From the beginning of online education, experts have recognized the importance of student participation in achieving a successful outcome in online education. Studies have looked at ways to increase participation, to make participation more effective, and to see how participation affects both student success and student satisfaction with a course. This entry looks at various forms of student participation in online classes and their effect on learning and retention.

Definitions of Participation

Students participate in different ways in different courses. The lowest level of participation is that of a lurker, someone who logs in to the course and reads what others have written but who does not post. The next level is someone who writes something, either discussion posts or other assignment that may be read and commented on by other students. The next level of participation is that of high quality and or quantity of writing—someone who posts frequently or insightfully. Someone who thoughtfully reads what others have written and makes comments designed to further the discussion is working at the next level and the highest level, which is participating in a true scholarly dialogue.

Importance of Participation

When students do not participate in class, they feel isolated or as if they are not taking part in a real class. These reactions lead to both less satisfaction with the course and a reduced number of successful completions. On the other hand, when students participate fully in an online class to pass, they tend to participate more, enjoy the class more, and successfully complete more often.

Participation can involve interaction with the course material, with the instructor, and with other students. Students must be able to interact with the course material easily. An effective course design makes navigation between course components intuitive. If students find it difficult to get to the assignments, they may stop trying. If they perceive a course to be laid out in a manner that is unnecessarily complicated, they will refuse to make the effort to get to the course material. Students must be able to get to the instructions and assignments quickly. Having a course design that follows the same structure for each part of the course can help with this as can having instructions in three different places within the course (e.g., as an instructions page, on the lesson page, and within a Dropbox). Having clear links within each lesson to the assignments can help students navigate the class.

Many instructors require students to interact with them as part of their grade. Chat rooms, discussion forums, and e-mail are all ways to make this type of participation happen. If instructors choose this route, they need to access these channels at least daily. Getting a student to believe that communication will be almost instant and then allowing days to drag between question and answer will lead to student dissatisfaction and lack of success. All instructors need to make it clear when and how they will respond to and interact with students.

Other instructors prefer to have the bulk of student participation occur among students. Chat rooms and discussion forums are the most common tools for this type of participation, though wikis, blogs, and e-mail are also used. Studies are divided on how much instructor participation in these forums is advisable. Some say that instructors should take an active role, answering all posts, devising and posting all questions, and more. If this active approach is used, instructors run the risk of making the students more passive, waiting for instructor input. Student satisfaction may also be lower. The active approach does prevent inaccurate information from being believed, as the instructor is able to correct such posts quickly.

Many instructors prefer a hands-off approach to the student participation venues. They read the posts daily to correct misinformation but leave most of the discussion to the student. This can lead to more vigorous and creative participation, but instructors run the risk of students thinking that the instructor is not involved with the class. Instructors need to have a visible presence in the class to achieve higher levels of student satisfaction and success. Instructor participation of some sort is necessary for higher levels of student participation.

Student participation is a vital, and perhaps the most important, aspect of online education. When participation is not required or not facilitated well, student achievement decreases and satisfaction plummets.

Techniques to Increase Participation

Though studies show that there are many ways to attempt to increase student participation, the one most effective practice is to make a large part of the grade dependent on participation. The most common format is discussion in discussion forums (asynchronous) or chat rooms (synchronous). Setting a minimum number of posts per lesson, requiring that students respond to a certain number of other posts, or mandating that students post on a set number of different days all can increase the quantity of posts and therefore participation. Upper-level and graduate students can be expected to post more often than freshmen. Chat room attendance and number of postings can be measured by most course management systems. Instructors can make it clear that mere attendance—having the chat room open—does not equate to participation. Students must take part in the chats.

Techniques to Improve Quality of Participation

To explain to the students how much they need to do in order that they make a high grade, some instructors are now using the term presence. Students must have a visible presence in the online discussions to earn their participation points. Presence is more than logging in. It is more than agreeing or praising another’s post. Presence means that other students see that student’s thoughts and are able to engage in scholarly debate with him or her. The instructions and instructor comments need to make the expectations clear. An example of a good discussion posted on the instructions page or in the syllabus can increase the quality of participation, especially in the first weeks. Without a good model before the first assignment, undermotivated, unprepared, or first-time online students will not be successful.

Instructors can model the first lesson’s assignments, writing out questions for discussion and giving high-level responses to the student posts. This can happen even if the instructor intends to have the more hands-off approach for the rest of the semester. They can also give feedback privately throughout the first lesson so students get immediate feedback on what is expected. After the first few lessons, students will either see what the high-performing students are doing and raise their own level of achievement or they will figure out just how much it takes to make the grade they want and do nothing greater than that for the rest of the semester. Oddly enough, students who are happy with a “C” and achieve that grade can have higher levels of satisfaction than a student who achieves an “A.” While it can be frustrating for instructors to see students not achieving as much as they could with more effort, nagging them to work harder has little positive benefit and often results in a lower instructor rating.

Instructors can make clear their high expectations for the class by telling how many posts and of what quality they need to be in order to make a high grade. Rubrics can help with this. When students can see that the number of posts is a minor part of the grade while analysis or other critical thinking skill earns more points, they are motivated to write better posts. When using rubrics, be sure to let students see them both before and after grading. This allows them to focus on the areas that will earn the most points, which should be the same areas the instructor sees as of higher importance.

Having team leaders can be an effective method to improve the quality of participation. Having one student in charge of the discussion each week drives them to excel so that they do not fail in front of their peers. Setting the discussion forum so a student has to post before seeing the posts of other students can greatly increase the quality of the initial messages and also cuts down on students trying to get by without reading the material and copying the previous posts.

Discussion groups need to be small to be effective. Dividing the larger classes into teams of four to eight members makes each team feel like it is a small class with personal attention from the instructor. Discussions with more than 10 participants are not usually successful. Students get too bogged down in reading through the many posts trying to decide which ones to respond to. They can get overwhelmed and feel like they are lost in the crowd. Small discussion groups are much better at encouraging both quantity and quality of posts. Students can bond in these situations and help one another to higher levels of success.

How Participation Leads to Success and Satisfaction

When students are motivated to participate at a high level, they naturally pay more attention to the course content. They think more deeply about the issues. They use their creativity to impress their teammates. Conversely, when students are not motivated to participate, or they do not understand how to participate effectively, they react negatively. They stop attempting to participate, they become isolated, and they either withdraw from the class or fail.

Online classes that do not utilize discussion, chat, blogs, wikis, or other forms of student interaction tend to appear to students as not being a “real” class. Most students need to interact with classmates and the instructor in order to learn the material. Lack of participation, whether because of student or instructor behaviors, undercuts the effectiveness of a course.

Good design encourages participation. Motivating e-mails from the instructor throughout the course can increase the chances for success. It can be hard work on the instructor’s part to get a class participating at the level necessary to achieve success, but without this component, the class is unlikely to succeed.

Modeling and encouraging participation is a vital component of class success. Participation must be a large component of the grade to motivate the students. Clear instructions and examples help them achieve success from the beginning of the course. Students who interact frequently and at a deep level with their peers and with the instructor, and who receive the grades they expect, show greater satisfaction with online courses.

See alsoInteraction Among Students; Interaction Between Students and Faculty; Social Aspects of Online Education

  • students
  • online education
  • web chat
  • wikis
  • satisfaction
  • course design
  • blogs
Jean A. Stuntz

Further Readings

Hew, K. F. (2008). Attracting student participation in asynchronous online discussions: A case study of peer facilitation. Computers & Education, 51, 11111124.
Hrastinski, S. (2008). What is online learner participation? A literature review. Computers & Education, 51, 17551765.
Mazzolini, M., & Maddison, S. (2002). Sage, guide, or ghost? The effect of instructor intervention on student participation in online discussion forums. Computers & Education, 40, 237253.
Rovai, A. P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. Internet and Higher Education, 10, 7788.
Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interaction: Design factors affecting student satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22, 306331.
Vonderwell, S., & Zachariah, S. (2005). Factors that influence participation in online learning. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38, 213230.
Young, S. (2006). Student views of effective online teaching in higher education. American Journal of Distance Education, 20, 6577.
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