3 Reasons Students Don’t Participate in Online Discussions

‘Why don’t my students participate in online discussion forums?’ I’ve received numerous comments [questions] like this one, about the lack of student participation in online discussion forums from instructors who appear more puzzled than frustrated. Why don’t students contribute even when their involvement is graded?

An important question to address. As we navigate through adapting pedagogy for online teaching and learning, determining the why and how of student interaction is worthy of consideration. In this post I’ll share what I’ve discovered through an analysis of post-course surveys that might explain why students hold back from getting involved in forum discussions. I’ve identified possible reasons for student reticence and strategies that course instructors can implement to overcome each.

In previous posts on this blog I’ve offered several suggestions for encouraging student participation in discussion forums that include:

  1. Providing practice during an orientation period to increase familiarity with the technical aspect of forums as well as the social dimension.
  2. Associating a grade with discussion contributions.
  3. Adding a rubric with concise expectations.
  4. Developing open-ended and thoughtful questions that stimulate analytical thought.
  5. Becoming involved strategically in the forums – not overpowering but encouraging.

Still, non-participation persists. It wasn’t until this past week that I stumbled across what I suggest might explain the lack of student involvement. In analyzing the anonymous student feedback within the surveys as mentioned above, I identified three prevalent themes associated with non-participation. Below I’ve included a student comment representative of each of the three, with an analysis and instructor recommendation(s) for each one.

1)  Poor timing of due dates

Student comment:  It was also difficult that we were required to complete the discussion board by Thursday if we wanted full credit when most distance students (I assume) are working full-time Monday through Friday. The best time for me to complete my work is on the weekend, but my grade would suffer because of posting “late.”

Analysis: Due dates for discussion responses that fall within the workweek pose a problem for many online students given that the majority are adult learners working full-time. Research shows that online students tend to complete their course work on the weekends. In our college’s online program module weeks begin on Monday and end the following Sunday. The initial post is due by Thursday [hence the problem as the student identified], and two response posts [to other classmates] due by Sunday.

This timing can be awkward for working adults. In order that students make meaningful contributions to discussions, the week’s reading, lectures or content presentation usually need to be completed prior to their post. This allows the student time to engage with the content by reflecting and considering it. The act of articulating a response in the forum via a written post is the first step. Discussion that ensues between students deepens learning through dialogue and meaningful exchanges.

What  instructors can do about it: Consider adopting a schedule that accommodates the working adult. Several institutions have a class week that begins on a Wednesday and ends the following Tuesday. This time line meets the needs of the working student who normally completes his or her course work on the weekend

2)  Reticent Students

Student comment : “I am not the kind of person that likes to ask questions or talk in front of a lot of people in fear of looking stupid when I talk about something I am not too sure about. I also found it hard to be able to even post in the discussions when there is so much to be learned and read in order to know some [something] about the discussion. So trying to post a comment in the middle of the week was really hectic for me and I was not and did not get involved too much in the discussions and so it hurt my grade because of it. So I am not a big fan of the discussions.”

Analysis: Students who feel apprehensive about participating is more common than you might think. In the students introduction forum reticent students can be identified. Frequently these students will reveal their apprehension subtly or even blatantly by mentioning their ‘newness’, their angst, even suggesting that they ‘don’t have much to contribute’.

What instructors can do about it: Identify the reticent students early on. Within the first week or two, you should be able to pinpoint these students either through reading their introduction posts, or through non-participation in graded discussions. There are a few options:

  1. Consider making smaller discussion groups of 4 or 5 students if the class is large. Balance out strong and reticent students if possible.
  2. Create facilitation teams of 2 or 3 students that rotate throughout the course the duties of the moderator for a given week. Each facilitation team would be responsible for guiding the discussion for one week. Duties would involve responding to students, challenging, encouraging discussion and summarizing key points at the end of the week. Pair reticent students with stronger or more experienced learners.
  3. Contact the diffident student via email indicating that you have noticed he or she has not participated. Offer support and encouragement.

3)  Student Posts that are shallow/lack depth

Student Comment: I like the idea of the discussion board, but people respond with such contrived answers. There isn’t a lot of depth in responses, which makes it difficult to give feedback that isn’t just repeating what everyone else has said. (I.e. “wow, I found that part really interesting too”. Or “Great.”).

Analysis: This comment refers to an important theme that addresses quality and depth of student responses that directly relates to the level of critical thinking skills applied. One of the goals of the discussion forum is to encourage students to engage in meaningful and thoughtful dialogue which won’t be achieved with lightweight replies.

What instructors can do about it: This is the most challenging of the three scenarios to address, though by providing guidelines and expectations in the rubric for responses as well as initial posts, students will be more likely to provide meaningful replies. Another strategy is to challenge students that provide one-sentence responses by asking the student to elaborate and/or provide further examples. Calling out students that post shallow replies might also address the problem.

Conclusion
Though our goal as educators is to support learning, I like to point out that the responsibility for learning does not rest entirely with the instructor. The learner, especially the online student, owns his or her learning. Unfortunately there will always be students that are faced with life challenges that make it impossible to study at a given time, have poor time management skills or are non-motivated. That being said, educators that understand the dynamics and factors that affect online learners as we’ve seen in this post, will be better equipped to support and guide students in the online learning environment.

Resources:
Encouraging students to engage in online discussion. David Hopkins. Blog Post
Reinventing class discussion online. Bridget Murray. American Psychological Association
Guidelines for effective online discussions. Chad Shorter. University of Wisconsin-Madison

28 thoughts on “3 Reasons Students Don’t Participate in Online Discussions

  1. I do not buy into the work week issue. We all work!! Instructors who have online learning classes work just as many hours as their students do. Maybe not all the time, but we do!! Spacing out work and discussion board responses in particular allows students and the instructor processing time. Why do we think online learners should be allowed an MA degree when they have spent 48 hours or less on the class? Really? I agree with the other issues, but work week-No, you want a grad degree on-line then you need to work for it. An MA and a Ph.D means you are expert. If you only devote 48 hours or less to the class then you want the pay raise not the degree, because some day you will direct or oversee a program or situation and yet, you did not devote time and quality time to make you informed and an expert. This is really, really sad!!

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  3. I’ve been tutoring online for like 3 years now. I’ve noticed that when students don’t actually know each other in the real world, there is a trend of participating more in online discussion than my students that attend lectures. Perhaps it is the decreased social aspect to it that makes them want to network more. I definitely think that online courses are the way forward though!

    • Hi Emma. Thanks for your comment – that is an interesting observation you shared, that students participate more in discussions when student don’t know one another! You have piqued my interest – I’m going to do some further research into this. Thanks for taking the time to comment and share. :) I’m sure your feedback is valuable and of much interest to other educators.

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  5. I am taking an online courses and have been at it for about a year now. Of course a must-do is to participate in discussions. I tend to struggle in this area so your #4 “Developing open-ended and thoughtful questions that stimulate analytical thought,” seemed to fit in my struggle to participate. I find these discussion forums, in my opinion, are open-ended but ask there are far to many questions asked. This causes the forum to become unfocused. For example, the discussion forum questions prepared are of course pertaining to the text reading, but presented in several different question clumps found in several different places of the text reading. In my opinion, it would be helpful if the discussion questions had a focus in one area of the text reading that allowed a consistent flow in the students response. By the time you read a few of the responses to fellow students discussion post, they are responses all different because the have selected an area of interest in the initial discussion forum. Therefore, you may have to go and view which area they focused on and respond accordingly. So it is in my opinion, online instructors should have a main focus, not open the discussion forum by presenting several different questions which allows students to wonder away from the main focus. This alone is a struggle for me as at times I also find that I miss some of the questions because of the way they are presented.

    • Hi Donna,
      You bring up a very real and unfortunate turn that discussion boards can take within the online learning environment. When questions are either complex or broad in scope, discussions can become unfocused and very difficult to follow without instructor guidance and moderation. This can make participation very frustrating and challenging for students, as you have described so very well. Perhaps you can suggest in the course feedback (if there is an opportunity for course evaluation at the end of the session) that the instructor divide the class into smaller groups for discussions, or assign student moderators for given discussions. I know this will not help for the current classes you are taking, but it may help the instructor for future sessions.

      Thank you Donna for your comment :). There are many course instructors that read this blog and can learn from your comment from the student perspective.

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  7. The lack of motivation is a huge problem with most learners in general but especially adult learners. It is definitely hard trying to work full-time, have a family, and be motivated to do online work as well. I find myself trying to relax my mind so that I can concentrate long enough to read resources and be able to contribute intelligently to the discussion board within my class. This is directly related to reticent students and how they are basically nervous about contributing to online discussions for fear of being wrong. I sometimes struggle with reticence because I have a hard time understanding the information provided in the resources. In order for me to contribute sometimes I try to directly relate the information provided in the resources to my life. I try to understand how the information provided can work for me or if it is not something relateable.

    • Hi. You have articulated beautifully the challenges facing adult learners taking online courses – not only are they juggling life responsibilities but want and need to apply what they are learning to real-life. This is one way course designers and instructors can support students when creating online learning environments, is to encourage and support students to apply the course material to their real world experiences and careers. Malcolm Knowles, an educator developed a theory on adult learning, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-knowl.htm where he addresses the unique needs of adults.

      Your hesitation with discussion boards is completely normal :) – I can guarantee that many, if not most of your classmates have the same feelings about participating in the discussions! My advice is to read the questions before you begin your reading for the week, keep them in mind, jot down points that you can mention in your post.

      Thanks for your thoughtful post and thanks for reading!

  8. Reblogged this on Technology & Media Ideas for the Higher Ed Classroom and commented:
    Great post, and certainly the “late night worry” of many online instructors. Debbie is right on about “reticent students.” In addition, I think this can be even more difficult for online students in that perhaps they feel on the spot more frequently than in the on ground lecture. After all, they are in the position to be judged regularly by all their classmates every time they put up a post, how often do classmates read each other’s papers in the traditional classroom, much less comment on each other’s papers?

    I often use the sandwich method on the discussion boards with not just reticent students, but all students. A compliment, constructive feedback (preferably with specific pointers on how to improve), and then another compliment — positive reinforcement goes a long way!
    Another great technique is to break the ice and to do this I try to be the first person to post to each new discussion thread or topic. In this first post, I also try to reach as many learning styles as possible, in hopes of engaging as many as possible! I do this through using written, audio and even visual material. Here is a short example below using Pixton and Screencast:

    “This is exciting…our first discussion question, and certainly a thought provoking one! I know it is nerve racking to be the first one, so I thought I would get us started. In addition, it can be really nice to not just read what your professors think, but to hear what they think as well. If you click on the link below it will take you to a little mini discussion on constructive feedback. Please feel free to leave comments and questions; it helps get the ball rolling. ;-)

    http://www.screencast.com/t/xN1Lq6M4dO8

    Finally, I try to “keep it real” by being approachable and personable with my students, thus laying the ground for a comfortable learning environment in virtual space (I hope). Thanks, Zipora!

    • Your ‘sandwich’ approach is an excellent method to reinforce positive behaviour of students that do participate, yet draw out the shy students.

      The idea of using audio is a method that can be very effective. I was a student in class where the professor used this method – it was personal and helpful at the same time. I am going to suggest this within our own programs. I know of at least two of our professors that would be willing to try it out for the rest of the program professors. Thanks for the link to screencast.com.

      You also mention ‘keeping it real’ for students. I agree – students like knowing there is a real person behind the course home page! Thanks for your comment and terrific ideas for instruction! Debbie

  9. Very Good Points. Most also apply to “live discussions” as well. I realize that with “long distance education”, live discussions are much harder to have. But for kids in a physical class, I think we need to get them interested in and experienced in formally acting and reacting with real live people AS WELL AS with discussions over the net. In ANY case, whether you are talking to/with 1 or 20 people…. Whether you are in a small group, a class, a lecture hall, on-line, or on stage before an audience of 1 or 100: Planning and preparation by the organizers, as well as by those involved, be they a speaker or an audience, is VIP. And both the organizers and the participants need training and practice, and need to feel welcome.

    • Excellent points. Your point about encouraging young people to converse face-to-face is an important aspect. The nuances of in-person communication is absent from online, and also offers a dimension to learning and critical thinking that is difficult to mimic online. Providing a welcoming environment is another component that is essential to create a learning community. Thanks Pete for taking the time to comment and sharing these important points.

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  13. This is a good post. I have a rubric as well as open ended questions (but could probably work on those a bit more). I am guilty of having original posts due on Thursday, but the week is defined by the college and not me. Another problem is I also work full-time so I come home from work and dive into my two or three online classes (plus the two I have at my day job). I do provide all the questions and readings the weekend before for the class starts so there is time to work on the questions then. I do have one question. How do you define poing number 5 above? “Becoming involved strategically in the forums – not overpowering but encouraging.” There may be another post regarding this, but I probably overdo my presence in the discussion forums.

    Thanks.

    • Hi Rick, It sounds as if you are doing all the right things :). I understand you are limited by you institution as I am, by the timing of the weeks for due dates. Unfortunately this is an uncontrollable factor, unless at some point the institution as a whole changes this policy.

      To answer your question, which is a very good one, what does ‘not overpowering but encouraging’ look like in a discussion forum? It is a balancing act for the course instructor to be involved the ‘right’ amount: ‘overpowering’ could look like this: several instructor posts throughout the discussion forum, such that the instructor jumps in to answer or respond to someone’s post before another student has a chance to (and often), or correcting a student that might be on the wrong track in such a way that limited further discussion. All of this may quell student participation. Also frequently, students will identify when another classmate is on the wrong track – the instructor may not need to get involved, and a good discussion can result. Another situation is when an instructor is trying to ‘control’ the discussion his or her comments in posts the force a discussion down a particular path. All of these tactics are not wrong, but there is a time and place for each.

      On the other hand you do need instructors to be involved to show their ‘presence’ and demonstrates that they are indeed following the discussion. Each class will be unique, but below are a few tips I found that the very best professors of online classes follow:
      1) As the discussion gets off to a start within the first day or so, reply to one or two of the first students that make a posting. One of my favorite prof’s would always thank the student for his or her post (being the first to ‘dive in’) and make a comment about the post encouraging other students to get involved
      2) Mid-week within the discussion show your presence by responding to one or two student posts. Select one where the student has posted a lightweight post, ask for further details – challenge the student to come up with more.
      3) Involvement may be heavier early on in the course, and as it progresses the need for involvement should diminish as the students begin to know what is expected.

      I wish I could be more concrete in my answer, as it really is trial and error. But I’m confident that you are on the right track. Not to worry, a over-involvement is far better than no involvement. Thanks for reading and for your question. Debbie

  14. Tank you. I will keep the recomendations in mind, and practice them once I finish my sabbatical. I wonder how can I apply this in an open learning community where there are no courses, no grades, no schedule, all the freedom to pic the topics of interest, and very simmilar problems in participation.

    • Are you perhaps referring to the new types of open and online course, also know as MOOCs such as those offered through Coursera? In the types of classes which you refer it is a different learning context, with a unique learning structure and objectives. Given this uniqueness, the strategies discussed in this post may not be feasible, though some of the student reasons for non-participation may be similar. What do you think? Thanks for your comment!

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