Faculty Focus


Structure and Expectations Can Improve Student Participation in Online Discussions

Clear expectations, structure, and instructor intervention can go a long way toward getting students highly engaged and highly interactive in online discussions.

A good start is to require participation, but that won’t necessarily get students to a high level of engagement or participation. They may view it simply as a hoop to jump through rather than an integral part of the course. Scoring online discussions can motivate students to participate, and even better would be to provide explicit participation criteria and communication protocols so they know what is expected of them, says Kelvin Thompson, assistant director of course design and development in the Center for Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida.

From a design perspective, online discussions benefit from a structure that has students engage in specific ways. For example, in a study that looked at the effects of structure on online discussion, Susan Wegmann, associate professor at UCF’s College of Education and director of programs and research at the Morgridge International Reading Center, and her colleague Joyce McCauley found that when students have a reason to contribute and know what is expected of them, their participation and engagement improve.

This study compared student participation and engagement in unstructured and structured online discussions. The unstructured discussions had students respond to a prompt. In the structured approach known as the 3 R’s (respond, react, reply), students were put into groups and each student responded to a prompt, reacted to the other group members’ responses, and replied to each of the reactions to their own responses.

When provided with this structure, students moved toward the “connected stance,” which is characterized by high levels of participation and high levels of engagement and is associated with higher performing students.

Wegmann recommends using the 3 R’s structure, making expectations clear, and, when necessary, checking in with those students who are not meeting expectations. “I go through my course about every week, and if students aren’t participating, I send them a little nudge behind the scenes,” she says.

Reprinted from Structure Can Improve Participation, Online Classroom, 12.12 (2012): 3.

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