Great Grading (Online Discussions)

By Thomas Royce Wilson, PhD

Overview: This article explores strategies for grading student posts in online discussion forums.

To Grade or Not to Grade

Research indicates that students learn through the interaction and reflection that occurs in online discussions (Hura, 2010). Although it would be nice to think that online students want to participate in discussions simply for their love of learning or their chance to bask in the greatness of their instructor, research indicates that busy students seldom post in online forums unless participation counts toward their grade (Rovai, 2003). Even though some students lament mandatory posting requirements (Murphy & Coleman, 2004), we need to use grades (and excellent prompt design) to incentivize student participation in forums (Pettijohn & Pettijohn, 2007).

Objective Criteria

We can use objective and subjective criteria when grading online discussion posts. Objective criteria make grading relatively easy. Faculty can objectively evaluate participation, length, grammar, frequency, and timeliness to determine which students didn’t “obey the rules.” Used in tandem with subjective criteria, objective standards help encourage students to achieve subjective goals in online discussions.  


Some online instructors grant points for just participating in an online discussion rather than considering the quality of a student’s communication. Students who want to learn and improve through instructor feedback may consider such discussions a demotivating waste of time (Bollinger, & Martindale, 2004; Cole, Allen, Anderson, Bunton, Cherney, Draeger, Featherston, Fisher, Motel, & Nicolini, 2017). If we value deep learning in online discussion forums, I believe we must provide points based on relevant intellectual expression rather than issuing points for just showing up. That’s why I do not favor the practice of offering participation points in online discussion forums.


Minimum Word-count: Online education seems to have a tradition of requiring a minimum word-count in main posts. However, word count alone does not indicate the depth or accuracy of student learning (Schrire, 2006), and students should be graded on more than obedience (Wiggins, 1998). I do not require my online students to post a minimum number of words. If you currently grade “by the pound,” I encourage you to at least experiment with the offering of online forums that have no minimum-word requirement.

To illustrate the irrelevance of word count to quality, consider a historical event where one public speaker delivered a two-hour speech. He was followed by someone who spoke for only two minutes. Hypothetically, if an instructor were to grade the two speeches using a minimum time requirement of five minutes, the two-minute speech would receive a letter grade of D. That grade might seem acceptable until one learns that the public event was the 1863 dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. The first speaker was Edward Everett (who?). The second speaker was President Abraham Lincoln who delivered the Gettysburg Address, an immortal speech that is revered for its brilliant brevity. Longer messages do not equal better messages.

A longer, shallow post is no better than a shorter, shallow post. Many poorly chosen words should not receive more credit than a few poorly chosen words. Grading should focus on what matters. Our grading must focus on depth of thinking, relevance, and effective communication, not word count.

If a student writes a cryptic post, use gradebook guidance to coach the student, reiterating the purpose and criteria of good posts. If students do not use your feedback to express deeper thinking in subsequent posts, grade accordingly.

In a student-centered learning environment, students take responsibility for their learning (Cullen, Hill, & Harris, 2012). Post length represents one area where we can remove the training wheels and let students control their learning.

Maximum Word-count: One exception to the philosophy of no-word limits warrants mention. Research indicates that placing maximum word limits on discussion posts might yield several advantages. First, concise posts attract more readers and generate more comments than longer posts do. Greater engagement supports increased learning (Bernard et al., 2009; Murphy & Coleman, 2004). Second, to fit their ideas into fewer sentences, writers must go through the process of reviewing, reflecting and re-writing. That additional cognitive labor can enhance their understanding.

Limiting post length communicates a paradigm of abundance where students must whittle down numerous ideas to fit within word limits. Contrast that with minimum-word limits that communicate a mindset of scarcity, suggesting that students start with nothing, and they must scrape together enough words to hit the minimum threshold.

A final advantage of maximum word limits will benefit instructors. Concise, well-written posts are easier to read and easier to grade than rambling verbosity. To determine a maximum word-count for a discussion topic, use your best students’ best posts to figure an average word total. Use that average as your starting point and make adjustments as needed.


Some educators consider online discussion posts more informal than assigned papers, and therefore, they call for relaxed grammar requirements (Anderson, 2008). However, I grade for grammar and spelling for two reasons. First, unlike in-person discussions that occur spontaneously in campus classrooms, online students have plenty of time to write, proofread, and revise a message (Heckman & Annabi, 2003).

Second, we should design learning activities that support transfer, which is the development of real-world skills that students can use beyond our classroom (Wiggins, 1998). Employers want effective communicators who use good grammar (Adams, 2012). We owe it to our students to hold them accountable to professional communication standards that include complete sentences, correct spelling, proper grammar, proper punctuation, and no text language.


The more students read their peers’ posts and engage in dialog, the more they learn (Bernard, Abrami, Borokhovski, Wade, Tamim, Surkes, & Bethel, 2009). Therefore, requiring a minimum number of posts benefits individual learning and group learning. Discussion instructions typically call for one main post and at least two responses to peer posts. Requiring students to post their responses on different days encourages multiple visits to the online classroom, which exposes students to more posts and more ideas. Increased exposure and engagement supports increased learning (Bernard et al., 2009).


For robust dialogue to occur in online discussions, interaction must be timely, which means that all participants must post and interact during the same timeframe, typically a week (Bernard et al., 2009). To help ensure maximum participation, online discussions need posting deadlines. For example, you might require students to submit a main post by midnight on Wednesday and two responses by Friday. Grades encourage students to adhere to posting deadlines, so everyone can interact during the same time period and learn from each other.

When formulating our late policy for discussion forums, we need to consider the overarching goal of deep learning. My late policy allows students to earn up to half credit when they post their main post within 24 hours of the deadline because a slightly delayed main post can still contribute to the class conversation. The key words “up to” inform students that half credit is not automatically awarded for late posts. Quality determines the partial grade.

I apply the late policy with common sense. If the deadline is 11:59 pm on Wednesday, but the student does not post until 2 am on Thursday, that doesn’t bother me. As long as posts are in before I start my day on Thursday, I count the posts as on time. (I don’t tell students about that unofficial grace period.)

We must remember that most of our students are not out to sneak things past us. They want to learn, and they appreciate the educational process. Sometimes they just make an honest mistake and miss a deadline. If a student misses a discussion deadline, stick to your grading policy. Students can overcome the minor point deduction for one late post, so do not negotiate. If tardy posting becomes a pattern for a student, you’ll be glad you didn’t waste time negotiating on the first minor deduction.

Subjective Criteria

When grading student posts in online discussions, objective criteria is used to simply measure obedience. On the other hand, subjective criteria measures the amount of true learning that has occurred. Objective standards (participation, length, grammar, frequency, and timeliness) take less thought, time, and effort to grade than subjective criteria require. When grading student posts, it can be tempting to take the easy way out and focus primarily on objective criteria. However, objective criteria should be seen as guardrails that help students stay on the path to meeting the subjective standards. Objective criteria should never serve as the primary focus of a discussion grade.


In general, the quality of a post reflects depth of thinking and the meeting of student learning outcomes (SLOs). However, measuring the quality of a post can be problematic, and researchers do not agree on specific strategies (Spatariu, Hartley, & Bendixen, 2004; Swan, Shen, & Hiltz, 2013). Despite the variety of approaches, researchers and educators have defined some general guidelines that can help us assess the quality of a post. When grading for quality, we look for substantial, provocative, logical communication that promotes higher-order thinking. 

Substantial: A substantial post directly addresses the forum topic, and it contains new, relevant information (ideas, opinions, conjecture, questions). The quality of the response results from a student investigating, contemplating, and synthesizing sources. With enough well-written sentences to adequately address the topic, the post’s rich content reflects the student’s research and understanding of the forum topic. 

Provocative: A quality discussion post clearly articulates a well-defined stance rather than just restating facts. The post’s explicit stance makes it easy for others to identify the writer’s perspective and then oppose, support, or evaluate the presented ideas. Thought-provoking posts invite peer responses that add even more questions, affirmations, rebuttals, and citations. The healthy flow of points and counterpoints fuels learning and advances the conversation. As students feel compelled to respond and interact with each other on an intellectual level, they experience deep learning.     

Higher-order Thinking: The term Higher-order indicates the advanced cognitive processes classified near the top of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002). In an annotated version of Bloom’s taxonomy, Figure 1 shows the type of thinking students must execute in order to write quality online posts. More than just a rehashing of assigned reading, higher-order discussion posts can involve interpreting, comparing, analyzing, predicting, and other forms of higher-order cognition. Higher-order posts integrate and cite external sources (lectures, readings, articles, etc.) to support their rationale. The posts advance the group discussion by posing original ideas, new problems, probing questions, or hypotheses (Anderson, 2008; Krathwohl, 2001)

Figure 1. Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, annotated to indicate the relationship of higher-order thinking and quality student discussion posts.

On the other hand, low quality posts reflect lower-level cognitive functions such as defining, recalling, explaining, and identifying (Krathwohl, 2002). In lower-order posts, students only state information that already exists, making no attempt to explore or expand upon a statement. When responding with lower-order posts, students simply agree or disagree with others without providing their rationale based on course resources, external resources, or their own relevant experience.

Final Thoughts

Rather than thinking of grading only as something that is done “after the fact,” we can approach grading proactively as a means of shaping student participation in online discussion forums. Our grading policy can encourage students to engage in online discussions and help them experience deep learning that they can use beyond the classroom.


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Copyright © 2021 by Thomas Royce Wilson

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