What Do Students Say about Online Discussion?

By Glenna L. Decker, EdD, and Sarah J. Cox

We know that the literature suggests that online collaboration and discussion are key elements to success for an online course, but what do students think about online discussion? We decided to find out by conducting an anecdotal study to see if what our students (undergraduate and graduate students in a midsize Midwest university) reported matched what the literature suggests.

After years of listening to varied comments from our students, we surveyed two classes at the beginning of a semester. Of 32 surveys sent, 25 were returned. We then held focus groups with an additional 20 graduate students and with 20 undergraduate students. Our topic was their perceptions of course online discussion. We asked such questions as:

• “Do you participate in face-to-face class discussions?”
• “How much do you generally read of online discussion?”
• “What motivates you to participate?”
  • “What has made for good (and for poor) experiences of online discussion?”

More than 80 percent of graduate and 66 percent of undergraduate students reported generally contributing to face-to-face class discussions. More than 80 percent of the total reported that they had participated in online discussions in previous courses. On average between the two groups, nearly 12 percent reported that they read 100 percent of the online discussion, and approximately 55 percent reported that they typically read 75 percent to 99 percent of online discussion. Just over 24 percent read less than half, while nearly 10 percent chose not to answer.

We were interested in what motivates students to participate. In a pre-class survey, 100 percent expressed that interest in the subject will get them to participate; on average, 78 percent reported that they participate if it is graded. This last number, however, rose to closer to 85 percent in a post-course survey. Few claimed that peer pressure served as a motivator, but comments included the importance of other students also participating. Other comments suggested comfort in the online environment because they have time to think before responding. Of particular interest is how much of the online discussion students read.

Approximately 23 percent of graduate students and no undergraduate students reported reading all of the online discussion; an average between the two groups indicates that approximately 58 percent read between 75 percent and 99 percent. The rest (except for the 9 percent who did not answer) read less than half, with about 8 percent of graduate students reporting reading less than 25 percent.

Equally interesting was looking at their reasons for not participating in online discussion. Responses varied between the anticipation of the online course discussion and the post-course reality. Half of undergraduate and 65 percent of graduate students believed that a lack of interest would keep them from participating, but fewer than 19 percent reported the same at the end. The biggest barrier to participating was time. At the end of the courses, an average of nearly 88 percent reported that lack of time kept them from participating. Half of undergraduate students thought that too much text on the discussion board was a barrier, as did 38 percent of graduates. On average, 12 percent did not complete the preparation work, 10 percent did not participate in nongraded discussion, and 14 percent did not respond.

Summarizing their responses, along with the literature, we determined our own “best practices.”

1. Make the topic interesting and relevant.
The online discussion must be a topic of interest. Questions that have relevancy to the students, whether in their immediate lives or that they can connect to their future, will elicit higher participation. Take time to inform students why you value discussion and what you hope they gain from it. Identify ahead of time the educational objectives, and inform students how the discussion will add to their understanding of the content (Jenkinson, 1994).

2. Encourage timely participation.
Students reported that they preferred when all participated in a timely manner. The instructor can be prescriptive in this, allowing only a few days for initial responses, with follow up responses one or two more times throughout the duration of the discussion. Another approach that has been successful with the author’s graduate students is to spend the first week of the course having the students themselves define the parameters. As they discuss their own positive and negative experiences in online discussion, the students can then vote on their own expectations, including when and how often they should contribute. With a social contract, they own the criteria and hold each other accountable, allowing the instructor to be less prescriptive.

3. Ask two or three open-ended questions to provide opportunity for ongoing dialogue.
Students will con-tribute more when they learn from the discussion and find the dialogue thoughtful and meaningful. They are more interested when there are a variety of perspectives and opinions. Encourage their opinion, backed up by referencing the literature. Students want somewhere to go with the discussion; they do not want a closed response or to feel forced to reword the same response as others. Be clear that simply agreeing with a colleague is insufficient without explaining what informs their opinion.

4. Encourage clear, concise dialogue.
Students shared that time restraints were a barrier to participating and they welcomed succinct, to- the-point responses. Model for students how to write for online dialogue. Short, inverted paragraphs and bullet points are more effective for reading online (Nielsen, 1997).

5. Rotate students or groups.
Staying on topic is important to students, and a reminder of this may dissuade ill-prepared students from posting solely for credit. One way to manage this is to rotate students or groups to be the topic facilitators. Students will then hold each other accountable for the relevancy of the contributions to the topic at hand.

6. Create a safe environment.
The quickest way to shut down discussion is for someone to feel attacked. Students need (and deserve) to feel safe in class discussion (Doyle, 2005), and this is perhaps more challenging in the online environment, where typed messages are easily misinterpreted. Students report the need for an honest, open, and respectful environment. The instructor has the responsibility of setting this tone from the beginning. Model appropriate responses and challenges through additional questions.

7. Make expectations clear.
One challenge with online discussion is that it is not contained within the period of a class meeting. Students look for clear expectations and guide- lines, with an identified beginning and ending. Address this with a rubric that clarifies expectations of quality discus- sion, including how often, when, and how posts must contribute to the ongoing dialogue.

8. Use group discussions.
Students reported that they favored group discussion (these groups averaged five participants) and liked having assigned roles. Requiring students to rotate roles such as facilitator, researcher, summarizer, and questioner gave them purpose and eased anxieties. They knew their expectations and enjoyed the dialogue more. The quality and depth of the discussion also improves as the students engage further in higher-order thinking skills.

A final note is to address the instructor’s role in the discussion. Be clear with your students about your own participation. Students report that an overly involved instructor will inhibit participation, as students will be waiting to hear the “correct” answer. In addition to the author’s own investigation, a study by Rourke & Anderson (2002) concluded that “student-led discussions provide a free and relaxed atmosphere for discussion, which makes students feel uninhibited in asking questions and challenging the statements of others” (p. 4).

Doyle, T. (2005, February 4). A real world model for classroom discussion. Lecture presented at Pew Faculty Teaching & Learning Center, Grand Valley State University.

Jenkinson, E. (1994, January). Writing assignments, journals, and student privacy. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication, digest #88. Retrieved October 15, 2007, from Indiana University School of Education website:
www.indiana.edu/ ~reading/ieo/digests/d88.html

Nielsen, J. (1997). How users read on the web. Retrieved October 15, 2007, from Nielsen Norman Group useit.com website:
www.useit.com/ alertbox/9710a.html

Rourke, L., & Anderson, T. (2002). Using peer teams to lead online dis- cussions. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, March, 2002(1), 4. Retrieved October 15, 2007, from The Open University, United Kingdom website: www-jime.open.ac.uk/ 2002/1/rourke-anderson-02-1-t.html