Marking, Marking, Marking…

It has come to this.  I’m blogging about marking.  Our new semester of teaching starts this coming week so normal service will be resumed soon and I will start talking about the online component on my 3rd Year undergraduate module on Fin de Siècle Writing and Culture.  In the meantime, I’ve spent much of January writing an essay for my MA and … marking.

The marking that I’m focussing on here is the marking of the discussion forum activities that took place on my Victorians module in Semester One.   Sometimes colleagues of mine in English Departments have wondered whether it is possible (or indeed desirable) to assess online discussion.  I have become quite a proponent of assessing such work for two main reasons: (1) assessing online discussion values the work students are putting in to online activities (and if they’re anything like mine, many will be putting in a lot of work), and (2) you will ensure 100% participation, across the entire course.  Some colleagues reading this may say they have highly motivated students who don’t need the ‘stick’ of assessment to get them to participate in such activities.  If so, then good for you, although I am still a tad sceptical as to whether all students will participate across an entire course in such circumstances.  My assessment criteria aim to provide many ‘carrots’ in terms of motivating my students in terms of their online work, and it is my experience (after about 5 years of assessing online discussion) that many students will work really hard at online activities.

My marking of what my students have posted in discussion forums over the course of a semester doesn’t involve any kind of electronic mechanisms:  I basically look at the posts each student has posted (our VLE enables me to ‘sort by author’ for each discussion forum) and assess the quality of what’s there against my assessment criteria.  Soon I get a feel for a particular student’s standard, as ranged against everything else I’m looking at (as one does with a batch of essays).  As I read their posts I make brief notes for myself as to what they are doing well/not doing so well.  My feedback form is simple:  it lists the number of discussion forums the student took part in across the semester, and then I offer my comments and a grade.

When I have visited other English Departments in the UK to ‘demo’ my VLE activities I am often asked how long such marking takes.  Overall I would say it is quicker than marking the equivalent number of essays, not least because I don’t write comments on forum postings as one writes on an essay.  My assessment criteria are also often popular with colleagues.  In the forthcoming Guide to Good Practice in the Use of Discussion Activities in English (HEA English Subject Centre, 2010 — see my Ms E-Mentor ‘Publications, Presentations and Awards’ page on this blog)  I have written the ‘Assessment’ chapter and the assessment criteria I use are set out there.  They probably aren’t perfect, but they work for me, and have been ‘tweaked’ over the years to try and iron out loopholes (students are very good at finding these, intentionally or not).  At best, the marking of the online work is really enjoyable, because I see students putting in a huge amount of effort and commitment to the activities, and responding with intelligence and flair.  Although I do look at what is going on in the forums as they are happening, and as the term progresses, I don’t make any claims (either to my class or to myself) to look at everything at that time.  When I come to mark I do aim to look at every post made, and there are always new things that surprise and impress me.

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