Ten Reasons Students Don’t Participate in Online Discussions & How to Remedy Each

“Why don’t students participate in my online discussion forums?”

Why don’t my students participate in online discussions?

It is most discouraging for instructors when students don’t participate in discussions or group work in online learning environments. It’s hard not to take it personally. However, one can take comfort in the fact that it’s a common phenomenon—and it’s not just in for-credit online classes, but it’s just as common in not-for credit classes, such as MOOCs. I’ve experienced this frustration when working closely with faculty of for-credit classes, and heard from numerous readers of this blog that face similar challenges.  This motivated me to create a resource featuring the top ten reasons for student non-participation and suggestions for remedying each. We developed several methods to overcome this challenge when I worked as lead curriculum developer for online education at a small university, and many proved effective. I’ve shared these in the following resource. I selected the ten most common reasons by using data from end-of-course anonymous surveys, student interviews, anecdotal feedback from online instructors in my network, and personal experience.

Below is the resource available for viewing and download through Scribd, or click here for the file available for viewing and download in Google Docs. I wrote a three-part series last year on facilitating and evaluating online discussions that readers may find useful; I’ve included the links at the end of this post. Also included in the resources section are links to examples of rubrics for online discussions which may be helpful for instructors that plan to create rubrics tailored to one’s own online class.  Comments from instructors  sharing other methods and resources are welcome.

Note: The suggestions in the following resource are not solely the responsibility of the instructor—the institution offering or hosting an online course should assume responsibility for several functions including: guidance for students including technical support, instructional development support for instructors, and instructional tools and education for online instructors.


27 thoughts on “Ten Reasons Students Don’t Participate in Online Discussions & How to Remedy Each

  1. Debbie,
    Thanks for the explanations. I am getting my master’s degree all online, and very rarely have I found the discussion boards valuable. I am a teacher, so I have a decent grasp on how learning takes place, and I don’t think it’s through classmates–who all know the same minuscule amount about the discipline–yapping at each other over the internet. I would far rather a professor spend time videotaping their own lectures and allowing us to watch than being coerced into talking to peers who are learning alongside me.

    I am paying to be educated by the expert. Some professors try to engage students in the discussion posts, but their time could be better spent giving feedback on written assignments or tests.

    Is there any academic research that discusses the value of discussion boards in online learning?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Or consider how, to some of us, discussion boards just seem stupid. I’m taking a class, not having a conversation on Reddit. Also, I couldn’t care less about the other people in the class. I’m there for my own learning and I’ve learned more about random people across the states since doing an online class than I ever did in the year I went to a state college after high school. It’s pointless. Give me an assignment, let me do it and turn it in.

    Stop worrying about us talking to each other and just let us take the frexing class, damnit. I should not be graded on talking to other students, especially in an introductory course or assignments that are really not group focused. Plus, literally everyone’s answers are the same and then I have to find something to care about enough to respond to, or I lose points.

    Just stupid. I’m dropping my online college. It’s just not for me. It also seems very gimmicky with professional videos (that I dont watch. Waste of time) and someone who calls me twice a week to see how I’m doing. I dont need a mother, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Shelby! I’m sorry you have had a negative experience with your courses. My guess is that the problem is right here in the content of the courses: “literally everyone’s answers are the same.” If classes are designed that way, with the answers all anticipated in advance and no room for creativity or originality, then there is not a lot to learn from other students in the class. But if the class is set up in a way that the questions are open-ended with room for original, creative contributions, then it really can be exciting to see the work of other students in the class because you can get ideas from their own creative approaches that you might not have come up with on your own. That’s the way my courses work: the students are choosing their favorite stories (I teach Mythology and Folklore) to retell in their own words each week, and as they read the stories other students tell, they get ideas for their own storytelling, and so everybody is learning, both from the class readings but also from the work the other students are doing. To me, that’s the best part about teaching online: everybody can have their own “space” online (my students use blogs and sometimes they also build websites), and when you put all those different spaces together, it’s very different from a teacher-centered classroom where everybody is just trying to say/do what the teacher has in mind from the start.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Debbie. I believe like many others that students lack in participating on online discussion boards about education is because some just do not find them interactive enough for them to spend their spare time on there. I as a teenager, and my friends, found that we much prefer just sticking to real life discussions as opposed to online discussions because the flow of debate is much faster in real life and more engaging.
    The simple remedy would be just to offer more engagement and involvement like more online Chat rooms as opposed to discussion boards.


  4. I think another reason that students’ participation and effort may drop off is if they initially write a thoughtful discussion post and nobody responds to it. Maybe this is related to #5 on your list. I have been in online courses where we have been required to write an initial post and then respond to two other posts. I always try to respond to people who have not had responses, rather than the person who has a multitude of responses as I find it disheartening when, after a lot of work on my post, nobody responds to it. I now include in my instructions for discussions ” reply to at least one post that has not had many responses.”


    1. Hi Amanda,

      You are so right! Students in 100% classes can be very discouraged when taking the time to write a thoughtful post and no one responds. I really like your strategy for encouraging your students to reply to another student that has not received a response. Building on this discussion etiquette, the student with the initial post who then as someone responding to his or her post, ideally will acknowledge the person that posted a response to his or her original post.

      Thanks for your suggestion Amanda!


  5. Hi Debbie,

    Very informative article. About 3 years ago I finished traditional master engineering university and I had a few classes with online learning and discussion. I even participated a couple of times but every time I asked question it seemed I was stupid and I just gave up.

    For me personally it was bad experience. I think this article should read professors as well because there’s so much to learn.

    Thanks Debbie for sharing this, I enjoyed it.

    ~ Dragan


    1. Hi Dragan

      I am sorry to hear about your experience 😦 . What you describe is most discouraging for students, it’s no wonder you gave up. Hopefully the instructor you had has become more skilled at facilitating discussions online. Unfortunately many institutions don’t provide much in the way of skill training for faculty teaching online – so likely he or she may have been in the dark about what to do.

      Thank you for your comments; it is so helpful you shared your experiences so other readers can learn, and know what not-to-do!

      Thanks Dragan.


  6. I`ve taken a few coursera courses, and I have to say that I did not participate as much as I did in other connected ed MOOC (Etmooc, Emotional Leadershipo and OOE13). I think that courses which are too large lead students to feeling disconnected and more annonymous. I remember always wanting to be in class if I knew I had a RELATIONSHIP with my prof and he or she would notice if I was away. If the class was too big (my undergrad science courses) the relationship between myself and other members of my class and/or instructor could not develop.


    1. Erin,

      These are excellent points! What you describe here, the feeling of anonymity in the learning environment from your MOOC experiences, where one feels unknown, is exactly what instructors want to avoid and overcome when facilitating a small online class. When I speak of small, I am referring to closed, for-credit classes that are facilitated by a faculty member or adjunct professor. The ideal number of students for facilitating discussions are between 10 and 30. This allows the instructor to get to know the students, to read their posts, to moderate — challenge and push students to reflect, think and apply the concepts and develop new ideas. I took several graduate level classes online with class sizes typically between 15 and 30 students. I know my instructors knew me and the other class mates. They provided personal feedback on assignments, held Skype meetings for tough assignments etc.

      I’ve been on the other end too, as the instructor of small online classes, and it is true that you can get to know students by their ‘voice’ which appears through the discussion forums, and assignments.

      This kind of intimacy can happen in open learning experiences as I am sure you know, but between participants, perhaps one, two or three other classmates, but not always.


  7. On getting students to participate in online discussion.
    May be easier for me as my program is 100% online, and it post graduate. Discussion is a key component of each course ( unit ) and students are assessed on their contributions. Marks are allocated according to a rubric that spells out,- how often , how pertinent to the topic, does it advance the discussion , does the comment respond to others.
    I still have problems with participation especially at a time when written assignments are due.
    There is always a core of one or two or three students who engage in a strong way. I think the lecturer has to be the facilitator and participate as through they were an another student as well as pushing the discussion along or pulling it back in line as well as injecting new provocative ideas or directions in the discussion.
    I also believe that no matter what you do you will always have some students who for a variety of reasons don’t participate. Unfortunately some take the path of doing the minimum to get them through. Its the sad truth that we may never get the level pf participation we want…don’t get me wrong I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to use all the techniques and platforms we can to make it happen.
    I believe that the concept of a community of learning is the way to go and any thing that promotes that should be the aim.


    1. Russell,

      Your insight is valuable for other instructors — what you write about it the reality – despite your solid efforts you describe, student participation at times is still a challenge. This is where the instructor has to let it go, one can do all the right things to engage students, promote deep learning through discussions, some students as you said, for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the class, will not participate. It could be a sick child, work responsibility, etc. but it the non-participation is beyond the instructor’s control.

      Yet as you said, we just need to acknowledge it and carry on. The students that do participate reap the benefits by having the opportunity to learn in a rich, and meaningful community.

      Thanks for your comment Russell! It is helpful for readers to consider other instructors experiences. Thank you.


  8. I think as a student, that in my experience the reasons that sometime students choose not to contribute to online discussions as they feel that the other student’s are not taking it seriously or due to the other student’s not contributing enough feel like all their work will be ‘stolen’. As a result some student’s hold back their better ideas in order to have an advantage over people if the information/ideas shared in the discussion forum may be usable for assignments /assessments in the foreseeable future. I can understand not wanting to contribute if other people are not contributing and just taking the work/thoughts that you spent a while thinking of .


    1. Thanks for sharing your experience here. It is helpful to have student feedback and input for readers. This is another point — #11 to add to the list of #10.

      Though course instructors are usually able to identify authentic student contributions, as each student has a unique voice that comes through in his or her writing. As a student contributes on a consistent basis within a course, the instructor gets to know the student, just as he or she would in a face-to-face course. Though I see your concern as valid, the benefits of participating and getting involved in learning are worth the risks of having students copy one’s work. Those students lose, those with authentic ideas and contributions win. Thanks for your comment!


    2. This is all too common on discussion boards! A course syllabus may attempt to force participation, but unless the instructor actually facilitates the forum, it becomes bogged down in psychobabble. I have a dozen+ fellow students in all 4 of my online classes that do nothing but agree and plagiarize my initial and followup comments. The problem is: I have let this ride for 3 years of online education. I get my A or B and watch as students that did this kind of thing, receive the same grade. This is not relegated to one school either as I have completed online courses in 2 separate schools on different ends of the country. In my opinion, Discussion Boards are a total waste of my time that could be spent preparing for a test or exam. I would actually prefer a test as I know that afterwards, I will have learned more than what some misguided student thought on the subject. If I were the instructor, several students would be booted out of class for not having the ability to spell or punctuate at a college level. How am I suppose to take these people serious? One more semester and I will proudly be able to exclaim, “I are a gradu8”


  9. Such a useful list, Debbie – although I have to say that I am in sympathy with the students about all the things that can (and often do) go wrong with discussion boards. I have found it much more successful to build a network of student blogs with the students commenting on each other’s blogs and also leaving comments on each other’s profiles. It seems to me this solution avoids all of those problems, while also adding many benefits besides.
    I do use discussion boards now, but only for sharing things the students have created – so a discussion board for the (de)motivational posters they make, for their animated gifs, for their LOLCats and other memes, etc. – but it’s all extra credit stuff with a more fun feel to it, just as a convenient sharing space, not really discussion per se.
    Of course, it doesn’t help that the blogging tools that are included in the standard LMS are incredibly impossibly ridiculously BAD. Esp. Blackboard, but also Desire2Learn.
    It’s a vicious circle I guess: the blogging tools are so bad that people don’t think to use them, and because people don’t use them there’s no incentive to improve the tool, etc.
    But I am very happy with my Ning for blogging and discussion boards and if/when that ceases to be available, I think I would start using Blogger, much like Gideon Burton does. Have you seen how he does that? So cool! Here’s the blog for this semester’s Milton class for example:


    1. Hi Laura
      Thanks for your comment and suggestion about blogs! I agree that blogging is an excellent alternative and/or supplement to discussions forums. And sadly yes, the blogging tools in the LMS platforms are unusable for the most part. We tried this with the MOODLE platform blog application, for an assignment in a professor’s class, but it was a disaster. I love your teammilton.com blog. What are the requirements, and/or directions for students as far as content for posting?

      One professor I worked with tried to have students set up their own blogs through Blogger, but this created more barriers with some students lacking the technical skills — however I see that having one blog set-up as you have done is the way to go – setting up one blog. Do you have each student set-up as a guest blogger?

      Thanks again Laura for sharing this excellent idea and example of a dynamic blog for students.


      1. Hi Debbie, that’s actually Gideon’s blog! I use a Ning for blogging, and that is not open, although I think it is marvelous that Gideon runs that open blog and it seems to work really well for his classes, so that has inspired me! You can find him at a Google+ and I am sure he will answer any questions that you have – he and his students do all kinds of fantastic stuff together! Since I know that sooner or later the Ning era (five years or maybe six already in my classes) will come to an end, and I will need an alternative. Gideon has a solution here that I think could work great for me also.


        1. HI Laura, Thanks for the referral! yes I will contact Gideon and pick his brain on his methods. I am sure other readers will be able to learn from you and Gideon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences Laura. So very valuable – so many good ideas to learn from! 🙂


          1. I will be sharing this great post at our university Chatter – most people rely on discussion boards and are sometimes just baffled by the problems they run into. This will be a big help!


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