Policies for More Meaningful Participation in Online Discussions

One instructor’s study of student participation in online discussions in two of his asynchronous online courses over a five-year period has yielded some interesting results that have influenced how he conducts his courses.

John Thompson, associate professor in the computer information systems department at Buffalo State College, employed the user-statistics feature within the Blackboard course management system in the courses he taught online through the University of San Diego. The courses were six-week asynchronous graduate-level education courses mandated by the State of California for teacher certification. In each course, discussion was a significant component that counted for 41 percent of each student’s final grade.

Not surprisingly, the incentive to participate in the online discussions encouraged participation, but simply mandating participation and making it a substantial part of the course grade does not guarantee the quality of participation that adds to the learning experience.

For example, the University of San Diego requires that each student post seven acceptable messages—those that advance the discussion in some way—each week. The majority of students met this minimum requirement each week, but Thompson found that approximately half of the postings occurred in the last two days of the week, which often made the discussions less productive than they might have been otherwise had students participated throughout the week. “Left on their own, students will have a disproportionate number of postings in the last couple of days in the week. You really need to take a look at that. If that’s OK with you, that’s fine, but what I find, if left on their own, students have far too many postings done to satisfy a requirement,” Thompson says.

To encourage students to post earlier, Thompson requires a minimum of seven postings from each student during the first four days of each week. Thompson deducts points for failure to meet this requirement.

In addition, each week had seven to nine discussions, and Thompson found that most students tended to post messages to the first two discussions and neglected the others. To counteract this tendency, Thompson required students to post at least one message to each discussion.

Excerpted from Use Participation Policies to Improve Interaction, Online Classroom, May 2007.