How to Get Students to Participate in Online Discussions

This is the first post in a triplet series on how to create effective discussions in an online learning environment. This post discusses how course instructors can shape and create robust and rich discussions, in post two I”ll share facilitation strategies to develop and sustain course dialogue, and I’ll conclude the series with methods for assessing student contributions and participation in online forums. Please note, this series addresses discussions in the context of online courses for credit – as forums in Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs} are a different animal altogether [I will share my thoughts on MOOC discussion forums next month at the close of the MOOC course I am taking].

Getting students to ‘talk’
Getting students to participate in [brick and mortar] classroom discourse can be a painful process – the blank stares or worse students absorbed with their laptops or iPhones, which is disconcerting to say the least. Yet online discussion forums present further challenges due to its ‘virtual’ space. Research suggests online discussions often fall flat- are shallow, superficial, fail to engage students and result in frustration —for students and the course instructor (Wang & Chen, 2008). From a student’s perspective, poorly designed forums can feel like busy work, a pointless exercise. Is it really worth the effort to develop effective discussions? Yes – online class dialogue is essential to developing engagement and most importantly cognitive presence, which builds critical thinking skills [for more about critical thinking in the online environment see resources below].

“It is within online discussions where learners are able to construct and confirm meaning [of course content] through sustained reflection and discourse.” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

What makes Online Discussions effective….
In the online program at my workplace, we struggled with getting students to engage in discussions forums throughout a given course. After several months, we’ve increased participation considerably after much trial and error. We found it takes more than a skilled facilitator to develop and sustain meaningful dialogue. The instructional design of the course – or  how the course is set-up is critical. Course discussions are most successful when embedded into the design, are tied to the learning objectives or outcomes, which allows for purposeful discussions rather than ‘busy’ work or forced dialogue for the sake of creating ‘interaction’. Below are key components to effective online discussions, adapted from a journal article in Distance Learning (Wade, et al., 2006). My own take on each, follows in [brackets].

  1. A solid course design strategy where discussion forums support learning objectives [students thus recognize discussions are meaningful].
  2. Clear, concise guidelines and expectations for students [I'll share some examples in this post].
  3. Well constructed topics/questions [critical! - I'll discuss this aspect in post 2].
  4. A skilled facilitator or moderator [in our program, most successful discussions include the instructor or students as the moderator - more on this in my next post].
  5. An assessment component for giving student feedback [we use a grading rubric - I'll share a sample with you in my next post. Though grading participation has its drawbacks and benefits, which I'll discuss in post 3].

Course Design
I won’t spend a lot of time on this topic, except to highlight the need to create a solid instructional strategy with clear, learning objectives and outcomes, with carefully selected content and methods where students will apply and work with the course content, (this is where discussions come into play). Consult my preferred method of instructional design, the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model, click here.

Guidelines for Students
We found clearly outlining expectations in more than one place within the course is helpful for students, and reinforces the purpose of, and expectations for discussions. I always like to include a sentence that states the purpose for the discussion, thus alleviating the feeling of pointless busy work. We include a statement such as, “Discussion forums are an important part of learning in an online ‘space’….most students find that participating in discussions helps with not only understanding of the course content, but deepens their learning and ability to think critically….”

Below is a sample of what we include in our online syllabus, under the heading of Discussion guidelines.

  • Use a subject line that relates to your post; this will help create interest and focus for the discussion.
  • Write clearly and with expression. Communicating online requires careful and concise writing, but also allows your personality to come through! Though humor is effective and at times relevant in discussion, be sure to avoid sarcasm, which does not translate well in the online environment.
  • Be supportive, considerate and constructive when replying to your classmates. Do not use jargon, slang or inappropriate language. If you disagree with a classmate please respond in a respectful and tactful manner. Any posts deemed inappropriate by the professor will be removed from the discussion board.
  • Keep your post focused on the topic, relating any class readings and materials from the current module in your post (as applicable).
  • Proofread and review your response before hitting the submit button! You have one hour to edit your response before it is posted, then, it cannot be modified or removed except by the instructor.
  • Participate regularly. Improve your learning by being an active and engaged student. Successful students follow and participate in the assigned discussion throughout the module, logging on at least three times a week while reading and participating in forums as assigned in the module.

In the instructions section for a particular module or week, we include directions and specific guidelines for participation:

“Participate in the Module xx discussion forum. Discussion forums are graded and count towards your participation grade. Refer to the Discussion Forum grading rubric in section xx of the course e-book.”

The Potential of Online Discussions
From what I’ve presented thus far, you can see there is much upfront effort required to set the stage for effective online discussion, even before the first discussion is launched, yet it is well worth the effort. Online discussions have tremendous potential to promote critical thinking skills, ‘force’ students to engage with the content, use higher order thinking skills, and ‘construct’ new knowledge. Numerous studies suggest it is the act of writing, thinking about and composing a text-based post that encourages students to engage their higher order thinking skills (Wang & Chen, 2008) – it’s the power of writing.

Click here to read the next post in this series, which reviews strategies the course instructor can implement to continue the momentum of developing and sustaining effective course discussions, and here for the final post on discussion assessment.

Resources
Wang Y. & Victor Der-Thang Chen (2008). Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence, Journal of Asynchronous Communication. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 3-4 (12).

Wade, D. A., Bentley, J. P. H., & Waters, S. H. (2006). Twenty guidelines for successful threaded discussions: A learning environment approach. Distance Learning, 3(3), 1-8.

Related Posts: Critical thinking in the Online Classroom, Onlinelearninginsights 
Post Two: How to facilitate robust discussions online, Onlinelearninginsights
Post Three: The method and means to grading student participation in online discussions, Onlinelearninginsights
MOOC Mythbuster – what MOOCs are and what they aren’t, Onlinelearninginsights

14 thoughts on “How to Get Students to Participate in Online Discussions

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  6. Very interesting post with useful guidelines, thanks. We have included several blog posting activities including peer reviewing of entries and discussions in this year’s mandatory online induction, as last year this was optional and some of our students (adults) didn’t ‘have the time for socialising’..which was missing the point rather!

    We are always keen to promote more online dialogue and discussion on our (distance in-service professional) programme but find it drops off in semester 2. We have some plans to address this next academic year but all ideas welcome!

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