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Streamline Grading Online Discussions for Large Classes

With higher education currently experiencing an upswing in online course enrollment, faculty are adjusting their curriculum to best fit this mode of delivery. While there is an adjustment period in transitioning from a traditional face-to-face course to an online format, some familiar pedagogical dilemmas persist. For instance, large-enrollment courses continue to present unique grading challenges. How do you create an engaging, interactive course discussion while balancing the grading workload? Furthermore, in an online setting, are there tools or best practices that faculty can employ to streamline the grading process?

The conventional online discussion board requires students to post an original response by a specific due date. Students must then return to the discussion board and respond to a required number of their peers. This structure prompts conversation and engagement, and students are graded for their own original work as well as their communication skills. However, in a course with 50-100 (or more) students, the grading workload can quickly become overwhelming. When faculty must grade the original posts as well as responses, they may be readings several hundred posts per discussion board.

One possible solution to help expedite the grading process is to create an interactive grading rubric within Blackboard. The discussion participation expectations are clearly outlined at the beginning of the assignment for the student, and the rubric helps the grader stay on task as they progress through the student submissions.

Another method of balancing the discussion board grading workflow is to delegate. Teaching assistants are invaluable resources, and dividing the grading load among your TAs will allow you to focus on other responsibilities, such as providing feedback on higher-stakes assessments. While not everyone has TAs, if you do, tasking them with grading these types of participation activities will help you manage your workload. Moreover, if your TAs use the same standard rubric you created, the grading will appear consistent to students despite having multiple graders.

As you continue to assess your course content, you may ask yourself if a discussion board is always necessary. A good rule of thumb is to include discussion boards only when they will enhance the other course content. While discussions should be encouraged, you may find that not every week of the course requires the activity to be completed in a discussion board and graded. In Blackboard Ultra, you can, for instance, enable Conversations on documents, assignments, group assignments, tests, group tests, offline submissions, and links to teaching tools, which will enable you to promote communication while removing the need to grade all discussion activities. Alternatively, you could utilize a Blackboard Collaborate session for synchronous, virtual discussions that feel more similar to the kind of discussion you would facilitate in a face-to-face class.

Another option for streamlining the grading process includes reimagining the discussion board construct. One way to accomplish this is by using the Fishbowl Strategy. In each unit, instructors introduce a challenging topic that students must debate. Students are divided into groups. Only one set of group members will be graded for that activity, but the other students must observe the debate and report back to the debaters on what they observe. This would be a good strategy for cutting down on the number of students participating in any one discussion, which would in turn reduce the grading workload.

Finally, you may consider redefining what a discussion looks like. By nature, discussions are conversational and interactive, but you do not need to feel confined to Blackboard’s discussion board tool. Instead, you might choose to replace the conventional discussion board with peer reviews or peer workshopping. Students must still submit original coursework and communicate with their classmates. To facilitate the peer feedback process, you could even introduce a grading rubric that students must use when responding to their peers. Peer reviews and workshops work well for written content, speeches, videos, and many other modes of expression.

Discussions are wide and varied. They can be as complex or simple as you prefer, and you can employ multiple methods of engaging students in discussions in your online course environment, whether these interactions are graded or not. However, when developing and grading online discussions for large classes, consider creating an interactive rubric to make the grading process more efficient, delegating grading to your teaching assistants, and rethinking the types of discussions that will be most effective for that week’s learning goals.

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