Teaching & Learning

Assessment & Referencing

To assess or not to assess

Discussions about whether to assess discussion board contributions are a vexed question. Educators and authors of scholarly articles suggest it depends on unit design and purpose of the discussion board, especially whether it is for formative or summative purposes (Berry 2008; Vonderwell et al 2008).

To further explore this concept, a cross-disciplinary study in health and sociology at the University of Tasmania in 2014 was undertaken to establish undergraduate student experiences of participation in assessed versus non-assessed discussion groups (Douglas et al 2015). Findings from the study suggested there were contributing factors that altered the student experience depending on whether discussion groups were assessed or not. For example, students using online discussions that were assessed were more critical of the process, facilitator feedback and whether online discussions are a useful learning tool or a burden. The non-assessed group of students indicated the purpose of asynchronous discussions were a means of sharing information or engaging with their peers, with critical thinking being of less importance to them.

Student Voice regarding assessment in relation to online discussion boards

“It is very time consuming trying to prepare worthwhile discussion posts compared to the amount of marks they are worth”
“Assessing posts would encourage students to participate, then they would learn how valuable posting can be.”

Considerations when using assessment as an element of your discussion board

For the student’s perspective:

  • Identify the learning outcomes to be assessed;
  • Establish whether the discussion board is for formative or summative purposes;
  • When designing the assessment ensure expectation standards are clear;
  • Determine whether the submission(s) will be self, peer or teacher assessed, or a combination of styles of assessment;
  • Determine criteria for assessment i.e. quality or quantity or a combination of both; Determine elements of the submission that are to be assessed i.e. whether referencing is necessary; and
  • Decide whether to include a rubric to enable transparency for engagement and assessment.

For the facilitator’s perspective:

  • Preparation and training of facilitators to mark and moderate submissions;
  • Clear expectations for grading submissions;
  • Understanding of the rubric intent; and
  • Timely moderation.

Whether to assess your students’ contributions to discussion boards, or not, will depend on a range of factors, including whether the purpose is formative or for summative assessment. In the end it is up to you to design your unit and ensure your asynchronous discussion boards have clear purpose, are authentic for promotion of engagement and, enable meaningful learning for students.

There is a vast range of information available to assist you to successfully design and choose how to set-up and manage your discussion board assessments. There are a few foundation decisions that need to be made in parallel with other considerations that have been described in this guide. For example, the focus of the learning, numbers of students enrolled in your unit and size of per discussion group and number of facilitators employed in the unit will guide the type of assessment that can be effectively implemented. Preparation for moderation of assessed discussions will also need to be considered prior to grading any submissions. Facilitators need to be adequately prepared and trained to enable equitable marking of students across the unit cohort.

Creating rubrics for assessment

There are a number of ways that you can assess discussion posts. Importantly, the criteria used to assess need to be clearly articulated to your students.

An example of a rubric is as follows:

  1. The posting(s) integrates multiple viewpoints and weaves both class readings and other participants' postings into their discussion of the subject. It integrates examples with explanations or analysis and demonstrates awareness of its own limitations or implications.
  2. The posting(s) builds upon the ideas of another participant or two, and digs deeper into the question(s) posed by the instructor. It is mostly description or summary, without consideration of alternative perspectives, and few connections are made between ideas.
  3. A single posting that does not interact with or incorporate the ideas of other participants' comments.
  4. A simple "me too" comment that neither expands the conversation nor demonstrates any degree of reflection by the student.
  5. No comment.

Extracted from: https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/sheridan-center/teaching-learning/course-design/learning-technology/designing-online-discussions-key-questions

For more complete rubric examples refer to:

Examples of other guides that provide information about design of assessment, assessment tools and best practice when using discussion boards for student assessment are provided in the Resources list.



Online discussions can be one of the richest elements of a students’ online experience offering a unique opportunity to be ‘heard’. A challenge is to avoid students turning the online discussions into an essay/assignment loaded with references but no insights, experiences or moving the discussion and understanding forward. However, there are occasions when you will need/want students to use and reference resources pertinent to the discussion topic.

So how can you stop the essay format and encourage interaction and engagement? Clearly you need to think about the purpose of your discussion board in determining whether referencing is required or not.

Student Voice regarding referencing in relation to online discussion boards

“I found it was easier to make discussion posts when we were not required to reference them. It created a better discussion as we were not just sharing information but discussing ideas and opinions.”
“Referencing does provide academic value to the posts but can be quite time-consuming in the process especially if the post is not assessable”

Set-up your referencing expectations or guidelines before the discussion commences

Set clear learning outcomes at the beginning of the process including your pedagogical reasoning. You might preface the discussion with something like:

I value your contributions to our discussions. You have a great deal to offer and to learn from one another. You may surprise yourself with your insights, creativity and knowledge during these discussions…

If it is an assessed discussion you can add in addition to the above something like:

When assigning your mark the unit coordinator (on-line facilitator or whatever term your faculty uses) will consider whether you:

  • Related useful insights or examples;
  • Contributed relevant and accurate information;
  • Identified and expanded issues further by building on contributions of others;
  • Offered a contribution while respecting the input of others;
  • Used literature pertinent to the discussion topic (where relevant);
  • Accepted feedback from others in the group; and
  • Maintained polite interaction.

This list suggests a pedagogical approach that is something other than simply an essay and blends a solid understanding of the content, building on the contribution of others with practical insights to continually move the discussion ‘forward’.

Include literature/referencing in the criterion referenced assessment sheet (Rubric)

If your discussion is assessed then referencing should form part of your rubric. There are many examples of rubrics to glean ideas from as to the ‘level’ of referencing that suits your learning outcomes. Here is one brief example of just the referencing section of the rubric :

Demonstrates sound understanding of key concepts from the module, textbook and readings and applies these to the required tasks Your postings contain well-integrated ideas and demonstrate sound understanding of the key concepts and themes.

Where applicable literature is integrated into your postings smoothly and provides relevant evidence to support your work.
You have integrated some key concepts in your postings and have shown understanding of the major themes.

Where applicable you have used literature as evidence to support your work.
Your postings highlight limited evidence of reading and understanding of key concepts.

Literature, where used, is not integrated effectively and is not used appropriately as evidence to support your work.

Provide a brief example of what might be referenced

Sometimes students might need to cite in one of your papers, their study package, a class lecture, someone’s presentation, or even a classmate’s comment from a discussion in their post. Official handbooks for the documentation styles used by your faculty or school may provide examples and they usually contain ‘how to cite’ general lectures and presentations. The library at the University of Tasmania also provides extensive guides for referencing.

Depending upon your faculty referencing convention (eg APA, Harvard…) you may find a website that you covers what you expect. In that case you can simply provide the website/s.

You might provide an example of your expectations either in your Unit Outline or on the MyLO site. For example, citing a textbook:

In the text of your discussion post, put the author's last name and the year published in parentheses: (David 2017). As per conventional referencing if you use a direct quote include the page number/s: (David 2017, p. 99).

At the end of your discussion post, include the full citation:

David, F. (2017). International Strategic Management . Cengage, Sydney: Australia.

Citing online discussion posts in other assessments

Your students may need to cite a discussion post in another assessment item in your unit. You could provide them with a website that covers your expectations or simply provide an example either in the Unit Outline or on MyLO. Consider this example:

In your Reference List (end-text), include the author of the post, the date, the name of the discussion thread and the Unit URL.

Douglas, T. (2017, September 28). Re: Academic Integrity [Online discussion group] Retrieved from https://

Your in-text citation would follow the normal citation order: (Douglas 2017).