Dozens of studies have come to the same conclusion: online discussions strengthen student engagement and learning. But what can you do to increase student participation in online discussions? We’ve been doing some studying of our own and found a dozen tactics that will help you get students more involved in online discussions.
Why online discussions are essential to the learning experience
Discussions give students the opportunity to reflect upon and apply what they’ve learned. Writing about what they’re learning helps them retain that knowledge. During a discussion, they recall information, put it into context, and ask questions that require them and their classmates to review what they’ve learned. Recalling and applying information is part of the learning process—it’s required to make learning stick.
Online discussions also give students a chance to interact with each other and build relationships. A sense of community develops—a motivating factor when the going gets tough.
How to increase student participation in online discussions
See how many of these proven tactics you can use in your online learning programs.
#1: Embed online discussion into course design.
Discussions must be built into the course design and tied to learning objectives. The instructor must ensure that meaningful conversation takes place. Discussion topics and questions must be aligned with the curriculum.
#2: Explain why participation is required.
Participation in online discussions should be mandatory. Take time to explain to students why online discussions are an essential part of the learning experience—how they provide continual opportunities to reflect, recall, and apply new knowledge.
Tell students how they’ll be evaluated on their discussion contributions and how online community participation factors into their grade.
Acknowledge the time constraints experienced by full-time professionals who take online courses. Suggest a baseline amount of time to dedicate to online discussions. Provide tips for time management.
Keep in mind that students must be intrinsically motivated to engage fully in their learning experience. Studies show that those who aren’t intrinsically motivated tend to lose interest in discussions as the course goes on.
#3: Require quality, not quantity.
A common default for online discussions is requiring each student to start a discussion thread every week. However, this practice leads to a cluttered forum. You’ll end up with too many redundant discussion threads of questionable value—a real turn-off.
Instead, consider requiring a specified number of thoughtful remarks either in initial posts or responses.
#4: Provide feedback to everyone.
Keep track of thoughtful or insightful questions and comments, especially if online discussion participation is required. Send a private positive message to students who make valuable contributions.
On the other hand, when students aren’t putting enough effort into their contributions, send them a private message too. Share your observations and provide some advice on how to better approach the discussion requirement. Take time to provide individual (and private) coaching until they get the hang of it.
Provide public feedback as well. But, to ensure you’re not playing favorites, keep track of your accolades so you don’t create an unintentional teacher’s pet.
#5: Don’t worry about introverts.
Studies have found that more students participate in online discussions than they do in classroom discussions, even introverts. However, some people still prefer to lurk in online forums. They’re more likely to be passive participants who are happy to read but not comment. If you spot a stubborn lurker, explain to them that this tendency inhibits their learning experience—and affects their grade.
#6: Provide guidelines for constructive conversation.
Post discussion guidelines in the online community, for example, ask students to respond thoughtfully and ask open-ended questions. Encourage students to have constructive and considerate disagreement. Explain the value of diverse perspectives. It’s okay to challenge and disagree with each other but only if it’s done in a kind manner.
#7: Foster but don’t dominate discussion.
At the beginning of a course, online discussion tends to be between the instructor(s) and students. But as the course progresses, students increasingly talk to each other instead of only to the instructor(s).
However, if conversation is lagging, try one of these tactics:
- Pose an open-ended yet specific question.
- Give them a prompt to follow up on.
- Do a poll and discuss the results.
- Try asking the question in a different way.
If none of these approaches work, acknowledge the lack of conversation and ask students why they think that is.
#8: Assign student moderators.
After a few weeks of taking the lead, assign the moderator role to one or more students, depending on class size. Their job is to encourage and facilitate conversation. Let them choose which topics or forums they want to moderate on a first-come, first-served basis.
Provide guidelines to your student moderators, for example, check the community X times a day, and post at least X number of questions and X number of responses. If there’s more than one moderator, ask them to split up the days so they have time off during the week.
Chime in throughout the week so students don’t feel like you’ve checked out on them, but be careful not to steal their thunder. Provide feedback to the moderators as they go.
Assigning student moderators has a positive impact on the learning experience:
- Discussions could go in a different direction and new ideas could emerge because student moderators bring a different perspective to the conversation.
- Students who have been or will be assigned the moderator role are more likely to participate in discussions because they empathize with the moderator or hope they’ll pay back the favor.
- Moderators feel a sense of ownership—a motivating emotion.
#9: Stir up a little controversy every now and then.
If things get too quiet or if everyone is too agreeable, say something that elicits disagreement or gets students to argue for the opposing viewpoint.
Find a hot topic—a news item or industry development—and have students debate it. Split them into two groups. One side puts forth an argument and the other side responds with an opposing argument.
#10: Have a place for off-topic conversations.
Don’t be all business. Personal conversations help students build relationships and a sense of community. This sense of belonging is a motivating factor for continuing discussion participation as time goes on. Also, if students don’t have an opportunity to socialize, they might go off-topic in the course discussion forums.
You could call your forum for off-topic discussions the Student Lounge, Break Room, or Water Cooler. Use this forum for initial introductions. Seed a new conversation by asking students to share time management hacks.
#11: Invite guests.
Invite a guest expert to visit the online community for a few days. Prepare a running Q&A session or interview by fielding questions from students ahead of time. Encourage students to ask additional questions during the guest’s stay. Point out any conversations in the personal forum that the guest might want to dive into.
#12: Bring the discussion back into the “classroom.”
At the end of each module, review some of the issues and themes that emerged from online discussions. You could do this as a weekly video. Provide suggestions for related content if students want to go deeper on a topic.
Students come to your association for education, but everyone also values networking and relationship-building—that’s one of the top reasons members join associations. An online community enhances the student’s learning experience while also giving them the chance to connect with their peers.