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How to Get Students to Participate in Online Discussions

Seven proven strategies for encouraging students to find their voice, participate, engage and collaborate in online discussions.

3 students collaborating online

Asynchronous online learning—there was a time when that phrase didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Then things changed. Today, virtually everyone involved in teaching or learning has experienced some form of distance learning—whether via Zoom, video lectures, or through dedicated online discussion forums. And while students have shown remarkable resilience in adapting to new forms of learning, some of them have been left feeling anxious, uncertain, and disconnected

As colleges and universities continue to experiment with online learning, we believe that asynchronous models will grow in popularity. That means, of course, that instructors will need to lean hard on online discussions forums as their primary tool for engaging students more deeply in their learning. How can instructors help their students excel at online discussions, giving every student a voice? Here are seven strategies to consider.

1. Respect the prompt.

When it comes to online discussions, nothing is more important than the discussion prompt.

In the traditional classroom, instructors can guide discussions in real time, taking their cues from what their students are thinking and feeling. In the online classroom, time works differently. You pose a question that you hope will help your students think more deeply about the course material. They respond over a period of a few days or a week. In an online discussion, the prompt has a ripple effect, resonating more deeply both because it’s in written form and because students engage with the question for a longer period of time.

Getting it right is critical.

What do you do? Avoid looking for a “right” or “wrong” answer (save those questions for other forms of evaluation). Discussion is about exploration. Ideally, your prompt will allow students to tackle the questions from multiple viewpoints—informed by their experiences, their interactions with their classmates, their reading, and data or research you’ve made available to them.

How will you know if you’ve nailed it? You’ll see students showing up—maybe even before the deadline—with something thoughtful to say.

As you’re crafting your prompt, consider the following:

  • Does the prompt align with your course objectives?
  • Is it relevant to your students?
  • Does your prompt ask a student to reflect before responding?
  • Does the prompt have multiple solutions?
  • Will a student’s experience influence their response?
  • What kind of research or data can students draw on?
  • Does your question allow students to talk to each other and collaborate?

In a traditional classroom, you adapt your teaching to your students in all sorts of ways, sometimes without even being conscious of the incremental changes you make. In the online classroom, those micro-adaptations work differently. You’re not only managing the diversity of experience that is your classroom, you’re managing it all through a different technology. When you’re managing online discussions, remember that your students all have different needs. Students whose primary language may be something other than English, who have different levels of experience with technology, or who need accommodations are just a few examples of students who may experience online discussions differently.

When designing discussions, be aware of how you are using your teaching resources. Ask yourself if your students will encounter any impediments. Is your language clear and accessible? Are you making it simple for students to access resources like images or videos? Are those resources captioned so that every student can experience them fully?

Here are some other easy ways to achieve parity in your course materials:

  • Find the sweet spot for length of post: too long and your students may lose focus; too short and they won’t have enough content for productive engagement.
  • Keep videos short. Need a benchmark? The average (trending) YouTube video is four minutes. The average TikTok video is closer to 30 seconds (and that’s with dancing).
  • Make sure videos and images are either captioned or annotated.
  • Be mindful of jokes. They are always culturally specific and often don’t translate well. And not all of us share the same sense of humor (see lame TikTok joke above).
  • Don’t use all caps for emphasis. Find different ways to communicate important points.
  • Don’t use abbreviations. (Or use them but define them.)
  • Model the grammatical accuracy and academic tone you expect from your students.

3. Be relevant.

It’s true that not every class can easily accommodate “real world” discussions. But the more you can engage your students in topics that matter to them, the more successful they will be. In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, instructors across all disciplines incorporated new materials into their lesson plans to help students make sense of that exact moment in time. And, of course, while the pandemic seems to crowd out other life experiences, students were also keenly aware of the social and political challenges affecting their lives.

How can you draw connections between your course material and the world around us to engage your students more fully in their online experience?

When it comes to online discussion forums, students and instructors spend a lot of time diligently tapping away at their screens. That’s a lot of writing. And sometimes you and your students need a break.

While writing well is (rightly) a core requirement of the discussion forum, it’s not the only way students communicate. In fact, it’s not the only way learning happens. More and more, students are expressing their preference for learning from videos. In the online classroom, especially, students appreciate having a variety of ways to connect to course material. By sharing resources— from videos and images to citations and bibliographies—you are helping your students put their learning into context and think more broadly about what “information” can look like. By encouraging them to discover their own resources, you are opening up new ways for them to communicate their ideas to you and to their peers.

Here are some resources that translate well in a discussion forum that supports rich media:

  • Links to blogs, wikis, and articles
  • Supporting references and bibliographies
  • Infographics
  • Data visualizations
  • Interactive media content
  • Podcasts, broadcasts, and other audio content
  • Images, videos, and animations
  • Educational and learning games

5. Facilitation, feedback, and focus.

For students to be successful in an online environment, they need to be active participants. But sometimes even the most willing student needs a little coaching. If you want students to engage fully in their online experience, you’ll need to facilitate their participation through active feedback and focused attention. Be responsive, as you would in a traditional classroom where their questions are answered immediately. That doesn’t mean you’re doing all the work, but it does mean that you will need to model what engagement looks like in a much more direct way than in the face-to-face classroom.

In an online environment, consistent feedback is critical. If you have a class where students are good about responding to each other in the discussion forum, great! You’re ahead of the game. But more often than not, you will need to model your idea of “responsiveness” by posting your own feedback to a student post. What constitutes good feedback? Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, instructional designers Holly Fiock and Heather Garcia suggest it should be frequent, specific, balanced, and timely. (See the link below to dig a little deeper.)

You can also facilitate their participation by removing roadblocks. Instead of leaving your students guessing, provide an example of great student content (with that student’s permission of course). Instead of sending them to a style manual, conduct a short session on when and how to cite sources, using examples appropriate to the current assignment. Better yet, point them to a good citation management program. Instead of letting them flail in the digital library stacks, provide links to the databases or research guides you think will be most useful.

Above all, help them focus. Under the best of circumstances, you are competing for the attention of students who live in an “always on” world. Today, your students could be studying at the kitchen table in the middle of a typical family’s pandemonium. Don’t overwhelm them with too much content. And if they disappear, reach out.

Here are some resources to help:

How To Give Your Students Better Feedback with Technolog | An advice guide from The Chronicle of Higher Education

Citation Management Tools | A side-by-side comparison of citation management tools with video from the University of Washington

Top Ten Tips for Online Facilitators | D2L offers ten tips for connecting with students in an online world

Student Experiences During the Pandemic Pivot | A research report from Ithaka S+R

6. Unstructured interactions.

In any classroom environment, students tend to thrive when they have a structured path to success. (It’s kind of why grading was invented.) In the online classroom, we need structure to bring together students who might otherwise be invisible to each other. Still, classrooms don’t always have to be entirely goal oriented. In fact, some downtime can help build the community a good classroom needs to foster great teaching and learning. But what does “downtime” look like in an asynchronous environment? And how can you make sure it’s something more than an unproductive time out?

Here are five great ideas to keep conversations going:

The ‘Help Please!’ Discussion Forum

Provide a safe space for students to ask questions about problems they’re having in the course. This could be something as significant as “I don’t really understand the goals of this course” (good feedback for next term’s syllabus!) to something as minor as “I can’t get this link to work.” Students who have a place to ask for help without judgment will feel respected. And if they’re having a problem you can solve quickly, you not only build trust, but help that student move on to the next task more quickly. Be sure to encourage students to help solve problems as well as post concerns and don’t be shy about redirecting most technical questions to your Help Desk.

The Special Topics Discussion Forum

Are you asking your students to master the APA style guide this term? You might want to establish a forum where they can work collaboratively to answer each other’s questions. Groups like these may have a shorter shelf life, but they can be useful, especially early on in the term when new terms, concepts, or ideas are being introduced.

The Getting to Know You Discussion Forum

Give your students a place where they can get to know each other (beyond the obligatory introduction post). In an online environment, your students aren’t likely to grab a cup of coffee after class, but they can log in to a dedicated discussion forum to say hi, post a picture of their cat, or even log on to a chat function for a half an hour to decompress. Decide whether and how you want to drop in and make it clear to your students how will (or won’t) be participating. And remind them that class guidelines for good etiquette still apply.

The Study Group Discussion Forum

Hey, it happens! While online classes require a lot of writing from students in the required discussion forums, some may be motivated to do more. Students might want to share notes with each other or have a place to prepare for the next exam. By all means, encourage them.

And don’t forget office hours.

No, you don’t want to conduct virtual office hours over a public discussion forum, but you can be available via chat or other tools. Students value their relationship with you. The more you encourage their questions and reply to them through a variety of venues, the more successful your students are likely to be.

7. Assess responsibly.

Create a grading rubric and discuss it in detail with your students. This is especially important for assessing student contributions to discussion forums, which can feel nebulous to students, particularly when they have no prior experience with them.

Explain your expectations and how they are defined in your rubric. Connect your evaluation framework to your course goals and make those connections clear to your students. Be sure to show them how meeting the requirements laid out in your grading rubric can guide them over the course of the term. And remind them that “evaluations” are a part of life. Indeed, many of them may have already experienced a “performance review” in the workplace.

Finally, be patient. With yourself and with your students. We are living in extraordinary times. Make sure your students know where to reach out for help with stress or other mental health issues. Seek help from your institution. Most are providing new resources every day that you and your students may find helpful. Find a support group for online instructors (or create one yourself) to share ideas. Keep up to date on new technologies (we’re looking at you Quora). And find the time you need to take care of yourself, your family, and your friends. The more centered you are in the classroom, the more likely you will be able to help your students learn, grow, and thrive.