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5 Days of Formative Assessment Day 2: Discussion Forums

In day 2 of our 5 Days of Formative Assessment series, we will look at how you can use discussion forums to assess learning. 

Formative Assessment or “Assessment for Learning”

Formative assessment or “assessment for learning” are terms that are being used interchangeably. The primary purpose of assessment for learning/formative assessment is to provide feedback to students. In a wider context it can motivate students to self regulate their learning, positively influence students’ self efficacy, improve meta-cognitive skills and develop their skills as lifelong learners. AFL activities can help students structure their independent work in ways which meaningfully relate to assessed work and that will beneficially effect achievement and success. It can also help them to learn how to manage their time.

Discussion Forums

Discussion forums have been used widely in online learning for many years and can be an extremely effective way of encouraging critical thinking and collaborative working.
Beckmann and Weber (2016) refer to research that suggests that online discussions can even be more effective than face-to-face discussions. While discussion forums can be set up for a wide range of purposes, they work best when a specific task is assigned to students to complete through the discussion forum. It is a good idea to let students know how much you want them to write and whether you want them to comment on each others posts. While some studies have suggested that scaffolding discussion forums might limit the learners, many have found that effective questioning results in better quality and more focused responses from students (Smith, 2008).
McNamara and Burton (2009) highlight three factors to consider when setting up a discussion forum: the organisation of the forum, the motivation of students to participate and the ability of students to participate effectively. They suggest that new topics within a forum should be clearly organised, the reason for taking part in the forum should be evident to students, and sufficient scaffolding should be provided to support students in participating. Thinking carefully about how you will set up a discussion forum is particularly important when used as a formative assessment tool. It is key that all students will feel able to take part in order to benefit fully from the feedback which you will provide.
There are some great tips on how to use discussion forums in teaching on this Advance HE blog post.

Moodle Discussion Forums

There are a few different types of Moodle discussion forums. Every new module in Moodle is created with an Announcement forum. This only allows tutors to send out notifications to students. It is a useful way of communicating with your students group, but for formative assessment tasks using discussion forum, you will want to use one of the other forum types.

Standard forums allow students to start new discussions and to respond to others. In a single simple discussion students can only reply to one question the tutor posts. If you want to make sure that students post something, you can choose the question and answer forum. Students will only be able to see the responses of other students after they have posted something.

Providing individual feedback to student posts can be a time-consuming process. One way to provide valuable feedback to all students is using Gilly Salmon’s ‘weaving’ approach. This involves identifying key points from different posts and weaving them together into one response. This means that you can highlight good points and areas which students might need to focus on more. As well as being able to respond to all students in Moodle discussion forums, you can also respond privately to students to give individual feedback.

In Moodle 3.8 you can now additionally choose to allow for Moodle forums to be graded. This enables you to feed back in a different way.

See this video for more information on the new discussion forum settings in Moodle 3.8:



Padlet for discussion forums

Padlet is a digital pin board which allows you to post a wide variety of content types including, image, video and links to external resources. While it doesn’t offer the same functionality as Moodle discussion forum to allow posts to be graded or responded to individually, it offers a more visual interface which can be embedded into Moodle and which some tutors prefer to Moodle discussion forum.

When a Padlet board is embedded in Moodle it is more obvious to students that someone has responded. They are not required to open the activity but simply click on the board to add a response. Tutors can use similar ‘weaving’ techniques to respond to student contributions and gauge student understanding of a topic area.

Since Padlet does not offer the opportunity to start different threads, it would be especially important to make the topic of the discussion clear to students and to encourage any different topics to be added to an alternative online discussion space.

Watch this video for an introduction to Padlet:



You can find more about Padlet on our webpage including how to set up a pro account.


Further Reading

1 minute CPD (2016) Using discussion forums for formative assessment. Available at: https://1minutecpd.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/4-using-discussion-forums-for-formative-assessment/ 

Jennifer Beckmann and Peter Weber (2016) ‘Cognitive presence in virtual collaborative learning : Assessing and improving critical thinking in online discussion forums’, Interactive Technology and Smart Education, 13(1), pp. 52–70. doi: 10.1108/ITSE-12-2015-0034.

McNamara, Judith and Burton, Kelley, Assessment of Online Discussion Forums for Law Students, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 6(2), 2009. Available at:https://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp/vol6/iss2/6

Smith, H. (2008) Assessing student contributions to online discussion boards. Practitioner Research in Higher Education.


2 responses on "5 Days of Formative Assessment Day 2: Discussion Forums"

  1. PGCE
    Thankyou Joanna for the continuing interesting ‘tech help’.
    All of these ideas are inspiring me to make my Online Lecturers better – to the PGCE students.

    I used several of your blogs during lockdown…………… great.

    Easy to follow – and the right amount of each day – look forward to tomorrow

    Catherine Rome
    Maths Tutor

    • That’s great to hear. Thanks for the feedback Catherine. Are you using discussion forums already? It’d be interesting to hear whether you are planning to use the grading features since this is a new thing for this year.

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