Evaluating Online Discussion Forums

Evaluating Online Discussion Forums

Evaluating Discussion Forums for Undergraduate and
Graduate Students
February 12, 2015
By: Gloria P. Craig, EdD
The discussion forum is an essential part of online courses. It’s where students interact, reflect, exchange
ideas, and expand their knowledge base. The quality of the discussion forum depends on the ability to
develop a sense of community, the clarity of the discussion questions, and the use of a grading rubric that
includes standards of performance.
Sense of community
Cobb (2011) found that relationships, comfort, and community are important factors in undergraduate
student success. She recommends establishing forums for student introductions, instructor involvement in
the forums, and acknowledging students’ points of view.
Mayne and Wu (2011) found that the following strategies increase student satisfaction with an online
course and positively influence perceptions regarding social presence and group interaction: personal
emails and biographical and personal information from the instructor, an introduction with specific course
instructions, an inclusive syllabus with student and instructor expectations clearly outlined, assignment
rubrics, links to helpful tutorials or resources, and an informal place for students to chat.
Another way to promote community is to provide a question-and-answer forum. This facilitates student
exchange of information that does not require instructor input, enabling students to mentor one another.
Small group sizes (with no more than 10 students per discussion forum group) also can promote social
presence and community. According to Schellens and Valcke (2006), small discussion groups have higher
levels of knowledge construction than larger groups do. They also found that students want specific
discussion forum guidelines and want the forums to be graded to enhance the level of responsibility.
Clarity of discussion questions
To be meaningful, discussion questions need to be correlated with the course readings and learning
outcomes for each module. Students are more likely to understand learning outcomes that are directly
connected with an assignment (forum, quiz, or paper).
Most discussion questions focus on the basic levels of thinking of Bloom’s Taxonomy to evaluate
students’ understanding of the content in each module and their ability to explain ideas or concepts. Some
questions may direct students toward higher levels of thinking, requiring them either to apply the
information from the module to a workplace situation or to compare and contrast particular issues
(analyzing). To promote higher levels of thinking, ask students to critique one another’s posts (evaluating)
and direct them to pose a question related to the topic of discussion (creating) to further stimulate
discussion in the forum (Overbaugh and Schultz, n.d.).


In undergraduate courses, have students respond to the initial prompt and include rationale and references.
Then have them reply to fellow students with substantial constructive feedback (remembering and
understanding). Encourage students to respectfully consider the opinions of others, agree or disagree with
those opinions, and provide rationale based on references or workplace experience (applying, analyzing).
After all the students have posted and replied, post a closing post for the forum that acknowledges
students’ points of view, addresses any areas that need further clarification, and adds new content to
augment understanding of the topic of discussion.
Hold graduate students to the same criteria as undergraduate students, but also have them include
questions with their posts to further stimulate discussion. This leads to a higher level of thinking. Also
consider requiring graduate students to handle their posts that include questions as individual forums.
Have them take on the role of instructor, replying to other students and posting summaries for their
forums (evaluating). The instructor would then read all the posts, including questions and summaries, and
post a closing message as described above for undergraduate students.
Grading rubric with standards of performance
Use analytic grading rubrics for online discussions. Analytic grading rubrics have two major components:
levels of performance and a set of criteria. Levels of performance can include terms such as exemplary,
proficient, basic, or below expectations or can include numbers. Points can be attached to the levels of
performance and distributed based on the total number of points allowed for a post in the discussion
forum. Criteria depend on the learning outcomes for the course, but may include the following:

Demonstration of an understanding of the topic of discussion through critical thinking, higherorder thinking, and uniqueness of contribution
Community building through collaboration and connection with other students
Proper netiquette and mechanics of writing
Timeliness and participation with posts/replies

See my analytic discussion forum grading rubric for undergraduate students here and my graduate rubrics
Hold undergraduate and graduate students to the same standard in regard to netiquette, including
language, spelling, and grammar, but modify the type and number of required references to suit the
educational level. For example, undergraduate students may be required to include
supporting references from their reading assignments, but Truemper (2004) suggested that the expectation
for graduate students should be to include references from research journals.
The number of replies may need to be adjusted to suit the size of each discussion group. Typically, eight
to 10 in a group is sufficient for a discussion that demonstrates interaction, reflection, exchange of ideas,
and expansion of the knowledge base related to the topic of discussion. The number of points assigned to
a discussion forum will also depend on the amount of responsibility assumed by the students. If students
are required both to include a question to further stimulate discussion and to facilitate their forums by
providing a summary, then additional points may be assigned to the discussion forum grading rubric.
Last, the timeliness of the posts and replies can be negotiated with students, as many adult learners have
busy schedules.

Cobb, S. (2011). “Social presence, satisfaction, and perceived learning of RN-BSN students in Web-based
nursing courses.” Nursing Education Perspectives, 32(2), 115-119.
Mayne, L., and Wu, Q. (2011). “Creating and measuring social presence in online graduate nursing
courses.” Nursing Education Perspectives, 32(2), 110-114.
Overbaugh, R., and Schultz, L. (n.d.). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Retrieved from
Schellens, T., and Valcke, M. (2006). “Fostering knowledge construction in university students through
asynchronous discussion groups.” Computers & Education, 46(4), 349-370.
Truemper, C. (2004). “Using scoring rubrics to facilitate assessment and evaluation of graduate-level
nursing students.” Journal of Nursing Education, 43(12), 562-564.

Gloria P. Craig is a professor in the College of Nursing at South Dakota State University.
Reprinted from Online Classroom, 13.12 (2013): 5,8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.