Use of discussion board and portfolio assignments

Here I am with Fall term and a whole bunch of online courses rapidly approaching.  Of course I’m taking stock of the things which worked well, the things which worked badly, and trying to figure out how I’m going to change all of the freshly updated course shells that I have been handed.  The fact that I just had one of the most successful courses ever during my summer term has given me some pause for thought about how I’m going to handle assignments.  In an earlier post on this blog I discussed the strategy of using portfolio assignments instead of having a number of smaller writing assignments throughout the term, and I want to follow up on this.

My Cultural Anthropology courses have a significant discussion board requirement.  You must post an original response to a discussion question, a response to a classmate, and you must post your personal responses to the material.  Two requirements have done a remarkable job in boosting and maintaining classroom cohesion:  the mandatory responses to the classmate, and posting your own feelings about the material.  In this way, students reveal something of themselves and get to know each other better, which helps to genuinely build a learning community.  I taught two sections of this Anthropology course this summer, but one of them was an intensive writing version of this course. This was a great opportunity to compare the course structure.  The intensive course had two additional writing assignments over the course of the term, and a final paper that was to have been written in two stages.  Overwhelmingly the students which did *not* take the intensive writing version did much better on their final projects, almost all of which exceeded the word count requirement by 1000 words.  essentially, the all wrote the same amount during the term as those in the intensive course!  The content of the papers was better, the research was better, they followed the directions, and the formatting and citations were fantastic on every single one.  In other words, they thought it was an important project, and they took their time to do it properly.  I’ve seen this outcome in other courses, and I want to think about why this might be the case for a minute.

Most online students, many of them anyway, are working adults.  A discussion board post is a writing assignment.  If you give students several of these per week, they end up being treated like busy work.  In one of my Humanities courses over the course of several terms I had experimented with small journal assignments in addition to discussion board posts, without assigning a significant final portfolio project.  Time and again my students did poorly on these assignments, did not follow directions even when I gave them continuous feedback about what they needed to be doing.  However, when I took the same questions and clumped them into two assignments rather than six or seven, the quality and attention paid to them increased significantly.  Their overall grades got much better, and their course satisfaction improved as well.

Frequently in online courses we are concerned with demonstrating quality instruction, and keeping our students engaged.  I think there is a tendency, perhaps, to overload students with writing assignments on top of the discussion board.  I really think that if we’re going to create learning communities, that we have to allow the interactive portions of the course to really do their job, and enforce that.  Every time I’ve had a significant discussion board requirement, attention and grades got better.  I have no hard data on this so far, but I would love to hear feedback from other instructors.

5 Responses to “Use of discussion board and portfolio assignments”

  1. Gordon Says:

    Discussion equals engagement equals recall.

    I work in advertising (as well as historically having run a number ‘writing for new media’ courses for professional writers guilds) and you get the same outcome.

    This may have some implications for which digital tools you use to run your next courses. I would suggest looking into posterous: It’s an easy to use multi-person blog that allows people to share/comment/follow along. They can even post via email. Very engaging.

    The reason I suggest posterous is -as you point out- your students are busy. Engagement increases with ease of use.

    On a completely unrelated matter, I adored your piece in Ten Years of Triumph Of The Moon (which I have just finished)

  2. Amy Says:

    Thanks for this, Gordon. Mostly I use course management systems that have good discussion threading, e-mail and reply, but I love to hear about other systems that people use and enjoy. Interesting to hear that you have had similar experiences.

    And I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece in 10 Years of Triumph! Thank you. There were some wonderful essays in there.

  3. Barb Says:

    I could not agree more to your statement “If you give students several of these per week, they end up being treated like busy work.” I am an online student who would like to eventually either teach in the online setting or design the courses for online study. 99% of my coursework has been online, and it seems that many instructors give so many weekly writing assignments as a way to keep the students on track with their reading assignments. In reality though, what happens is that it becomes hard to do a thorough job on any bigger research project. Not to say that it can’t be done, because I have managed, but the weekly “mini-projects” are thought of as being more of a nuisance than as educational, by myself as well as many of my classmates. In my experience, the best classes, the ones that were the most engaging, were the ones that the instructor joined in on the discussion. Not leading, but giving his/her 2 cents along the way. And asking questions for the student(s) to consider and respond to.

  4. Josh Says:

    Amy… I love the blog AND your career! I studied Biology and Anthropology in undergrad at the University of Illinois and am looking into going to graduate school next fall to get an advanced degree (not sure what it will be yet). I would love if I could send you an email with some questions about getting into the field of being an online professor as this is what I want to ultimately do with my advanced degree. I have questions on job outlook, whether or not a Masters would suffice, and which fields of studies have the most job availability. So please don’t hesitate to respond in this blog, or by email to Thanks!

  5. Amy Says:

    Hi Josh, sorry I’ve not been able to reply in a timely fashion, it’s been start of term and I’ve been really busy! Have a look at the first essay in this blog which may answer a number of your questions. If you have further questions, drop me another line here.

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Online Educational Specialist