November 15th, 2012

Six Ways to Get Your Online Students Participating in the Course


Have you ever worried about the level of participation in your online courses? Perhaps you have difficulty encouraging students to interact with one another, or maybe you find student responses to be perfunctory. Surely there must be a way to encourage the kinds of participation that really supports learning.

During a recent online seminar titled Improve Participation to Enhance Learning in Online Courses, Joan Thormann, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Technology in Education at Lesley University and author of The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses, shared six techniques for encouraging interactions that boost learning in an online class.

  1. Optimized use of introductions: Encourage students (and the professor) to share personal information like hobbies, interests, and demographic data. This will build community, raise interest in the students in the class, and make for a friendly online environment. This is an easy first assignment.
  2. Use of the instructor as a model: As an instructor, consider giving students feedback about their assignments using a template that details the expectations for the assignment. Model good communications by adding personal comments tailored to the student, thereby giving an example of substantive writing.
  3. Use of a clear grading system: Encourage the students to give helpful contributions by grading their discussions every week. Give them guidance on what sort of contributions are expected, such as in-depth analysis rather than simply “I agree.”
  4. Use of student moderators: The instructor does not have to be the only one to encourage valuable contributions from students in the course. Use student moderators on a rotating basis to manage discussions. This practice will increase the sense of ownership of the course and help students learn to support each other and deepen their content knowledge.
  5. Use of voice conferences: In some cases, a live voice conference can be a valuable addition to the online course. These opportunities let students get to know each other and strengthen their overall communication.
  6. Development of supportive forums: Develop some online forums where students can go for support, assistance, and an exchange of information with other students. Don’t respond right away to inquiries; give students time to help one another and build community.

Online courses can have the kind of vibrant interaction you find in the best of courses, both online and traditional. All it takes is the use of some simple tools that encourage students to engage with one another in substantive ways.

  • I agree with this article. The only technique that I am not using is #5. I would like to add that it is important to prepare students for interaction. I make sure that there is a task related to the discussion board where they need to do individual research, summarize their ideas and bring in new concepts to the discussion. In this way, the first post has information to get the conversation started. We are all powerful and natural explorers (Brain Rule # 12, Medina, 2008). Discussions are a great way to connect learning in the classroom with research on real life events, individual critical thinking and collaborative learning but effective discussions are not an accident. They are planned ahead of time.

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  • jack boas

    Some of these suggestions are very good, and others less so. For example, it is well-night impossible to grade student discussions every week — not if you have 35 to 40 students, with each one submitting multiple responses. . Indeed, the discussion component is the most difficult to regulate. There are always one or more students, usually the best, who ahead of the pack, give excellent answers, leaving little room for other to weigh in. I'd be very grateful if someone would tell me how to tackle this kind of problem. I've tried a number of approaches, none satisfactory.

    • Joan Thormann

      Hi Jack,

      In a large class for the instructor, it is indeed difficult to track each student's contribution to the discussion. Every week I require students to ask at least two classmates substantive comments and questions and respond to all the comments and questions. The content focuses on the weekly assignment which each student posts on the Discussion Board forum.

      There are tools such at search on Blackboard which allows the instructor to view all posts in a designated forum. In this way the instructor can skim read what was written and assign a grade based on a rubric. Another way to grade student participation is to have peer evaluations using the same rubric. The instructor can model how to use the rubric for the first week or two and then require classmates to do the evaluation.

      Most of the assignments that I ask students to do are "unique" so that the best student can't possibly address all the issues posed by a classmate's posted assignment. Chapter 4 my book "The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses. " presents sample templates for assignments that can be used for this type of assignment.

      I hope these suggestions help.


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  • Matt Champagne

    I like your article. Nice points on participation!

  • Claudia Eckelmann


    I would like to know more about the format and process for student moderators on online discussion boards. Can you direct me? Or is anybody out there who has successfully used it?

    • Joan Thormann

      Hi Claudia,

      I wrote an article about student moderators Thormann, J. (March, 2008). Student moderators in an online course. Online Cl@ssroom,1,7. Also I share how to implement use of student moderators in my book, The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses.

      Joan Thormann

  • Jaininder

    Great post! We'll include these points in our teaching training program. We have an online learning platform WizIQ, which allows teachers and students from all over the world to connect with each other. We encourage our teachers to interact with the students, motivate them to speak in the online classes and participate in the live discussions. WizIQ Virtual Classroom enables such interaction with features like live audio/video, text chat, media player, polls, break out rooms, drawing board, etc.

  • Scott CEO Ginkgotree

    Another great way to get students to interact with an online course is by making it easy to access all of the necessary materials, from textbooks to instructor-provided handouts and more. Unfortunately, many of the online learning packages simply make this process more difficult than it should be. Ginkgotree lets instructors package all of the learning materials in a convenient packet that students can access quickly and easily.

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  • Jackie

    These are all great tips when it comes to getting your students to interact in the classroom. Online programs are different than traditional ones in the sense that it's all virtual so it can be hard at times to get everyone to participate but it is doable by incorporating a few techniques, like the ones mentioned above.

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