Purposeful Online Discussions

The Puzzle of Online Participation

When teaching on campus, it’s not uncommon to have attendance factor into a course grade. It’s fairly straightforward—students show up for class, they mostly pay attention, they may speak up in a class discussion or work in a small group. You give them a grade at the end of the semester. Online classes with no synchronous components can be trickier. Depending on the course level and content, some instructors may substitute a quiz over the reading or video or have students answer a discussion question for the week to indicate attendance.

In some in-person courses, participation is presumed by attendance. Students who are present are, by default, considered to be participating. As you have likely seen in many class settings, that presumption is not always true. While answering a question or submitting a quiz or assignment is enough to prove attendance for financial aid reporting purposes, it does not provide the level of engagement that we hope to see in our students.

Active interaction, especially student-student and student-instructor interaction, promotes participation. These types of activities also promote student cognitive presence and, to a lesser extent, social and teaching presence. Examples include things like small group discussions focusing on a question, case, or problem where each group must report out their solution or small group (or full class if the class is small) discussions to delve deeper into the materials and ask students to make connections to their lives and the world around them. These are activities that promote active learning and collaboration.

Just as in your physical classroom, different approaches will engage different students, and it may take some experimentation to find out what works best for your course. Having a variety of participatory activities the first couple of times you teach a given course can allow you to gauge which ones you want to keep and which ones you don’t.

Expectations for Participation

There are three main expectations that both faculty and students should be able to have regarding participation in an online class, and they don’t have anything to do with word count, logins, or liking posts.

The first expectation should be that participating will help students learn or practice something that supports a desired learning outcome. The connection needs to be made explicitly enough that students can see the point of the interaction. When students feel that participation is merely busywork with no real benefit to them, they are much less likely to take part and benefit from the interaction. Explaining your participation activities transparently can clarify the purpose and benefit for your students and yourself.

Another expectation is that actively participating in the course contributes a reasonable amount toward the course grade. Supporting online presence through active learning and collaboration won’t happen by itself. Instructors modeling active participation in a welcoming and supportive manner will certainly help, but students are just as likely to look at what is included in the final grade to determine what is important. If you are encouraging weekly substantive participation but all of those activities together only count for 5% of the course grade, students will get the impression that their participation is not valued and therefore optional or superfluous. Putting your money (grades) where your mouth is, reinforces to students the value of active learning and collaboration for their academic success.

The final expectation is that all students can authentically participate. If you ask students to share personal experiences regarding a topic or activity, it is helpful to include an option for students who are uncomfortable sharing publicly or who have no experiences that would meet the criteria. Your students are a diverse group, so assuming that everyone has had similar experiences can be problematic. For example, home-schooled students may not have any experience in a physical school setting, some students will not have had any experience in organized religion, others will not have been to a sporting event in person or even watched sports on television, others may not have watched network television at all through their childhood years. Similarly, if you are asking students to go somewhere, do something, and report back, like visit a museum or an ethnic grocery or store, students who are unable to do so due to health, transportation, or geographic location issues would need an alternative activity to be able to participate in a discussion about their experiences.

On a related note, instructors using occasional synchronous video meetings can never assume that all students can be online at a particular time and day unless it was listed in the schedule of classes when they registered. If you are adding live meetings after students registered, plan on recording the session and having students who could not participate live watch the recording and then complete an activity such as writing a reflection on the content or answering pertinent questions that were addressed.

Grading Participation

While participation and engagement are crucial for learning, when that participation becomes fixed in text or video form, grading the quality and level of participation can become a challenge because you have a number of actual artifacts of participation which you need to grade. (For example, students may video record small-group work—such as foreign language conversation groups or cyber peer-led team learning—with one student from each group submitting a recording of the interaction along with some brief notes on the process and the content of the meeting.) Depending on the activities involved, instructors may grade each activity individually or grade sets of activities related to single topics or projects. Grading might include a letter grade for overall participation during a given unit or time period along with general feedback on what the student has done well and what could be improved.

Rubrics can be an effective way of setting everyone’s expectations for participation in class and smaller group discussions and making participation grades more transparent. Quality Matters encourages the use of a checklist or rubric for participation; the rubric or checklist may include items such as originality, quality of posts, and responsiveness to peers.

Here are some example discussion rubrics to help you think about what you might work well in your own class.

References and Resources

Horton, W. (2006). e-Learning by design (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Mintu-Wimsatt, A., Kernek, C., & Lozada, H. R. (2010). Netiquette: Make it part of your syllabusJournal of Online Learning and Teaching6(1), 264.



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