Discussion boards are the best way for online students and faculty to interact with each other asynchronously. When instructors are involved, students know whether they are on the right track.
Students report a higher level of learning and satisfaction with a course when they perceive their instructor’s presence in the course to be higher (Zhao, 2015). It makes sense; the instructor is the subject matter expert, and students crave the expert opinion.
However it’s not always a good idea to give students what they want. Studies have shown that too much instructor involvement can stifle the forum. When instructors provide direct instruction in discussion forums, rather than guiding the students to find their own answers, students predictably tend to post less often and at a lower level. (Zhao, 2015) When the expert weighs in with a direct statement, there’s no need for the students to keep working together to explore the topic. They can simply shut off the computer.
It seems like a no-win situation. Students crave more instructor interaction in the discussions, but by doing so, the instructor limits the students’ interaction with the material.
The key is in considering quality of involvement, not just quantity. When the instructor asks probing open-ended questions rather than makes a declarative statement, students are more likely to further the discussion and construct their own knowledge (Zhao, 2015). The Socratic method that works so well in the classroom seems to work well online, too. Even activities such as peer review are improved when instructors model the sort of interaction and language they would like their students to use in the activity.
Consider scaffolding your involvement in discussions throughout the course. Early on, be more active and ask more guiding questions to model what kind of responses you’re looking for. As the term progresses and students show more skill, you may want to back off—without disappearing from the discussions completely, of course.
“The discussion forums were a good discipline to apply the learning and build on understanding of the relevance. [The professor’s] participation in the discussions, as indicated, sparked additional thoughts & insights. He has a wealth of knowledge in this arena, which provides great academic learning. I was impressed at how this engaged the student learning experience.”
“The information taught in this course was really fascinating, but I felt a little cheated in my learning experience based on [the instructor’s] approach – he added nothing to discussions, taught very little in the weekly commentary/lecture, and gave very little feedback. I could’ve learned the same information by reading the book on my own instead of paying the money to take the course.”
“I do not like discussions where the professor waits an entire week to give feedback. For example, ‘give an example of x,y,z’ or ‘based upon your reading is it a or is it b’ and then all the students in the class do an initial post and at least one followup. And then well after the week has passed, the professor weighs in. Students have already moved on. We are onto the discussion for the next week. It seems pointless. If professors do not want to engage in the discussion posts, they shouldn’t require them.”
Strategies for Participation
- Facilitate an Introductions discussion or similar opportunity. Be sure to welcome each student to the course.
- Introduce the discussion. Add your personal insights to the topic, explain why the topic is relevant to the course objectives and to the students, and/or explain how the topic connects to past or future topics in the course.
- Model expected discussion participation. Be active and show students different techniques for participating, such as building on someone’s contribution, politely disagreeing, or asking for clarification.
- Provide scaffolding. Point out exemplar initial and response posts and add sources of information when you see a gap between where they are and where they need to be.
- Add information. Share industry, personal, or academic knowledge or experience. Bring in current events, stories, examples, or anecdotes to enrich the discussion and provide context. Make connections between course content and real-world applications.
- Use a “Watercooler” or “Hallway” discussion for social communication. Just like students take time before class or in the hallways to socialize, you can create a space for them to do so in the online classroom. Don’t just expect that the students are going to jump in and use this space on their own. Be sure to use it yourself and model how students can interact here.
- Wrap up the discussion. Summarize, share the “best of” posts/stories, share your takeaways, and encourage reflection.
- Provide feedback. Include praise, use personal language (e.g., first names), and be timely. Experiment with providing feedback in different formats such as audio or video. Voice feedback has been associated with increased content retention, more feedback in less time, and less isolation and more motivation.
- Participate more heavily early on. As students become more comfortable with online discussions, the instructor can grant more autonomy to them to find their own path to knowledge.
Hobbs, P., & Kropp, E. Finding the Instructional Value in Peer Review Discussion Boards. (2018, June 06). Retrieved June 25, 2018, from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/finding-the-instructional-value-in-peer-review-discussion-boards/
Everson, M. (2016, December 14). Understanding the Instructor’s Role in Facilitating Online Discussions. Retrieved June 25, 2018, from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/understanding-the-instructors-role-in-facilitating-online-discussions/
Zhao, H. and Sullivan, K. P. (2017), Teaching presence in computer conferencing. Br J Educ Technol, 48: 538-551. doi:10.1111/bjet.12383