Using Student Self-Assessment to Grade Discussions

Most online courses feature a Discussions element, and it is very common for this activity to be worth at least a portion of the student’s course grade. However, it can be challenging to assign a grade to student work in Discussions — and this is particularly true if you have Discussions frequently in your class (like a weekly thread), if you have a large class, or if you just have a particularly lively or busy Discussion board with many replies.

As an alternative to carefully reviewing and grading each Discussion post your students make, why not try Self-Assessment for online course Discussions? Self-Assessment is a great way to support student autonomy, build metacognition, and move away from rote responses on Discussion boards. Rather, you are aiming to have students think critically about why and how they are participating in the Discussions, and reflect upon how Discussion activities can enhance learning for them and their classmates.

This post will outline how to set this up in Canvas, offers a sample rubric, and presents a few things to consider when trying this approach.

What’s a Fair Grade for Discussions? What About for Self-Assessed Discussions?

The grade allotted for Discussion activities varies as widely as you can imagine — from courses with ungraded Discussions all the way to courses where ALL of the assessments happen through the Discussion boards. So, while it’s hard to offer any kind of benchmark, a “sweet spot” for typical Discussion board use seems to be in the 10-20% range. At lower percentages (e.g., 5%), it becomes easier for some students to neglect the Discussions entirely and sacrifice the meager allotment of marks. And, research shows that higher percentages (e.g., 25%) offered no benefits for student participation or community building (deNoyelles, Zydney, & Chen, 2014).

You should also decide what portion of the grade you are comfortable allowing for Self-Assessment. While the instructor should reserve the right to interrogate a student’s Self-Assessed grade (whether unrealistically harsh or overly generous) and will maintain the “final say” on the grade, it’s probably best to keep graded Self-Assessments for lower-stakes portions of the course. For higher-stakes assessments, Self-Assessments might work better as a part of a negotiated grade (i.e., a portion set by the student and another, not necessarily equal portion set by the instructor).

Give Students Clear Guidelines (i.e., a Rubric)

If you want students to Self-Assess, it’s important to give them clear guidelines for evaluating their own performance. A great way to do this is with a Rubric, with criteria outlining what you are looking for in an effective Discussion. Give your rubric to students at the start of the course, so that they understand these expectations from the outset.

Sharing your rubric in a Word document format works well for Self-Assessment, because you can also leave room for students to do two things:

  1. Outline their grade for each criteria, and for their overall performance in the Discussions portion of the course.
  2. Justify their grade, and explain with reflective statements why and how they have met that grade for each criteria.

A sample rubric is attached below. Feel free to take and adapt this rubric to fit the particular needs of your own course, and your approach to online Discussions.

Sample Rubric for Discussions Self-Assessment [Word doc]

How to Set This Up in Canvas

To set this up in Canvas, either keep your Discussion forums as “Ungraded”, OR as “Graded” but worth 0 points. The benefit to the latter approach is that you can more easily set Due Dates and see, at a glance, which students have submitted their Discussions work late.

Next, you will create an Assignment, titled something like “Self-Assessment for Discussions”. Set this Assignment to be worth the same number of points as what you have set up on your Rubric. Upload your Rubric Word document, and provide students with instructions on how to download and fill out the rubric. They will save their filled-in rubric, and submit it by uploading to the Assignment. You probably want to make this Assignment due for some time near the end of the course.

When it’s time for grading, you can use the Canvas SpeedGrader. Review the grade and reflections submitted by each student, referencing this against the students’ work in the Discussion boards as much or as little as you need to. If the grade seems fair, submit the same grade as their Assignment mark.

What if a Student’s Self-Assessed Grade is Unfair?

If the student’s Self-Assessed grade seems unfair (either overly high or too low), this is a good time to have a chat with the student to let them know about your concerns, and explain why you feel another grade is more fair. In the event that this happens, it is a good idea to provide a small “disclaimer” on the Assignment — this can be just a simple note that the instructor will be reviewing all Self-Assessed grades, and reserves the right to open up a discussion with the student and/or make changes in the event of Self-Assessed grades that are overly high or too low.

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