion boards are a wonderful feature of online courses, if they are used well. With online learning becoming a stable at all colleges and universities, there is increased interest in the many ways that a discussion board can be used as a forum for exploring the content, a tool for building community, and an objective method of grading. This article will explore some dos and don’ts for faculty using and grading discussion boards that will help keep the process manageable and less subjective.
- ask clear questions
- use a rubric
- use different links for different questions
- respond to each student’s main post
- let the students know your expectations
- make students guess
- change expectations without notice
- grade without feedback
- ignore the rubric
- get behind
Students need a clear question to respond to. It is best to ask a question, or frame the discussion in a manner that requires students to respond to the assignments, which might be a lecture, chapters or articles, or a video. The deeper the prompt the deeper the responses will be. This means that we need to word the prompts in a way that require critical thinking as well as familiarity with the content. Consider asking students to compare and contrast, to explicate, to analyze, to synthesis, or to evaluate in a discussion board.
Rubrics tell a student how to be successful in a class. Create one, share it with the students, and use it. Decide in advance how many points each discussion board will be worth. It is fine to have two different types of discussion. For example, one type of post may ask students to reflect and be worth fewer points than a post that is an interactive dialogue. This means you will need a rubric for each type. Include the number of posts you expect, perhaps one main post and two responses. Note what makes a post an “A” post, including citations or specific references to the content, or on topic response to the prompt.
In any one week there may be several questions or topics that need to be covered. Feel free to use more than one discussion board link if you need to. It is best to use a different link, or thread for a different prompt. Asking a series of questions or using several prompts in one thread can be confusing to students. Online courses must be easy to navigate or students can become confused or miss an assignment. It is easier to build in the clarity at the front rather than have to clarify issues later.
Students want to have a conversation with the faculty. The main response, or post, from each student is directed to the faculty. Take the time to read and respond to each main post. This can take time, but helps the students feel more confident in the rest of the discussions. This is also a good way to catch anyone who misunderstands early. If several of the posts are off topic or confusing, the faculty can send out an email to the entire course with a mini-clarifying lecture. Reading the main post will also help with grading.
Students want to succeed. It is our job to help them. The more information we give them up-front the more likely they are to succeed in the class. If we clarify our expectations they will stop worrying about working in blackboard or WebCt and focus on the content. Let the students know how many posts you expect and how many days you expect them to post.
It is easy to correct our mistakes in a classroom with all the students listening to us. It is much more difficult to clear up issues online. Our best option is to be clear about the course expectations, include what students are responding to in the posts, how often to reply, and how to format responses. We need to tell students if we expect them to use citations, references, specific examples, or case studies.
We have all had the experience as faculty of giving an assignment and receiving less than we expected from our students. We often change the requirements and our expectations for the next assignment. The only way to do this is to notify the entire course through email and in the announcement section, change the rubric, and give students an opportunity to change how they respond to the next assignment. However, we must use the rubric we have in place to grade the first assignment.
Students deserve to know why they earned an excellent grade or a poor grade. Many students have told me that they resent receiving an assignment back with just a grade, even if it is an A. Students want to know what they did well and what they did poorly so that they can continue to improve.
It is so tempting to just quickly give grades on a busy day. It is easier in the long run to follow the rubric. In both Web CT and Blackboard, and other LMS’s, there is place to make notes when a grade is entered. One quick trick is to enter the points and paste the rubric in the notes box. The student can then quickly see the grade and the reason for that grade.
We all get busy, and it is so easy to get behind in an online course. The best way to keep up is to create appropriate assignments, a reasonable number of assignments, and to check into the course on a regular basis. Set up a regular time to check in and respond to student questions, concerns, and posts. It is also wise to take a night off occasionally. Just let the students know that you will not be online Friday night, for example.
The online discussion boards allow students to have deep discussions around the course content. This is a wonderful tool that also builds a sense of community in the class. We need to use it carefully and well. For example, too many assignments feel like busy work. Too few do not allow for assessment. Our best bet is to create meaningful, deep, critical thinking assignments and to grade them objectively using the rubric.