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

The Methods and Means to Grading Student Participation in Online Discussions

This is the final post in a three-part series on how to create effective discussions in an online environment in courses for credit. In this post I’ll share how to grade and assess students contributions in online discussion forums—the final yet essential step that supports learning in several ways. I am eager to share my insight into the assessment component of online discussions, as we found within our institution’s online program that assessment through the use of a rubric that was the critical element to success. The rubric allowed course instructors to give quality feedback to students, clarified for students’ expectations and to the surprise of several professors the rubric improved the quality and quantity of discussion postings.

Components of effective Online Discussions Review
Motivating students to participate in forum discussions is not an easy task—it requires strategic effort by the instructor during the course, and by the course designers in the course design phase. Below are the core elements that build the foundation for online discussions, elements that will create and sustain dialogue.

  1. A well designed course/instructional plan —as discussed in post one
  2. Clear, concise guidelines and expectations — post one
  3. Well constructed topics/questions — post two
  4. A skilled facilitator or moderator— post two
  5. An assessment component for giving student feedback—to follow

The Argument Against Grading
There are pros and cons to grading discussion forums—though the cons are few, are worthy of consideration. Some educators feel it forces students to participate. Students will only do what is necessary and not engage further. Others suggest that with a prescribed set of questions, discussion becomes narrow, allowing little room for creativity. I happen to disagree with the these arguments, as experience and research shows that grading participation is effective in promoting and encouraging meaningful discussion when the assessment elements are included.

The Means to Grading—The Rubric
As mentioned, a key factor to effective discussions are expectations for students: clear, concise, quantitative guidelines that students can follow. From trial and error we discovered that creating a standard rubric that instructors could tweak and customize to his or her course was the ‘means’ to grading. Within our range of courses, discussion assignments vary in grading weight but the criteria for each is consistent.

Below is the preamble to the rubric [for the student’s benefit] that we use in one of our classes [with a link to the rubric].

The participation/contribution grade is based upon the content, depth and quality of your contributions to the forum discussions using the standards found within the grading rubric below. Contributions to weekly discussions represent xx points, which makes up 20% of your final grade. Participating consistently, with thoughtful answers early in the week, and responding to, and engaging in discussion with your peers will have positive effects on your overall grade.”  Click here to view the rubric.

The Method 
How much easier it is for course instructors with a tool (rubric) in hand to assign grades and give feedback. One of our professors called me after we implemented the rubric for her course saying ‘why didn’t we do this earlier – it’s so much easier to give ‘good’ feedback that students can act upon‘.

The timing of feedback is a determining factor in students participating or not. Our instructors post grades [usually] within the week following the close of a discussion – for example posting Thursday after the close of a discussion, usually Sundays. If a student has not participated at all, he or she gets a ‘0’. No surprise that the student usually participates the following week. This allows time for the student to assess his or her participation, and improve upon or continue with behaviors that support learning throughout the coming week. The momentum is built by following this timetable, and aids in sustaining dialogue.

Besides assigning a grade to discussion postings, instructors on occasion provide feedback to individual students—one or two sentences of encouragement or reasons for a given grade. A more efficient method is collective feedback in the form of a post or announcement that summarizes the instructor’s observations, provides comments and suggestions.

Conclusion
Online discussions hold great potential to engage students and support meaningful learning that leads students to understanding, not just knowing. The assessment component gives a sense of instructor presence. Receiving grades (or comments) on discussion posts means the instructor is reading and cares enough about his or her learning to give feedback. Having the rubric in place focuses the evaluation process and provides a structure that is more likely to lead to student learning.

Related Posts
Post One: How to get students to Participate in Online Discussions
Post Two: How to facilitate Robust Discussions Online

Resources