Online Discussion Forums as Assessment Tools


Classroom Assessment Techniques, or CATs, are simple ways to evaluate students’ understanding of key concepts before they get to the weekly, unit, or other summative-type assessment (Angelo & Cross, 1993). CATs were first made popular in the face-to-face teaching environment by Angelo and Cross as a way to allow teachers to better understand what their students were learning and how improvements might be made in real time during the course of instruction. But the same principle can apply to online teaching as well.

Impact and Examples

There are many types of CATs that work well in the online classroom. The KWL CAT stands for “What you Know, what you Want to know, and what you Learned” (Ogle, 1986). Steele and Dyer (2014) found that KWL CATs increased student participation in online discussion forums. These authors implemented KWLs in their discussion forums and give the following example of how a KWL may be implemented:

Timeline: One week or module

Monday: Create and post additional question, “What we know,” under DQ (Discussion Question) 1.

– Example: “What do you know about a thesis statement?”

Wednesday: Create and post additional question, “What we want to know,” under DQ 1.

– Example: “What do you want to know about a thesis statement?”

Friday: Create and post additional question, “What we learned,” under DQ 1.

– Example: “What did you learn about a thesis statement?”

Wrap-up: On the next Monday, copy and paste a list of responses students shared relating to what they learned regarding the topic and objective. This is a choice opportunity to validate student learning and understanding regarding all the ideas they discovered. This type of positive feedback will help students continue to engage in future weeks and create a personal accountability for learning. This can also be an opportunity for instructors to reteach key points that the students did not pick up on or indicate in their “what we learned” post.

After implementing this style of CAT in the first half of their test classes and not in the second half, Steele and Dyer found an increase in the average number of student forum postings for those classes that used the KWLs over those that did not.

In my own study of CATs, my coauthor and I found that using simple practice problems as CATs in undergraduate math class discussion forums can be helpful. Several sections of 100-level math online classes were used as a test case. Half of the sections employed CATs that asked students to solve problems in the discussion forum and document their steps, and then discuss their solutions with their classmates and instructors. The CATs were simple postings of sample problems in line with the material from the week’s unit. The students were asked to complete the problems in an open discussion forum where all students could see their attempts. In one version of the CAT, students were asked to document their steps. In all cases, students were encouraged to comment on each other’s solution posts and to add correction and/or commentary. We later compared sections of classes that used these simple CAT interventions with those that did not, and found an increase in both frequency of student posting and subsequent mean quiz scores in the CAT sections (Cross & Palese, 2015).

CATs are easy wins that can have a real impact in the online classroom, especially when used in the discussion forum space. These small checks for understanding not only deliver increases in participation and possibly learning outcomes, but can help us all adjust our teaching style or tools on the fly to better help students learn.


Angelo, T., and Cross, K. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers

Cross, T., and Palese, K. (2015). Increasing Learning: CATs in the Online Classroom. American Journal of Distance Education, 29 (2): 98-108.

Ogle, D. M. (1986). K-W-L: A Teaching Model That Develops Active Reading of Expository Text. Reading Teacher, 39 (6): 564-70

Steele, J., and Dyer, T. (2014). Use of KWLs in the Online Classroom as it Correlates to Increased Participation. Journal of Instructional Research, 3 (1): 8-14. DOI 10.9743/JIR.2014.3.10

Tom Cross is Director, Office of Dissertations, at Grand Canyon University.

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