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Using Discussions for Assessment

Is it a good idea to assess online discussions?

First and foremost, your decision to assess an online discussion should be informed by the complete design of your unit. The learning outcomes and the activities you set for your students and the assessment for your unit need to be aligned. In general, if an online discussion helps your students achieve one ore more of the stated learning outcomes, the answer is yes - it is a good idea to assess it. If you would like to learn more about curriculum alignment, read Biggs model of constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang 2007, p. 50).

Writing assessment criteria for discussions

Assessment criteria are of great value in all types of assessment as they provide a clear and transparent guide for you and your student on how exactly their work will be assessed. With online discussions, well-written assessment criteria will produce better discussions.

Terms you should know


Indicates a performance dimension that you will be assessing your students by.

Performance indicators

Indicates the grade you will assign to a specific level of performance.

In the following example, the final mark would be out of 10 points.

You will be assessed on your ability to:

Performance indicators


Needs improvement

Meets expectations


Consider and evaluate differing points of view.
(3 points)

Inability to grasp other points of view or consider the reliability of one's own arguments.

Identifies and understands differing points of view in an argument and begins to evaluate each.

Consistently grasps the differing views in and argument and is able to evaluate the merits of each and draw conclusions.





Write in a clear and logical manner.
(3 points)

Writes frequently off topic and in a manner difficult to understand.

Writes on topic and follows and can contribute to the development of a discussion.

Communicates clearly and demonstrates logic and flow in a discussion.





Contribute original ideas to a discussion.
(4 points)

Usually paraphrases what others have said or agrees with others without any consideration.

Frequently contributes original ideas and shows signs of developing new insights.

Consistently contributes original ideas that are relevant to the topic.





light bulb graphicTIP! USE ASSESSMENT AS A CARROT!
In general, many students, initially at least, tend to look at how a Unit is going to be assessed and tailor their efforts around those parameters.

  • Be clear and transparent about the value of online discussions. If you believe there is real value in discussions, reflect that with an assessment weighting. If students see that their contribution to online discussions is worth, say 15%, they will make the appropriate effort to participate.
  • Carefully written assessment criteria will produce better thinking and better discussions. For help with writing assessment criteria, see above.
  • Trick! Use a mixture of assessed and non-assessed discussions but don't tell your students which discussions will be assessed. You can reveal this once the discussions have concluded.
  • Reward effort in online discussions. If there is one place you can recognise and reward effort in your Unit, you could do it in online discussions. The 'average' student who makes an effort and stretches themselves in the online discussion should be rewarded more than the 'brilliant' student who does not contribute.

Using peer review in online discussions

Allowing your students to review each other's participation in online discussions can be a valuable learning activity as long as students have the critical tools to be able to evaluate each other's work objectively. Clear assessment criteria will help students review each others' work.

Another issue is anonymity. Consider carefully if anonymity will encourage your students to be more objective in evaluating their colleagues' work. If your students are extremely competitive, anonymity could be destructive to individuals and the group. It may be safer to set all posts and reviews to be identified by user.

The great thing about teaching online and in particular using online discussions, is that you can store and improve the content related to what you teach. Consider the following:

  • Save model posts for future use or reference. Store them in a Word file that you can copy and paste from the next time you teach this course.
  • Create and build an ongoing FAQ page that your students can access the next time you teach. This can actually save you time.
  • Set a task for your students to summarise what new things they learnt from discussions. You could use this as the basis of a wiki on your Unit that your students can own and leave as a legacy for the students who follow them!

light bulb graphicTIP! Time savers!
Use the discussion forum activity as a strategy to change the way you work not add to it.

  • Design an activity where students submit a compendium of their best posts to you for assessment.
  • Devise a peer-review assessment strategy for online discussions.
  • Use the discussion forum to deal with global feedback on student performance or to clarify assessment tasks or activities
  • Transfer posts that are frequently asked questions to a separate file for use in an online FAQ. Particularly useful for assessment questions.

Additional Resources

The Foundations in Learning and Teaching program (FILT) covers assessment in an eLearning environment in detail, during session 4: Curriculum: assessment for effective learning. Refer to relevant section of the notes.

An Introduction to Online Discussions – iLearn Info Sheet


Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for Quality Learning at University (3rd ed.). Maindenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

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