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Assessing student discussion in online courses and online learning tools

January 18, 2012

Student engagement in the classroom is relatively easy to understand, and constructs exist to measure it.  In online courses the concept becomes more abstract, mostly because students are not present, in the classical sense of the word.  Student interaction with instructors and peers takes place through online discussions in an asynchronous, or non-simultaneous, manner; these discussions cannot be observed as they occur, but the content and quality of student comments can be reviewed.  Some teachers choose to assess these discussions as a way to measure students’ engagement in the course, and/or as part of the students’ grades.

A study by Solan and Linardopoulos published in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching in December assesses how students feel about having rubrics that outline expectations for online discussions.  The results are that, when available, students appreciate and frequently review rubrics, and feel that they benefit from the clear expectations presented.  Nothing new here – the same things are often true about other, more traditional classroom activities.  All the same, Grainne Conole, an expert in online learning speaking to the online outlet Virtual College, said that teachers and learners often need all the help they can get using online learning tools and methodologies.  She says that teachers are gradually getting better at combining traditional and e-learning tools, and can benefit from expert support.  Effectively implementing tools such as discussion rubrics can be part of this support.


  • Do your online learning offerings include the opportunity for interaction among students and between students and instructors?  Do those interactions support and encourage meaningful discussion of key course outcomes?
  • Do teachers assess the quality of student discussion, or is assessment based solely on student products?
  • Are teachers using online learning tools being explicitly supported in using those tools effectively?  Do teachers have the opportunity to interact with experts in online learning about their practice?
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