Teaching & Learning


Monitoring student progression by assessing online discussion forum posts

Dr Rochelle Burgess (UCL Institute for Global Health) describes her experience of introducing weekly online discussion forum posts as part of students' summative assessment.

A student in a coffee shop using a tablet

18 May 2022

In the video and case study below, Dr Rochelle Burgess, Associate Professor in Global Health (UCL Institute for Global Health) describes why and how the GLBH0020 module team introduced a summatively assessed online discussion forum into this master's-level module.

MediaCentral Widget Placeholderhttps://mediacentral.ucl.ac.uk/Player/hjAGI6Da

Marking online discussion forums

What we did

GLBH0020: Power and Politics in Global Health is a Master's level module that introduces students to the ways in which global health is influenced by power, explores case studies, and provides analytical tools for examining the politics of global health. It is compulsory for students on the MSc/PG Dip Global Health and Development, and is open to any other UCL MSc/PG Dip students, Taster course students and Short course students.

The module team created an assessment that uses a student discussion forum to facilitate conversations around module related resources and content, such as video. Regular forum posts and responses to peers' posts are marked and weighted as 10% of the final module mark.  

Why we did it

We initially took this approach during the pivot to fully online teaching and assessment during the pandemic and it has since been refined to suit a return to more face-to-face practice and student feedback. 

This is a core module on the programme and it moves quickly; there are two lectures per week over five weeks.The main driver for including assessed online discussion forums was our desire to support students with some of the key skills required on the module including forming and defending arguments, critical analysis and essay writing. These are skills needed in the final summative assessment and often lacking in students with a pure science background. We wanted to create a space where students could think a bit more deeply about these big ideas and talk to each other about them in a facilitated space.  

We created an assessment that would increase engagement with and participation in the module and module themes. It would also help us to see how students are progressing in in their ability to form arguments and use class material to defend arguments before the final essay assessment.  

How we did it 

We integrated participation in online Moodle discussion forums into the overall module mark. Students were required to post their own post and respond meaningfully to at least one post from another student every other week.  The total marks across all posts are weighted as 10% of the final module mark. There are three tasks in total, taking 1-3 hours for each activity. Students post anonymously with their candidate number.  

Example activity: 

For this session’s activity, please select a film from the list below and watch it after reviewing the lecture materials. After watching, please post your answers to the corresponding disucssion forum and reply to at least one of your peers’ responses. Your response shouls be 250 words in length and include citations, referencingin the Harvard style format.  


  • What are the main issues being described by the documentary and how is it problematised?  
  • Who are the interviewees (politicians, organisers, children, parents)? 
  • Why do you think they were identified to speak on the systemic issue? Who wlse could have been interviewed and what message would that send?  
  • What role does policymaking play in this issue area?  

Each post gets a mark out of 10. There are five different criteria worth up to two marks each. The first four critiera are linked to the main essay writing criteria we use in final assessments and across the programme, e.g. clarity of expression, appropriate use of evidence etc. The fifth one is for participation; students need to have responded in some meaningful way to receive those marks.

The entire module team has been involved, in partilcular, myself, Professor Sarah Hawkes, administrator Catherine Ford and the administrative team. 

One of the novel aspects of the approach has been an interactive rubric designed by the course administrator. In the Excel interactive rubric, a link to each Moodle forum post is listed alongside the candidate number.  

The marks and written feedback for each post is then shared with the student.  

Student response

Students really enjoy the assessment and it has helped with summative essay assessment grades. It really forces students who might not have experience outside of hard sciences to review their writing and get some feedback on it.  

We were initially conscious of potential for inflation of marks but it didn’t happen so we assume we have pitched it at the right weighting (10%) -  enough for people to care about but not so much that it skews the overall mark.  


We started off doing off one post per week, but feedback from students was that although they really liked the approach and it kept them engaged, it was too frequent alongside other content.  This year, we reduced it from five to three posts throughout the module. 

Although the posts are small (200-250 words excl. references), this approach has been time intensive so would probably work well on smaller modules. It does need quite a few people to mark it (we had four people). 

Future plans

We are discussing how we balance the time and labour required with the benefits that students get. WeI thought initially about peer marking but I don’t think it’s the right fit for this, as we want that diagnostic aspect of the feedback.  

We will continue with this approach but we are thinking about designing new ways for doing the marking. 

If you have a theoretical module a lot of times those theories don’t change, but you make things more relevant to what is happening public sphere of the moment with these forum questions. It  will be interesting to see what topics we get people to look at next year because it will reflect what the world looks like at that time - Professor Rochelle Burgess. 

Rochelle's top five tips for marking online discussion forums

  1. Involve your module administrator early on 

  1. Talk to Digital Education about technical approaches 

  1. Ask for feedback from your students 

  1. Go for a small assessment weighting (like 10%)  

  1. Once you have designed the approach it can stay current by changing the questions