Dawn used an online discussion board environment for her assessment on this course concerning promotional management. The assessment consisted of four parts: two postings to a discussion about a particular topic or question, one response to another student's posting, and one synthesis or summary of the position of a group of students. Students submitted six written pieces to the discussion board but were assessed only on their best four.
Learning goals and objectives
Dawn had noticed that external students weren't receiving much of an opportunity to discuss opinions and different perspectives about promotional management in the ways that the internal students were, and this discussion assessment is designed to help address that. The learning goals were that students should be able to: demonstrate an understanding of the theory of promotional management through online discussion and application to real-world examples; demonstrate effective electronic communication skills; and demonstrate an ability to present and support valid arguments and to synthesise a range of viewpoints.
Students on MKT 2001 (Promotion Management). There were about 250-300 students on this course, most of whom were external. The course attracted a range of students from Public Relations.
Dawn gave her students very detailed instructions about each assessment task.
Because the assessment tasks were posted in a public forum, students who were anxious or unsure about this assignment were able to wait until other, more confident ones, handled the tasks. The public nature of it also meant that no-one could copy another person's ideas. Because the students were from all over the world – including China, Russia, Germany, South Africa and Australia – there was a rich diversity of perspectives and a varied selection of promotional campaigns and issues under discussion. Dawn was careful to be inclusive and respect the diversity of responses to different types of promotional strategy.
Overall public feedback had to wait until the last message board post had been made, and so for the earliest students this could be up to 21 days. But Dawn was able to dedicate one tutor to this course, so students received individual emails with feedback within 2-7 days of their posting.
There was a significant improvement over the four tasks, indicating that students had received useful feedback and acted on it. However, more important to Dawn than the marks was that the students learnt to integrate theory and application and to develop and express their own ideas.
Dawn designed the assessment scheme and worked with the tutors to develop appropriate tasks. A dedicated tutor monitored the discussion board and marked assignments. It was a resource-intensive course because of the monitoring required, but students did not find the workload arduous because each task had a low word count requirement.
Dawn checked the first few contributions that the tutor marked, making sure that feedback was at the appropriate level, and in particular that the work was being marked bearing in mind the goal of encouraging students to express their ideas. Discussion between the members of the teaching team started four weeks in advance. The assessment task had to allow for a wide range of perspectives and it was an interesting and valuable process for the team to work out how to find these.
The first year that this course was offered, Dawn found that the topics offered to students turned out to be too narrow and constricting. It has been a learning curve for her and the tutors to develop the right kinds of topics and prompts to stimulate the best student responses. Once she had the mix right, Dawn found this assessment scheme to be very successful. The number of passes was higher, the number of failures was lower, and there were fewer drop-outs. An unanticipated benefit was that students whose first language is not English gained confidence in expressing their own ideas in English, because they were required as part of the assessment to express their own ideas in their own words. From this they learned that there is not always a ‘right answer' to an assignment and that their own perspective and opinions are to be valued. Dawn found that in the major assessed piece of work, the assignments showed less rote-learning and were more original, and she also noticed that the students were more articulate. Marking only their best four submissions also helped to build student confidence.
Dawn published a paper with Michael Volkov about this course, which is not currently taught. An electronic survey of the perceptions of the students revealed that the majority of the students enjoyed the assessment item and agreed that posting to the online course discussion board had allowed them to achieve a range of cognitive and social learning outcomes, as well as to develop some important graduate skills. In particular, ESL students reported the benefits of posting to the discussion board in terms of sharing their experiences with others and reducing the feeling of isolation. In addition, ESL students said the discussion board provided them with an opportunity to meet and develop a closer relationship with other students in the course and encouraged them to keep up with their studies.
Problems and advice for others
There have been two instances of students with internet access problems, and Dawn allowed these to submit a paper equivalent of the assignment. Dawn's advice to anyone considering offering a similar course is to make sure the topics are current and that they lend themselves to a diversity of opinions and approaches. It is a resource-intensive course that requires time to conceptualise a good open discussion topic. In addition, the lecturer needs to ensure that feedback from markers reflects the objectives of the assignments – ie, to encourage participation and help students to find their voice. Because of this, the assignment should not carry a large proportion of the final marks (for Dawn's class it was 10%). The tasks themselves should be kept short – about 150 words is a good length.
Dawn says that it's important to provide students with a variety of types of assessment, and these should be linked with cognitive and social learning outcomes as well as graduate skills outcomes.