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How to Encourage Students to Participate in Online Class Discussions

In figuring out how to encourage students to participate in online class discussions, we must consider all the ways to create meaningful and sustained social interactions.

online discussion board graphic

Discussion forums, like those found in most LMSs, have become a standard way for students to interact with course content. These forums are typically text-based and can be challenging to extract deep engagement from students. What results are long, scrolling threads of students just dialing it in…you know that last minute flood of “I agree” posts all too well!

From the student perspective, even well-meaning participants can struggle to have their voices heard during discussions. Students are often limited in how they can respond, and the LMS discussion forum generally lacks feedback mechanisms that can help students self-measure their own engagement quality or simply raise their hands for more help. But armed with a few creative techniques here, just imagine being able to encourage students to participate in online class discussions in ways that are meaningful and foster deeper engagement.

10 Creative Ways to Engage Students in Online Class Discussions

A powerful tool for fueling meaningful interaction outside of the classroom, the online discussion board can be used to build the kind of student engagement that produces the benefits previously mentioned. In fact, recent research shows that participation in discussion forums is related to better course outcomes in both traditional courses and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

In a pilot study conducted by WGU Labs, the College Innovation Network (CIN) found strong promise for increased course engagement and improved learning outcomes at Piedmont Community College, when different online discussion tools were used both in the classroom and asynchronously. These tools allowed instructors to pull on a broader set of discussion techniques to increase student-to-instructor and student-to-student interactions. Here are 10 of the most effective techniques used to get students to participate and engage online.

An engaging online discussion board includes social elements, multimedia, polls, and ongoing interaction. An engaging online discussion board includes social elements, multimedia, polls, and ongoing interaction.

1. Set the Stage from the Start to Create Connection

This idea focuses on the week one introductory forum. As the instructor, you would post your bio as a model for students of what you expect, and also have a forum discussion where they introduce themselves and have them share something about their experience in the subject matter. Consider having them use a webcam or some kind of digital storytelling, such as narration over imagery, or a video introduction in one of their favorite settings.

For these kinds of personal introductions and discussions, provide some prompts students can use to frame their introductions. Examples might include:

  • Where are you from, your profession, your family, your major?
  • What are your learning goals or expectations for this class?
  • What do you hope to gain from obtaining your degree?
  • What’s one thing you hope we cover before this course ends?

Once all the intros are posted, have students review all of their classmates’ introductions and comment on them. Not only will the student introductions be interesting and provide a dynamic start to your course discussions, you’ll also get tremendous insight into who your students are and what they’re looking for out of your course.

Plus, in addition to being a critical best practice for creating connection among students at the start of your course, you’ll be meeting Quality Matters standards 1.8 and 1.9, requiring online instructor and student introductions.

2. Incorporate Multimedia: Images, Videos, Tweets and other Links

You know the saying, a picture is worth 1,000 words. So just imagine what a video is worth!

As one of many best practices for online discussion boards, be sure to use media consistently throughout discussions to illustrate points, create more conversation, inject humor, or just for fun. Text-based responses not only leave out students who prefer to express themselves through other media, but they’re boring. When you consider that many of today’s students say they learn by doing, and 80% of today’s teens use YouTube and video to learn something new or improve skills that will help them prepare for the future, it’s a no-brainer that incorporating multimedia will better engage students.

With tools that allow students to create and share rich multimedia, such as video and annotation, images, GIFs, and audio in online discussions, instructors can appeal to a broader range of learning styles. This creates a wider runway for students to contribute to the conversation and demonstrate what they are learning.

3. Scaffold Complexity to Foster Critical Thinking

Another strategy you may want to employ starts in the beginning weeks of the course, and  increases throughout the class. This one is clever because it also creates a level of psychological safety, which is key to getting students to open up. It helps students move from a very basic level of their understanding and engagement in the discussion to higher levels as the course progresses — and has proven a surefire way for how to encourage students to participate in online class.

In How to Foster Critical Thinking and Student Engagement in Online Discussions, instructors from Texas Tech University talk about the approach in terms of crafting discussion questions. They use lower-level but still open-ended questions early on in the course that don’t tap into analysis, synthesis, or higher-level thinking too soon in order to help students become comfortable with the content. It also helps them participate while they’re learning their way around the course for those first few weeks, understanding the new topics and the content they’re learning, and starting to build confidence in the way they engage in the discussion.

In later weeks, you’ll want to vary that and add more in-depth analysis, synthesis, and higher-thinking activities. You’re really getting to see what students truly understand, and they’re also increasing in complexity, so students are learning at a deeper level throughout the course.

For example, have multi-part questions where in the first part, they’re answering a lower-level thing, and then the second part is going to be more mid- to higher-level thinking. Even in the same discussion question, they suggest that you use more than one level of Bloom’s taxonomy, so that you’re challenging students to think higher and higher as they go through. If all of your discussion forums are graduated from a basic level and scaffolded up to the more complex level, you’re helping students build their confidence which will only make them want to continue engaging.

4. If You See a Lagging Discussion, Try Re-framing the Question

Plan and simple, words matter. And when you’re not face-to-face with students, there’s plenty of opportunity for misinterpretation. That’s why this simple technique can often help jumpstart a stalled discussion.

Flipping the question, or restating it using different terms, can help students understand the discussion better. If nothing seems to work, you may want to replace the question totally, or simply ask the question: “We seem to have some difficulty with this question, why do you think that is?” Asking why the discussion has stalled out not only gives you insight into what didn’t work, but it also actually gets students talking again.

5. Set up a Debate for Discussion

To generate a lively online discussion board, facilitate a debate. Choose a topic relevant to your course material and have students choose a particular viewpoint on the topic. Students post their viewpoint, supported by credible references and research, wait for a response from a peer with a different viewpoint, and then reply with a rebuttal. In some cases, you could have students write a final reflection on what viewpoint they agree with, or what other information might be necessary before they can decide.

This works because crafting an argument and approaching an issue from a specific viewpoint can be motivating for students. Debating with other students provides extra motivation to make solid arguments and present themselves well, which are both important in this type of discussion.  With this kind of discussion, you’ll create a more natural back-and-forth / post-and-response kind of dynamic, which is why posting a “netiquette” statement as well as a schedule for the debate might be helpful.

6. Facilitate Role Playing & Student-led Discussions

For a role-play discussion, pre-assign students to particular viewpoints of a topic and then have them do some research to form and support their arguments. After posting to the online discussion board, students review the perspectives of their peers and write a reflection based upon information from all roles.

This is an interesting approach because students put themselves in another person’s shoes for a while. This kind of post can be powerful while also providing a safe place for students to explore an issue from a different perspective other than their own. Students also appear to be more engaged when you ask them to change how they may normally respond to something. This is a great way to provide a lens through which to explore controversial or sensitive topics with three or more perspectives. It also helps amplify viewpoints that might not often be heard.

Similarly, you can also facilitate role-play in the context of student-led discussions, making students in charge or leading the discussion. Research shows that student participation increases when students facilitate online discussions. When you set up smaller discussion groups, use students to facilitate those conversations. Peer-facilitation and student-to-student methods of interaction online keep students more engaged than solely relying on student-to-instructor interaction.

For example, students in an environmental course, discussing the impact of climate change, can adopt the roles of a CEO of an automobile manufacturer, an environmental research biologist, an EPA representative, and even a resident of Los Angeles. Ask another student to moderate or lead the discussion. This student is responsible for bringing all of the perspectives into conversation. Don’t be afraid to use a Q&A board to solicit feedback from other students on how the discussion played out and to crowdsource new ideas!

7. Arrange Digital Panel Discussions

Inspired by political and pop culture talk shows, panel discussions can be an engaging way to get students talking. A panel discussion is made up of three roles: a moderator who asks questions (that can be a student or the instructor), panelists (four to five students per topic or question), and the audience (the rest of the class).

The moderator guides the discussion, and the panelists function as “experts” on the topics for discussion. You can rotate students in and out of the panel positions throughout the discussion so everyone gets a turn as a speaker and a listener. Students rotate out of the panel once they’ve fulfilled the speaking and listening requirements. For additional engagement, the ‘audience’ can partake in a digital side discussion that mimics live “tweeting,” which often happens during live political debates or panel discussions.

In an online environment, these discussions can take place asynchronously over the course of several days. All students are involved in the discussion, and the variety of three different roles keeps things fresh. Instructors can be involved as little or as much as necessary, and as the course progresses, they can scaffold panel discussions to fully student-led conversations.

8. Ask Students How a Particular Discussion is Working

Don’t be afraid to periodically ask your students what’s good or bad about a particular discussion. How is it working/or not working for them? What could be improved? Use polls when you want feedback in real-time, or consider using surveys and Q&A forums to collect feedback. When you ask, be sure to acknowledge and act on their comments if needed.

This approach, while not specific to a particular discussion, is one of many best practices for online discussion boards and a technique that helps students feel like an active player in the course and lets them know they have a voice — both of which will motivate them to continue participating.

9. Respond to Students with a Question, Affirmation, or Feedback

To mimic face-to-face learning experiences online, be sure to respond frequently to your students, whether it’s private or public. This shows that you value them and allows you to identify at-risk students (but more on that soon!). Highlight the good points your students have made. Your interaction encourages students to post more often and stay engaged.

While discussion rubrics can help streamline the grading process, it’s important to provide additional feedback to students that the other students don’t see. This feedback might be a simple compliment on a good post, or it might be more in-depth coaching. Save qualitative feedback for students who have gone above and beyond expectations or when students are struggling.

It’s also tempting to respond only to early posters. It could be helpful to keep a running tally of who you have responded to each week, so that you’re sure to interact with everyone throughout the course and on an ongoing basis.

10. Try a Fishbowl Discussion

Just as you started the course in dynamic fashion, consider holding fishbowl discussions at the end of every course to provide students with an opportunity to discuss what they’ve learned. The fishbowl strategy is similar to a traditional discussion, but only half of the class participates in the discussion at a time (inside the fishbowl). The other half observes the ongoing discussion while pausing to reflect on given questions (outside the fishbowl).

This student-centered strategy continues to build comprehension, while developing group discussion skills. In the fishbowl, students practice responding to multiple viewpoints. Observations from students in the outer circle provide insight into what makes for effective small-group discussions.

To set up a fishbowl discussion online, you can break the class into multiple groups and hold real-time discussions of a particular topic or record that discussion session and have the observing group watch and reflect on it. You can also have students volunteer to join the discussion, and as they discuss the questions which can also be posted in the chat, the students who are listening take notes about what each speaker contributes to the discussion.

Best Practices for Online Discussion Boards: The Right Discussion Board Software

Now that you have some best practices for online discussion boards and some creative ways for how to encourage students to participate in online class discussions, you have to have the right technology to implement these ideas effectively. And one of the most important keys to improving and sustaining that participation is being able to track that engagement. Discussion board software has evolved since their early days. No longer boring, scrolling threads of texts powered by the LMS, today’s discussion board software can tell you who, how, and when students are participating in their courses, still without ever leaving the LMS.

Imagine if you could see from a single dashboard which students were struggling or needed more attention and which topics were working best. You’d have greater visibility into how students are progressing toward goals: which students are actively participating and which students are less active or have dropped off in engagement. Serving as an early-warning system, you can then trigger outreach to specific students in order to coax them back into the discussion before complete disengagement.

Today’s standard or traditional LMS-based course discussion forums are not built to deliver these kinds of benefits. Leveraging the power of technology, social-based learning, and analytics in ways that weren’t possible even five years ago, institutions now have an opportunity to implement online courses that not only meet the needs of today’s students but actually excite them about learning and get them talking.

Harmonize is a suite of digital discussion and collaboration tools that integrate seamlessly with your LMS to facilitate a more engaging online learning experience. It’s everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement online and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks.

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