Promoting Early, Active Discussion in Online Courses

In a study of student participation in threaded discussions, Scott Warnock, an assistant professor of English at Drexel University, found that students who post early in threaded discussions tend to do better (as measured by course grades) than those who procrastinate.

Those who post early also tend to take control of the conversation and check for reactions to their messages, Warnock says. “We’ve all sent out provocative messages and can’t wait to see the response. That’s exactly what I think is going on [in threaded discussions]. Students have said to me, ‘I keep checking because I want to see [other students’ responses].’ If you haven’t posted, you have no stake in the conversation, so you really don’t care what anybody else says.”

Although it would be helpful to share these observations with students, it may not be enough to get them to post early. To encourage more active online discussions, Warnock suggests the following:

  • Use simple prompts. Don’t give students so much to think about that they have to read the prompt, log off, and think about it for hours before responding. “I want them to be able to read the prompt, write 200 or 500 words, and sit back and see people respond to what they said,” Warnock says.
  • Make it fun. Warnock uses playful threads to prompt student interest. In a persuasive writing course, he made outrageous comments and had students use evidence to debunk his claims.
  • Make discussions valuable. “Have the students to use the posts as evidence in their papers. This encourages them to read the posts and use the conversations in a way that is useful to their own writing projects,” Warnock says.
  • Have students moderate. This can take some of the pressure off the instructor and encourage participation. “Sometimes students respond better to each other than they do to the instructor,” Warnock says.
  • Give students choices. “I always have more threads than I require students to post to. I want them to read the threads, but I want them to feel some freedom to respond where they like,” Warnock says.
  • Have students analyze discussion posts. Students do a lot of meta-writing in Warnock’s classes. He has them select a favorite post and favorite poster, which gives certain students further recognition for their comments. He also has students comment on their own posts—what they did and what they wish they had done differently—and rewrite them. “This makes them more aware and helps them stay in tune with the threads,” he says.

Scott Warnock will present on this topic at The Teaching Professor Conference, which will take place June 5-7 in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit: