5 Ways to Improve Student Participation in an Online Discussion

by Julie “Jules” Troyer

Online classes often use discussion forums, typically threaded discussions, as a major part of the course. Anyone who has used asynchronous or “respond at your own time” discussion forums, in an online class, knows that it is a challenge to get students to actively engage in the discourse process. The key to solving this problem is knowing why students choose to not respond.

Recent studies illustrate the major reasons why a student does not actively contribute to an online discussion are:

·         Student does not think the online discussion is relevant or necessary
·         The tone of the professor or other students is boring, threatening, or generally not engaging
·         Individual personality traits of the student, such as extroversion or curiosity
·         Discussion is difficult to keep up with
·         Student does not know what they can add to the discussion
·         Student only has surface level knowledge about the topic
·         Technical issues with the online format

Reasons Why Students Do Not Engage In Online Discussions

Five Ways to Improve Student Participation in Online Discussions
(1) Provide comments, perspectives, and opinions about an issue or topic.
Offering an “expert” opinion and showing the relevance of the topic to the course and specifically to the professional aspirations of the students helps to add legitimacy to the activity. Research shows teachers that students will often not respond to online discussions if they do not understand the relevance of the process. It is important to point out exactly what you hope students will gain through discussing the topic with their peers.

(2) Ask students’ questions about if they agree with your stated opinion.
This process encourages students to know that their opinion is valued and is a good contribution to the discussion. We know that students often will not engage in a discussion if they do not know what they can add or if they feel the tone of the group is uncaring, thus asking them to offer their opinions (whether they agree or do not agree) sets a safe and encouraging tone for the learning environment.

(3) Compliment something specific about what a student stated in one of their posts.
This lets students know their posts are being read, are appreciated, and lets other students know what kinds of ideas/comments/or examples are especially valued. This also helps to establish a positive learning environment and lets students know what kinds of things they can contribute.

(4) Encourage students to contribute by making comments such as, “This is the last day this discussion will be open; make sure to post your comments by 11:00 PM tonight.”
Organization is one of the most difficult aspects of an online class and assisting students with reminders about due dates is a helpful way to encourage participation.

(5) Summarize the discussion up to that point and encourage students to take the discussion to another level or offer opinions on what has already been stated.
The process of summarizing the postings periodically during the discussion process assists students in keeping up with what is going on in a topic forum. It also helps outline what has already been stated and what areas of the topic have not been covered. Summarizing can assist students in elaborating from that surface level knowledge about a topic and can be an area to pose additional questions to encourage deeper thinking and higher level knowledge construction about the topic.

One of the best ways to encourage not only active engagement in the discussion but also a high quality post by the student is to suggest the inclusion of examples from real life. The process of having to think up an example that illustrates the concept helps students create higher level knowledge about the topic and helps to make the information more meaningful. It also makes it more interesting to read other peoples posts!

Discussion forums are not the only way to encourage peer interaction within an online course but it is one of the most popular. In order for it to be successful and aid students in the learning process instructors must get students to participate and to participate at more than simply a surface level. Specifically knowing and addressing the reasons why students do not actively engage increases the learning potential of each student in the class. Following the tips outlined above helps to set the tone for a more effective online learning experience.

Gao, F., Zhang, T., & Franklin, T. (2013). Designing asynchronous online discussion environments: Recent progress and possible future directions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(3), 469-483. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2012.01330.x

Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. (2011). Higher-level knowledge construction in asynchronous online discussions: An analysis of group size, duration of online discussion, and student facilitation techniques. Instructional Science, 39(3), 303-319. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11251-010-9129-2

Hew, K. F., Cheung, W. S., Ng, C. S., & Ling. (2010). Student contribution in asynchronous online discussion: A review of the research and empirical exploration. Instructional Science, 38(6), 571-606. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11251-008-9087-0

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  1. Dustin Philpot says:

    In some classes I have taken the discussions are not very helpful because students just do not engage in them but I think if professors would take your advice they could be a lot better. Also I really enjoy reading post when real world examples are brought in I have found that I am more engaged when we have to post examples that we have experienced in person rather than just reading a chapter and posting our thoughts on it.

    • Dustin,
      I have found simply regurgitating the textbook does not really help students in discussions and is infinitely dull to read and write. It is far more helpful and interesting to read or write about real life examples of the concepts in the class. I am glad you have found the same!

  2. Hakeem Greenhill says:

    As a student I constantly find my self struggling to construct intellectual discussions online so I found this blog very informative. I think the reasons for my short coming comes from the lack of feedback from the teacher. Understanding why students may not feel as comfortable online really may help me as a future educator if I ask students to interact online. this blog was very helpful in identifying the issues of online discussions and clearification on how to positively influence students through motivation.

    • Hakeem,
      Interaction between peers and the student and the teacher, definitely encourages folks to feel more comfortable in an online classroom and be motivated to learn in a nontraditional environment. I am glad the information was helpful to you!

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