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February 18, 2006 (Refreshed August 16, 2012)

E-Coaching Tip 4: Managing and Evaluating Discussion Postings

This tip continues the series of tips on teaching with discussion forums. Tip 3 focuses on the characteristics of good discussion questions, such as being open-ended, exploratory, and requiring students to “inquire within” about what they currently believe and think they know. This tip provides hints and suggestions for the work of managing discussion forums.

As you are reading or listening to this tip, be sure to take note of the suggestions for engaging students in peer-to-peer interaction. The faculty role in the discussion forum, particularly early in the week, is to “step back” and let the students take the lead while you monitor, observe, and guide with what I like to call a  “brief commenting” presence. 

Here is a three-question FAQ on managing and evaluating discussion postings.

 How do I manage, oversee or direct the learner interaction in discussion forums?

Using discussion forums for teaching and learning creates a new set of communication patterns. On the positive side, the forum format provides an opportunity for faculty to step back, observe and monitor the discussions. Reading and evaluating student postings provides a window into a student’s existing knowledge structure. The state of a student’s conceptual development becomes very clear, sometimes wonderfully so, and sometimes painfully so. But it is a way of seeing “mind-to-mind” rather than our traditional  “eyeball-to-eyeball.” Because of this mind-to-mind connection, forums can be many times more effective than a classroom discussion in learning about students and for planning next steps.

So, how do you manage and oversee discussion forum postings?   Here are three basic models. Variations of these models are infinite.

  1. The first model is quite basic and straightforward. This model is similar to traditional classroom environments in that students talk to the faculty member and the faculty member responds back to the students. In this basic model as used online, students respond to one or more related questions, and you, the faculty, review and analyze the responses and write a summary of those responses. This model works and is strategic at times, but it is basically a traditional hierarchical pattern and does not encourage peer-to-peer communication. It reinforces the role of faculty as the expert or “sage on the stage” with not much opportunity for community building.
  2. The second model is a more social and less hierarchical communication pattern and encourages community with peer-to-peer communications.  In this model, students read, respond and post responses to other students. This establishes communication strands in which the faculty member is more of a coach and observer.  As a coach and observer, the faculty role is to ensure that students are on track, confirm the accuracy or judgments of what is going on. In this role, however, the faculty is not actively in the forefront or continually communicating as an expert. To maintain presence, particularly cognitive presence, the faculty member encourages, questions and then integrates needed expertise when wrapping up the discussion, or making comments on a summary by students.  
  3. The third model can be used with students who are experienced and mature online learners.  In this model, students work as teams and as teams, review, analyze and stimulate community thinking.  In this model, students often act as surrogate faculty, monitoring, analyzing and summarizing thinking.

 How do I ensure that students participate in the discussion board activities?

A faculty friend of mine who was new to online teaching shared his frustrations with me about how his students were not participating in the class discussions.  He had had great expectations about online teaching and building a community of learners. But now frustration had set in. As we talked, it became clear that his grading plan did not have any points associated with the work in the discussion forums.  So, of course, students, pressed for time, focused on those assignments that would contribute to their grade.

The moral of this story, of course, is that you can ensure that students do NOT participate by not requiring them to participate, i.e., by not having any points or expectations allocated to discussion postings.

An important element of the design of any online course is your grading plan. The number of points associated with the discussion forums communicate to your learners the relative importance of that participation. Generally, many faculty find assigning discussion postings a value of 15 to 20% of a final grade generally works. This value can be tweaked according to your particular needs and goals for your students.

How do I grade discussions? How many points should be allocated?

On the question of grading that arises with discussion forums, there are a number of options. 

One approach to grading that I favor is to grade any discussion postings quite liberally, similar to the strategies generally used in face-to-face learning environments. However, this is not to say that there are not high expectations for the postings. A rubric, similar to the one that follows below, is part of the discussion posting requirements. Students are expected to meet the expectations in the rubric and know when they have done well.

Here is a rubric that you can adapt to your needs. It is a holistic rubric with only three dimensions of time and quantity, content and communication standards. This rubric is intended to be used liberally by faculty and also used by students for self-evaluation or for peer evaluation. You may also choose to provide additional points for students who take an active role, such as evaluator or summarizer.

  1. Timely and quantitative discussion contributions

* 3-4 postings per discussion, well distributed throughout the week with first posting occurring early in the week.
* 2-3 postings per discussion, postings distributed throughout the week with first posting occurring by day 4 of a weekly forum.
* 1-2 postings per discussion, somewhat distributed with first posting occurring by day 4 of a weekly forum
* 0-1 postings per discussion, not distributed throughout the week with postings occurring only on the weekend.

  1. Responsiveness to discussion and demonstration of knowledge and understanding gained from assigned reading

Excellent:         Very clear that readings were understood and ideas were incorporated well into responses
Good:              Clear that readings were understood and incorporated into responses
Average:         Postings have questionable relationship to reading material or topic under discussion
Poor:                No evidence that that readings were understood and/or not incorporated into discussion

  1. Adherence to professional communication standards

Excellent:         Communication was clear, accurate and professional
Good:              Communication was mostly clear and accurate
Average:         Four-five (4-5) lapses in professional communication standards
Poor:                Many lapses in professional communication standards

Another approach to grading that you might want to experiment with a two-step process where students either evaluate their own posting or those of their peers prior to final grading review.


Since discussion forums are such an integral element of online learning, it can be easy to forget the power that they bring to the learning experiences of students. As the essay on Classroom Discussion by the Schreyer Institute (2007) at Penn State observes, “By asking students to discuss, instructors are providing a way for them to consider information and knowledge in new ways.”  Thus learning how to facilitate and encourage meaningful discussion are among the most basic and important skills of online faculty.

Don’t miss Tip 5 that discusses the role of faculty in discussion boards. This tip provides a framework for thinking about a faculty’s role in an online course and how it changes throughout the various phases of an online course. That tip is a good companion to this tip.


Boettcher, J. V. E-Coaching Tip 3 (2007, 2012) Developing Great and Effective Questions.  Retrieved July 7 2012 from http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip3.html
Penn State Learning Design Community Hub  (2007) Interaction and Feedback.  Retrieved July 7 2012 from http://ets.tlt.psu.edu/learningdesign/lessons/feedback.  This is a good website for more information on managing learner-instructor interaction and feedback
Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence (2007). Classroom Discussion. Retrieved July 7 2012 from http://www.schreyerinstitute.psu.edu/pdf/ClassDiscussion.pdf

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2010 in a book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.

E-Coaching Tip 4: Managing and Evaluating Discussion Postings



Ecoaching Table of Contents



Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013