The Methods and Means to Grading Student Participation in Online Discussions

This is the final post in a three-part series on how to create effective discussions in an online environment in courses for credit. In this post I’ll share how to grade and assess students contributions in online discussion forums—the final yet essential step that supports learning in several ways. I am eager to share my insight into the assessment component of online discussions, as we found within our institution’s online program that assessment through the use of a rubric that was the critical element to success. The rubric allowed course instructors to give quality feedback to students, clarified for students’ expectations and to the surprise of several professors the rubric improved the quality and quantity of discussion postings.

Components of effective Online Discussions Review
Motivating students to participate in forum discussions is not an easy task—it requires strategic effort by the instructor during the course, and by the course designers in the course design phase. Below are the core elements that build the foundation for online discussions, elements that will create and sustain dialogue.

  1. A well designed course/instructional plan —as discussed in post one
  2. Clear, concise guidelines and expectations — post one
  3. Well constructed topics/questions — post two
  4. A skilled facilitator or moderator— post two
  5. An assessment component for giving student feedback—to follow

The Argument Against Grading
There are pros and cons to grading discussion forums—though the cons are few, are worthy of consideration. Some educators feel it forces students to participate. Students will only do what is necessary and not engage further. Others suggest that with a prescribed set of questions, discussion becomes narrow, allowing little room for creativity. I happen to disagree with the these arguments, as experience and research shows that grading participation is effective in promoting and encouraging meaningful discussion when the assessment elements are included.

The Means to Grading—The Rubric
As mentioned, a key factor to effective discussions are expectations for students: clear, concise, quantitative guidelines that students can follow. From trial and error we discovered that creating a standard rubric that instructors could tweak and customize to his or her course was the ‘means’ to grading. Within our range of courses, discussion assignments vary in grading weight but the criteria for each is consistent.

Below is the preamble to the rubric [for the student’s benefit] that we use in one of our classes [with a link to the rubric].

The participation/contribution grade is based upon the content, depth and quality of your contributions to the forum discussions using the standards found within the grading rubric below. Contributions to weekly discussions represent xx points, which makes up 20% of your final grade. Participating consistently, with thoughtful answers early in the week, and responding to, and engaging in discussion with your peers will have positive effects on your overall grade.”  Click here to view the rubric.

The Method 
How much easier it is for course instructors with a tool (rubric) in hand to assign grades and give feedback. One of our professors called me after we implemented the rubric for her course saying ‘why didn’t we do this earlier – it’s so much easier to give ‘good’ feedback that students can act upon‘.

The timing of feedback is a determining factor in students participating or not. Our instructors post grades [usually] within the week following the close of a discussion – for example posting Thursday after the close of a discussion, usually Sundays. If a student has not participated at all, he or she gets a ‘0’. No surprise that the student usually participates the following week. This allows time for the student to assess his or her participation, and improve upon or continue with behaviors that support learning throughout the coming week. The momentum is built by following this timetable, and aids in sustaining dialogue.

Besides assigning a grade to discussion postings, instructors on occasion provide feedback to individual students—one or two sentences of encouragement or reasons for a given grade. A more efficient method is collective feedback in the form of a post or announcement that summarizes the instructor’s observations, provides comments and suggestions.

Online discussions hold great potential to engage students and support meaningful learning that leads students to understanding, not just knowing. The assessment component gives a sense of instructor presence. Receiving grades (or comments) on discussion posts means the instructor is reading and cares enough about his or her learning to give feedback. Having the rubric in place focuses the evaluation process and provides a structure that is more likely to lead to student learning.

Related Posts
Post One: How to get students to Participate in Online Discussions
Post Two: How to facilitate Robust Discussions Online


10 thoughts on “The Methods and Means to Grading Student Participation in Online Discussions

  1. Pingback: Reading about forum participation as a component of on-line learning | The Interpretation Game

  2. Pingback: Active learning and online courses…can they work together? « UTHSC's Faculty Resource Center

  3. Debra Giusto

    About the grading for the 2 rubric examples.
    What is the total points for the rubrics?
    The grading rubric for asynchronous class discussion, is it worth 5 points? Or can the students get up to 5 points per row?
    Same with the rubric, Rubric for asynchronous participation. Are the total points for the assignment 3 or is the total worth18 points? Are the students given the potential to get 3 points per row/category in the rubric?


    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      Hi Barb,
      I’m always looking for ways to increase interaction for our online courses too, and recently I have a few more ideas that uses media tools: Here are a few:
      1) Voicethread: . Though we have not used this in our own classes, I believe it has tremendous potential to generate discussion about selected images or documents.
      2) Video clip featuring course instructor prompting students to participate in discussion. In a course I’m taking with Cousera, the professor used this method which I found effective. He challenged the students in a prerecorded video clip to engage in discussion about a topic he introduced in the video. I found this very effective, it motivated me to want to participate.
      3) Video clip (either a YouTube clip or Ted Talk) which illustrates a concept from the given course that will spark discussion, perhaps even controversy. Instruct students to watch the clip, then take position or ‘side’ to the issue presented.

      Hope that gives you some ideas. I encourage other readers to share their ideas too.
      Thanks for your question!


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  5. Thrasymachus

    I’m actually in the middle of setting up my forum discussions. This is the toughest part of setting up for a new online semester, IMO. You’ve given me a lot to digest! Thanks.


    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      Glad you found something helpful! Setting up discussions can be a challenge – but rewarding when students engage and participate. If something doesn’t work one session, you can tweak and modify for the next. Given that you are putting the time in and thinking about it, I can tell you will have much discussion to work with. 🙂


  6. Pingback: The Methods and Means to grading Student Participation in Online Discussions | Él éxito en los negocios y en la vida

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