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.

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.

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