by Leslie Bowman, M.S.Ed.
George París Conway, M.S.Ed.
Educator, Instructional Designer and Consultant
October 2002 Article Part 4
This is the last of our series of articles based on our SALT conference paper and presentation. Please see our end note for information on contacting us with questions.
Assessment of Online Discussions
Assessment of discussions has been the topic of an ongoing debate among online instructors and learners for quite some time. Assessment in this environment can be very subjective, just as with most written assignments. It is up to the individual instructor to decide what will be assessed and how it will be done. Will it be quality or quantity? Are learners assessed by how many times and how much they post in discussions or are they assessed according to what they say and how they say it? Or will it be a combination of both? Discussion threads can be used for both formal and informal assessment and each instructor must decide the best method(s) based on each class.
There are a variety of activities that lend themselves quite well to online discussions. These include case studies, brainstorming, role-playing and reaction or position papers. One tenet of constructivism is collaborative learning, which, in the online learning environment, depends strongly upon interactive communication.
It is the instructor's responsibility to properly design effective discussions, monitor and bring them to closure -- and this includes assessment. Active learning activities can be designed to provide evidence that students are able to use their knowledge in context. Planning specific discussion activities with assessment in mind makes assessment a much easier task. Assessments can be collected throughout the duration of a course in order to give a more complete picture of what students have actually learned.
While there will always be differing viewpoints on quantity versus quality as a way of assessment, both can still be excellent measurements of cooperative, active learning. Quality may seem a more subjective assessment; however it affords both the student and facilitator an excellent method of measuring understanding, especially when tied into specific assessment rubrics that have been provided to the students. The important thing to remember about assessment is to be sure, going into every discussion, that learners know whether assessment will be based on participation, product, or both, and how much it will count toward their grades. With well designed rubrics, the teacher can show the student what will be assessed and how it will be evaluated. Sample rubrics are included in the Appendix.
FEEDBACK, FEEDBACK, FEEDBACK!!!
The number one learner complaint in online courses is the lack of feedback. There are two remedies for this: instructional feedback and acknowledgement (personal feedback).
Instructional feedback is essentially an assessment of performance and achievement of learning objectives. This type of feedback must be timely and often. In our current educational system, students work for grades. They have been conditioned to NEED this type of feedback on a regular basis. It brings them a sense of security in the learning environment. Graded assignments should be interspersed throughout the course, and learners need to receive grades on these assignments within a relatively short period of time.
Acknowledgement simply means making a personal statement every now and then that says "good job" or "you're on the right track here." This type of feedback can occur throughout discussions and can also be accomplished through the use of emails and Learning Journals. Personal emails to individuals expressing encouragement or praise go a long way in keeping students interested and motivated.
The most important aspect of effective online learning is interactive communication. The personal aspect of communication can be lost in an online environment if the instructor does not take strong measures to make sure the class becomes a community. Discussion and collaboration are all well and good, but both will fall flat if students do not know and feel comfortable with each other and with the instructor. This means that, beyond course content discussions, students must get to know one another and the teacher in a more personal manner, just as they do in a traditional class.
Instructors can ensure that this occurs by creating an atmosphere of caring, acceptance, and openness to new ideas, and ....yes, even challenges from students. If we want our students to think critically and creatively, then we must provide an appropriate atmosphere for that kind of interaction. Instructors should provide lots of opportunities for students to get to know each other outside of class discussions. Tell them about yourself by writing little personal snippets in your "lectures" and discussions as well as in your introduction. This makes it easier for your students to see you as a real person rather than just a name on the screen, albeit one who is in charge of their learning.
Always give prompt feedback, and do it often. Make assessment an ongoing process that occurs throughout the duration of the course. Provide students with assessment rubrics so that they not only know how they will be graded, but they will also know what is required to achieve success in the course. An instructor's primary goal should be to help students succeed by becoming independent, life-long learners. This, after all, is the purpose of teaching.
Finally, do not be afraid to encourage and request feedback from students as well. After all, successful teachers learn as much from their students as the students learn from them!
This ends our series of articles from our SALT conference paper and presentation. We hope this has been instructional. Please visit our websites (see bios) for more information or to contact us with questions.
Leslie and George
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