E-Musings: Social Media, Learning & Assessment

Several of the modules my department offers its undergraduate students have, as part of their assessment strategy, an online participation element, either via blogs, or – and this is what this post is concerned with – discussion boards within our virtual learning environment. Rather naively perhaps, I assumed that students would appreciate this “innovative” mode of assessment, considering it’s significantly shorter than an essay, much less formal (no need for extensive research or sophisticated arguments), and provides an opportunity to discuss module material outside of the pressure of the classroom and with more hindsight than can be applied in seminars.

This post, however, is prompted by some interesting comments made yesterday by some of our student representatives. Rather than offer a solution to any of the issues raised, I want to use this space to reflect briefly on some of the arguments made, perhaps in the hope that others have encountered similar challenges and have – dare I say it – perhaps found solutions to them (any comments welcome, of course). I refrain here from recounting my own and other staff members’ rationales for using discussion boards as a means of assessment, and will concentrate, instead, on how our students’ concerns problematize those very rationales, at least to a certain extent.

When introducing my students to the discussion board, I proudly declared that they really needn’t worry excessively: “We don’t expect you to write essays here. Just write down what you found interesting or odd about a certain theory, or anything that perhaps doesn’t make sense to you (yet). Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to each other in class, but don’t feel like to have to write as formally as you would in an essay.” Formatting was also an issue, as any paragraphing and line spacing gets lost once you click the ‘Submit’ button. Thinking I had made things rather clear, I checked the discussion board a few weeks into the semester to find 10+ thoughtful and clever posts on psychoanalysis (who can resist a bit of Freud-bashing?), forming, overall, a string of comments which evidenced that, more often than not, students clearly had read each others’ posts before submitting their thoughts to the digital world.

But two interlinked (and actually fairly obvious) points were raised today which snapped me right out of my smugness about what I had hoped (and indeed still hope) are the benefits of online learning platforms. The first concern the student reps voiced challenged my idea that this assessment was “easier” than writing an essay, as it’s supposed to be much less formal and is much more flexible in terms of content, structure and writing style. I am paraphrasing here, of course, but the main worry seemed to be that it is still a written piece of work, and the fact that it is an official part of their module assessment almost renders void any assurances that register, writing skills and sophistication do not matter in this task. How much less formal should the post be? Can it ever be less formal when it is – almost by necessity, for it is an assessment – treated like any other written assignment, that is, it is planned, proofread, revised, etc.? They very fact that it is embedded in our virtual learning environment (rather than in a non-academic, non-institutional platform, such as Twitter or Facebook) makes it impossible to ignore that it will – by whatever criteria – be marked by your seminar tutor. Any attempt to render it less formal on purpose defeats the very object of setting a task which requires you to submit more spontaneous and less “academic” (but more frequent) pieces of writing, does it not? So the context of the discussion board somewhat renders moot our encouragement that students write a little more casually. It also raises much wider questions around notions of ‘academic’ and ‘formal’ writing, to a certain extent. To what genre does a post on a discussion board belong?

As a direct result of these issues, the discussion boards also do not really host “discussions” as such, although my students certainly have made an effort to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the previous comments in a thread. Secondly, and related to the problems I have tried to outline so far, are students’ concerns regarding their posts’ visibility. Their comments are, of course, only visible to those who have access to the virtual learning environment and to the module in question, but this also means that students can check, if they wish to do so, the discussions going on in the forums the discussion boards of other seminar groups within the module, too. So next to knowing that their seminar tutor will read their posts, there is also the awareness that others, who are not privy to our seminar discussions and whom they may not even know, are able to read their posts, putting yet more pressure on them to carefully word and plan their contribution. Making their posts private, and only visible by the respective tutor, would, on the other hand, defeat the purpose of using a discussion board at all (and the same applies to the use of private blogs as a means of assessment).

Perhaps, one may argue, these concerns only highlight that the intended outcome we often associate with these kinds of assessment methods hasn’t been met yet, namely the ability to express one’s opinions confidently and clearly in a variety of (academic) environments. But no matter what we envision the outcome of this particular assessment strategy to be, we must consider whether, and to what degree, these aims are actually achieved with the methods we employ, be they new or old. What I want to tell my students is not to be so anxious about their posts, but then we all know that with a comment like that I’d be placing myself in a glass house, thanks to my own anxious mind.

Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2018), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory research and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

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16 Responses

  1. Rosie Miles says:

    Those of you who have joined in the discussion on this post may be interested in some of the materials/articles available via my Ms E-Mentor blog on using discussion forums within English Studies: http://www.msementor.co.uk/publications-presentations-awards/

    In particular, the Good Practice Guide to Using Online Discussion Forums in English Studies contains lots of helpful advice on how to make discussion forum activities work well AND on how to assess them. Within the Assessment chapter (which I wrote) there is also some discussion of the nature of writing within discussion forums (not essay-speak, not email, not the same as classroom talk, because written down, etc.).

    I’ve been using discussion forums within my Victorian Literature and Culture modules for some years now, and assessing that work. It’s fully possible to do that (the Good Practice Guide also features my assessment criteria). I’ve also been invited to more than 20 English Departments in the UK and beyond to demo some of my VLE/Discussion Forum activities and how I integrate them across a module. If anyone out there would like me to visit their department then get in touch with me at the University of Wolverhampton.

  2. Georgina says:

    My understanding of the discussion boards was that it was an extension of the seminar, that gives the students who are anxious about speaking up in class an opportunity to express their opinion. My issue with this is that our grade is based on what is said online rather than what is said in the class. I am more comfortable verbalising my opinions and find it easier to debate with others in person rather than online. I also don’t have much time at home to be going online and participating in discussion boards, what with helping my mum, reading lists, essays, writing (I am aslo a creative writing student) and my part-time job.

  3. Nicola says:

    The discussion boards for me, and probably several other students, are brilliant because I am hard of hearing and this makes it so difficult to join in at seminars. While most other people can hear what is being said, I sit there in silence and think about something else that has nothing to do with the lecture at all, whilst my poor note taker scribbles away as fast as possible what everyone else is saying so that I can keep up.
    With the discussion boards, it means I can finally have the discussions with people I’ve been dying to have for so long. It just takes a bit of confidence and ignoring the fact the pressure is on you to write something interesting, whether formally or not. So far I have managed to participate more with discussion and can finally know other students views/ideas.
    Of course, the only major problems I’ve come across is some people are still lacking in enthuasim to participate in the boards – I pos something and noone replies! Understandably some people don’t have a cluye what to write, but I find it helps to practice and note down ideas first before actually applying to the boards. There is also the problem with formatting as others have mentioned, you go from looking incredibly intelligent to rather dumb when your post turns into a badly formatted mess.

  4. Leanne says:

    I know that i’m probably in the minority of students with this but i think that the discussion boards are a good idea and i really like them. In most of our seminars when our tutor’s are asking questions and trying to start up a discussion they are nearly always waiting ages for a response or sometimes get no response at all. I believe that it’s not because the students don’t know the answers to the questions, it’s because students just don’t want to answer in front of everyone else as they either don’t want be the only one to answer or mainly because they are worried about saying the wrong thing in front of the rest of their seminar group. That’s why i think the discussion boards are really good because we can answer those questions on there that we didn’t answer in seminar or even ask our own questions that maybe we need a bit more understanding of or help with. Also for those of us who who maybe don’t participate in seminar disscussions as much as others by writing on the discussion boards we still feel like we are contributing to our seminars. I also like that we can discuss topics in even more depth on the discussion boards which we sometimes don’t have time to do in seminars and i also find that reading other students opinions on topics is really interesting and helpful too.

    However, whilst i do like the discussion boards, i also think there are a few flaws too. Such as, how to use them could be explained in a bit more depth and perhaps a demonstration might be useful too. Also the marking criteria needs to be properly explained and set out too as we are really confused as to how they will be marked. I know that a lot of students have been getting confused about how much they need to contribute to the discussion boards too, so if it was maybe broken down into a set amount of 150 or 200 words a week on each theory topic then i think students would find it easier knowing what they had to do for the next week and would do it, meaning the discussion boards are being used frequently and the word count would still total 1000 words.

    So, if these few flaws were fixed i think that the disscussion boards would be used a lot more frequently by students and therefore being a great help to them just like they already are to me.

  5. Joanne Ella Parsons says:

    I absolutely agree with regards to the issue over formality. I think that once the uni or the lecturer becomes involved it is bound to cause the student concern and there is a considerable amount of ‘safety’ contained within the formal structure of the essay. I had to use Wikki’s as one part of a course that I undertook some time ago and I absolutely hated it. They were embedded within the college’s VLE and it just felt that the lecturer became the ghost in the machine making judgments on everything we wrote. I’d much rather, as a student, either be left to organise something independently or follow a more structured assignment. However, that said I think there is a great deal of benefit to using these systems but that perhaps the guidelines should be laid out clearly in advance. These should also cover the level of formality that is expected with examples.

    I’ve used Twitter within my own teaching and I have found that for some students this has provided an excellent secondary resource for them and many have embraced it wholeheartedly. That said, a core group are still resistant to it and a couple have stated that they don’t agree with social media such as Twitter and so don’t want to use it, as I compromise I said that they could email me with their responses instead. I also think that if we are to incorporate social media then we need to explain this clearly in advance and help the student navigate any privacy issues by encouraging them to set up a separate account if they wish and talking them through how to manage privacy functions within the app.

    I believe that it’s still early days with regard to using digital media and wider methods of online learning within academia and I have seen the huge amount of benefits they can offer, I just think that we, as lecturers, just need to listen to the students’ concerns and provide the solid reassurance and knowledge that the students need to engage fully with this new technology.

  6. Andy says:

    The issue is certainly one of formality vs informality, and I think the point above about the unfamiliar task is a good one. Students are comfortable with the essay task. It’s familiar. There are obvious parameters about how it should read and look – a good essay is easy to identify. The issue, then, becomes one of risk. And in the current climate re: fees etc, an aversion to risk is understandable – why would you take a chance on getting an excellent degree and ending up with a mediocre one, when you could do something safe and end up with merely a good result?

    When I’ve done this in the past, students have tended to write their responses as mini-essays, and interaction hasn’t flowed. Sounds like you’ve done better than that. The point about only marking a selection is good – you could have a requirement to make, say, 12 posts of which you will choose the best 8 or 9 to mark.

    The inward-facing nature of it is clearly an issue – a few digital humanists have found that they get better responses by asking students to create a public-facing wiki – thinking about the enduring value of scholarship rather than it as a blunt tool for assessment. If you don’t already, check out people like Stephen Ross, Brian Croxall, Erin Sells, Mark Sample and Jeff Drouin on twitter. Some good ideas going on there.

  7. Paige says:

    There is no way i’d ever write anything ‘less formal’ on the discussion boards than i would in an essay. There’s no way i’d jeopardize my grade just to sound more cool on a forum! I think many people see themselves as guinea pigs for the discussion board idea, and a lot of tutors themselves aren’t very confident about it either which obviously strikes immediate panic among us students! If we are asked to do something which our tutor isn’t very sure of, regardless of how much instruction and reassurance we get, we are going to worry about it. We have spent all our academic lives up to now fine-tuning and mastering our essay writing/presentation skills to reach and pass uni, and now all of a sudden we are asked to tone it down.
    I think the discussion boards should be scrapped, progress for the sake of progress isn’t necessary, and i’m sure the next years lot paying 9 grand to sit at home and spend their evening worriedly posting on informal forums will not be too happy about it either!

    As an additional thought, i don’t see how any ‘skills’ the discussion board process might teach us will in any way improve our chances of getting/retaining a job, which is the whole point of coming to uni – for me anyway.

  8. Emily Rowe says:

    I would have to say that the main issue concerning this mode of assessment is the lack of clarity as to the marking criteria for the work posted. This lack of clarity means that students feel more inclined to write in a more formal way, in fear of being marked down for a submission that is overly colloquial, friendly in tone, or not academic enough in order to gain high marks.

    The heavy weighting on the discussion board means that there is little margin for error and so this section of assessment must be, from a student perspective, well thought out and carefully written. There seems little margin for error in terms of trying out and finding out which tone and form of writing is most fitting, and most importantly, sought after by the assessor.

    I am a duel honors English and Drama Student and also participate in a discussion board on one of my drama modules. I feel the way in which the drama department goes about administrating the board is very helpful for students. The department posts a stimulus on the board and students are asked to comment and discuss. each post must comprise of at least 200 words each time and there are six topics given, and five of the student’s best posts are marked and put forward to their final mark. Each post is given a score out of 20, and as can be seen the five posts add up to 100 – giving a score out of 100 and consequently giving a percentage mark. The discussion on each stimulus is only available for a limited period and the student must comment before that particular discussion is closed and the next one started.

    I feel this way of administrating the discussion board is very helpful and gives students a way of initializing their thoughts and opinions instead of having to pluck something out of think air.

    I feel that the discussion boards could work well if they were explained more thoroughly to the students and marking criteria outlined.

  9. Sean says:

    There are a number of issues with the Discussion Board which have been frequently mentioned between students, the biggest being that it is actually assessed. In the Theory module, for example, we have been told that the discussion board is informal, not as academically ruthless as a structured essay and supposed something we should not worry about (presumably in the same way that we worry about an essay). However, by that same margin, we’ve also been told we must contribute a minimum of 1000 words, that the deadline for submission is December (13th?) and that it is carries a weighting of 20% – which sounds very formal. Myself and many other students are unsure of the exact requirements for an online discussion, especially in terms of achieving a high grade. I think it might be easier if the discussion board was treated like attendance – you have to make a small (200 word?) contribution each week online and if you do so you will be graded accordingly. That would remove the anxiety and formality of the assessment and give it a more informal feel. I’m not sure how other students think about it, this is just something I thought might work.

    There is also a problem with the interface of Balckboard and in particular the discussion boards. It is frustrating to take your time writing a (hopefully) good discussion only to see the final submission bunched together with no paragraphs, two different font sizes and three different font types – all through no fault of your own. I don’t think this is the main issue for most people but it certainly doesn’t endear students to it.

    Whilst I understand that some students dislike contributing in class we are graded on attendance and contributions throughout the year, I don’t think it makes much difference how much ‘privacy’ you offer students online. Contributing and sharing of thoughts is surely one of the more positive aspects of a discussion board (and university in general), I would hate to see it removed. Reading and hearing other peoples opinions is very interesting and, personally, often gives me a new perspective on a specific text or idea – i’d be very disappointed if for our capacity to share and exchange opinion became restricted in any way. I think the group discussion board is a very good idea in principle but that its execution, and the way it has been presented, has been flawed in a few ways. Just my 2 cents though…

  10. Melanie says:

    I am third year joint honours student at LJMU (English and History). I used discussion boards last year for the ‘Theoretical and Critical Perspectives’ module and I have to say that it was one of my favourite modes of learning, and ultimately that is what discussion boards/essays/blogs/journals are all about. It was really empowering for me to be able to put something on the board that I was possibly a little bit shaky on and see everyone expand on it-with varying perceptions and views. Recently in a board of studies meeting for History I suggested that they should also think about using discussion boards too. I would hope (and I think my marker certainly did this) that the marking would be based on your understanding, reading and analysis of the subject rather than the actual way it is written and maybe by explaining this to students they would appreciate the discussion boards more?

    I think that if people are voicing concerns with regards to their words being read by a wider audience then maybe they could have the option (which I believe we did) to opt for a private blog or critical review of their seminars? We have talked a lot about confidence building for students and maybe discussion boards are a way of doing that in an almost anonomous way (most people don’t know half the people in their classes names anyway!).

  11. Ellena says:

    I agree with what others have mentioned, especially with regards to it being an “informal” space. Its somewhat disconcerting to be faced with something like this when we have been trained to be formal in our academic work, especially knowing that it is marked. As Alex mentioned, the fact others can see, and therefore, criticise your work is also uncomfortable given that we are used to the anonymity of coursework. Thirdly, overall I feel the discussion boards have been badly organised and set up, on what is a poor platform (Blackboard), and perhaps should have had their own dedicated forum to run on. I personally would prefer a set essay rather than constant small contributions to a topic, that essentially could, and should be made in a seminar. One argument put forward in support of the discussion boards, was that it gives the less vocal people in a seminar a chance to voice their opinions about a topic. While on one hand, this seems valid in principle, in reality I imagine the scrutiny of others on the open posts they will have to make will not put their mind to rest any more than had they spoken out loud in the first place. I feel somewhat that in trying to be in touch with students and technology, the discussion boards and online contributions miss the point somewhat; they do not feel like valid academic achievement to contribute to.

  12. Cath Ellis says:

    Perhaps the anxiety the students are reporting is a product of a mixed message you are sending them: that this is an informal scholarly space but that you will be formally assessing them. I agree with you that this is well worth doing and that assessing their contributions is important and useful (not least because it has high levels of authenticity and it involves a fair amont of work on their part). I’d agree with Merrick that clarity of assessment criteria and articulation of intended learning aims and objectives is useful for such an innovative strategy (even though I find it incredible that we can still consider something that I have been actively using in teaching and learning since before the current cohort even started school as ‘innovative’). One strategy I tried which always worked very well was to only assess a selection of their contributions rather than all of them. I would require students at the end of the module to identify their best posts for assessment (from memory I’d ask for half a dozen or so but it depends on the task, module length etc). This meant that there was no pressure at the outset to produce high-quality work, and it meant that I was able to model good practice in situ (which as Merrick suggests is vital but time consuming) in the early stages and then ease off as they gradually found their feet. It made for a much less formal mood, with more of a conversational feel without sacrificing the quality of the contributions. It is this, after all, which is so appealling about such a strategy: the rigour, depth and thoughtfulness of contributions in an online discussion has, in my experience, always far exceded anything I’ve ever had in a face-to-face seminar. It also reduced the marking volume for me substantially and by giving them the choice, it required them to self-evaluate their work.

  13. Alex P says:

    P.S. I used to hate the visibility issue when I was a student who had to circulate creative writing assignments in a forum. All the non-CW students could browse away. Closed forums with set access groups or passwords could keep the classroom door closed, as it were!

  14. Alex P says:

    My experience of teaching online is through distance learning/continuing education programmes. In the course I’m teaching currently, the students aren’t assessed on their forum discussions – they are mainly for students to develop ideas – in a way similar to seminar discussion (and I’ve never been graded on informal seminar discussion). I imagine there are any number of reasons why forum discussions aren’t assessed on this course – but the one that stands out is that in a continuing education course, engagement can be patchy as the student has other commitments.

    What often strikes me is how comfortable students can be in forum discussion (obviously not true across the board). I do think this has something to do with expectation though. Distance learning students expect forum discussions, face to face undergraduates don’t.

    And, while these students aren’t assessed, they do do an introductory unit on netiquette and communicating online which goes through the basics of ideal post length, how to format, how to be informal and not aggressive. I think this sets out expectations for the communication. I did a pedagogical course on online tutoring, and I had no idea that smileys are considered acceptable and even encouraged in these courses! 🙂

    In terms of assessment, it does seem that you can’t have it both ways. Either – they have to work to a reasonably concise academic standard to get a good grade, or the quality of communication isn’t taken into account at all. There might be a middle ground though – could students in the discussion take it in turns to write a longer and more considered piece and post it for responses from peers – as in a presentation in a seminar? That would test communication skills but still leave the space open for less formality.

  15. Merrick Burrow says:

    I recognise a lot of what you mention here. I recently used blogs for a formative assessment task, with students in groups of about 5, which restricts the exposure they feel in terms of the visibility of their comments to others. That seemed to work quite well — much smaller groups than that seem not to gather momentum in terms of posting responses to comments.

    My students did, however, express some concern over the relatively unfamiliar task (which always happens with ‘innovative’ assessment). I try not to be too prescriptive in terms of how students respond to the task, which in my view obviates the entire point of such open ended activities. But students do need some security to know that they are indeed ‘on task’, so it’s *really* important to produce assessment criteria that are specific to the task in hand and to discuss them with the students beforehand. I also try to produce a discursive assignment brief that explains the purpose of the exercise and which covers as many eventualities as I can think of, plus an open invitation for them to come to see me with any queries. One other thing that helps is to provide a ‘model answer’–not as a prescriptive format, but as a way of setting parameters for tone, level of formality, typical content, etc. The students may well treat this as a template, regardless of what you tell them to the contrary, but it is a good way of starting them off. If you can provide them with iterative feedback as they post comments and responses they will gain confidence and greater independence. But that works best if the discussion board or blog begins as an activity near the beginning of a course rather than towards the end. This, of course, is actually very time-consuming!

  1. 28/02/2013

    […] found a new blog that I’m really intrigued by. It’s written by Nadine Muller and this post in particular is very interesting. In it she talks about how they’ve used discussion boards […]

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