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

Critical thinking in the Online Classroom

This is part 3 in a 3 part series discussing the concept of ‘presence’ in online learning communities.

I’ve been writing about online presence in this series and though complex, it is best understood by the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model, a framework of three dimensions that work together to create what I call a complete learning experience (though the  creators of the model call it an ‘educational experience’ where all three coincide (Garrison et al., 2000). In part one, I reviewed instructor presence  and part two, social presence. Though this third dimension is officially labeled ‘cognitive presence‘ I have made reference to critical thinking, as this is what should be happening in the cognitive presence domain, which I’ll elaborate on further in the post. I’ll also provide several examples of what cognitive presence looks like (or sounds like as I’ll be using actual student feedback to illustrate), and for those interested, practical strategies to build and support cognitive presence (critical thinking) in an online learning community.

What is Cognitive Presence?
I thought social presence was the most abstract and elusive, but I was wrong, it’s this dimension, Cognitive Presence that is the hardest to get my head around and put on paper. It’s in this dimension where all the action is – where the student learns thinks critically – he or she goes through the process of constructing knowledge, inquiring, exploring, and thinking. This model is interesting, as it illustrates how other aspects of presence, social and teaching presence need to exist before critical thinking skills are engaged and deep learning can happen. Though CoI is a model (or theory), I do see how it works in real life learning communities, based upon my analysis of student feedback, engagement levels (measured by LMS activity) and retention numbers of our online student body at my workplace. Granted, some level of learning can happen without either social or teacher presence, yet to create the very best environment for learning online all three dimensions are necessary.

cognitive presence: is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

How does cognitive presence lead to critical thinking?
There are four categories of events within the cognitive dimension that need to happen to stimulate the cognitive processes and critical thinking, 1) triggering event, 2) exploration, 3) integration and 4) resolution. These are nothing new from the educators perspective –  we want the student to become interested, in the topic (trigger), and be motivated to explore, ask questions, discuss (exploration),  leading students to construct knowledge, learn and think by means of discourse and discussion (integration) and finally to think critically, apply the knowledge to other areas, draw conclusions and demonstrate knowledge (resolution).

These events do not need to happen sequentially, they may overlap and run into one another – it might get messy, but all this to illustrate the need for meaningful interaction and discourse that supports the student’s development of higher order thinking skills.

Strategies for developing Critical Thinking
Creating opportunities within the course for these above mentioned events to happen takes planning, it is part of the instructional strategy, the course design. However, It does not have to be complicated, or time-consuming to develop – but intentional and purposeful. Here are some examples of types of activities that support cognitive presence.

  • Discussion forums that include meaningful and thought-provoking questions that get students to think and apply the course content. Clear participation guidelines and expectations for students are an important part of the activity. Instructor involvement will be needed to monitor and guide the discussion.
  • Small group activities where students discuss a topic, even a complex one – with the goal of creating something together – for example, a [unified] position statement on a controversial  topic OR an analysis of a problem [in the form of a presentation] that involves applying the course content and drawing upon other resources.
  • Forum structured for a debate – this takes some upfront work – but is worthwhile. For example, the instructor assigns each student one of three points of view on a given [controversial] topic, prompting students to engage in discussion/discourse through an asynchronous discussion forum [or live chat] defending their assigned point of view, even if they do not personally support that point of view. This can be effective, as it encourages students to appreciate diversity, acknowledge others’ perspectives and points of view different from their own.
  • Reflection Activities – having students create a blog for to work on throughout the course is one example, where students discuss and write about what they’ve learned in class. This is effective in promoting thinking, and getting students to internalize content. Other reflection activities could be as simple as students creating a Slideshare presentation, blog post, or forum posting at the end of the course describing the critical things they learned from the class, how the class might have changed his or her thinking and/or how they will apply the new knowledge beyond the class.

A study reported in the British Journal of Educational Technology in 2007 on cognitive building activities similar to those mentioned above, determined factors contributing to the activities success:

  1. They were well structured.
  2. They provided clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the students.
  3. They provoked the students to explicitly confront others’ opinions. (Kanuka et al., 2007).

What the students say…
You may be thinking, OK sounds good in theory but does this really work with students? Yes I believe it does – after reading through student responses from our last session in our online program at my workplace I was convinced more than ever, not only of the value of the instructor and his or her presence, but that discussion forums and group activities do develop critical thinking, promote deep thinking and engage students’ higher order thinking skills.  Below I’ve shared feedback from students, which are responses to the question “What did you like best about the course?

I liked how certain questions were asked and then I was allowed to think about them. Then when I came to the conclusion that I was not sure, Dr. ____ then took us to the [course materials] to draw our conclusions…”  [Discussion forums encouraged critical discourse].

“I loved the challenge of this course to compare philosophy [from different viewpoints]…. The choice project was awesome being able to watch films and converse about their philosophical meaning was very fun.”  [Comparing activity forced use of critical thinking]

“Probably the responses required by students after the reading assignments … it made me think deeply and apply my answer not only to the material, but to other [areas] as well.”  [This reflection activity supports analysis and deep thinking].

These are real student comments, though I’ve removed professor names, and references to specific course materials to protect privacy of students.

In this post, I’ve just scratched the surface of what can be done in this presence domain, as there are factors to consider that I’ve not been able to address, for example course topic, delivery platform, course duration, number of students etc. But hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for supporting and promoting critical thinking within your own online courses.

Resources:
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-10

Kanuka, H., Liam, R. & Laflamme, E. (2007). The influence of instructional methods on the quality of online discussion. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(2), 260 – 271.

Why we need group work in Online Learning

This post is 1st in a 3 part series on the topic of group work in online learning communities. Post 2 will be about strategies for effective group work, and post 3, successful evaluation and outcomes.

Group work. Students groan when they find out there’s a group assignment that’s part of the grading for a given class [ I’m no exception]. Students learning online don’t feel much different, and given the time and distance barriers, it presents even more challenges for these students. What is it about group work that is so distasteful? Many students cite lack of cooperation, work equity and dependency on others as major factors in disliking team work with classmates. Ironically, this is precisely why group work is essential for learning.

The future IS Collaboration
Collaboration goes beyond, two or more people working together towards a common goal – in today’s terms,  collaboration is about open, learning, relationships, sharing and innovation. Though there are numerous benefits to groups working together in an online learning community, below I’ve highlighted the three most important reasons (I think) why group work is essential to any e-learning environment.

1. Essential skills for the 21st Century
Nothing describes ‘why’ collaboration is needed than a living example – of several, I chose Atlassian as an illustration, an innovative software company featured in Forbes Magazine this past month, who’s $100 million business is built on the concept creating collaboration platforms for companies. The client list is impressive, and company executives “are serious about spreading the idea of collaboration and transparency in how people work and how companies are fun”.

Another organization P21, advocates 21st century skill development and claims that employers identify that it is “Critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, collaboration, and communication skills [that] will become more important in a fast-paced, competitive global economy.

Collaborative skills, developed through effective communication in online environments is, and will be essential to workplaces in the 21st century.

2. Innovation and growth
I won’t elaborate too much here, this short, but clever video illustrates beautifully why collaboration is fundamental to creativity, innovations and development.

Where do Ideas come From?  by Steven Johnson

3. Social and Active Learning
Learners learn, really learn when they engage with classmates, when they connect, share, communicate and collaborate with each other. Learning from and through peers is a dimension of learning both in the class and online that is often negated. In previous posts, I’ve also discussed the need for social presence as one of three dimensions of the Community of Inquiry model, which is foundational to successful group work. Students’ ability to express themselves confidently online is necessary for effective team learning.

Further more, time and again we see examples of active learning, where students learn through purposeful, and planned group activities. Harvard Professor, Eric Mazur is an advocate for peer learning, and incorporates this pedagogy into his own instruction, as well as giving seminars to colleagues across the country about his methods. You can read more about Mazur’s [social learning] approach in Twilight of the Lecture – an interesting read.

This innovative style of learning grew into “peer instruction” or “interactive learning,” a pedagogical method that has spread far beyond physics and taken root on campuses nationally. Last year, Mazur gave nearly 100 lectures on the subject at venues all around the world. (His 1997 book Peer Instruction is a user’s manual).  Harvard Magazine, 2012

For e-learning and online educators, incorporating group work into courses is a non-negotiable, given the demands and needs for collaboration and [online] communication skills. Check back early next week for post 2, strategies for creating effective group work online.