A Balancing Act:
What percentage of posts would you say you read but do not respond to?
Majority of the students read somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of the posts. The range of posts that were read but not responded to (Figure 1) was wider, 40 to 90 percent. One of the reasons stated for not responding to the posts was not having time to respond. The primary reasons for not responding were students feeling they have nothing to offer and needing time to think about the post.
Students were asked if the frequency of their posts was influenced by the instructor’s presence in the discussion forum. The instructor’s presence didn’t appear to have a significant impact on the students’ posting habits. 6 students said the presence of the student mattered. While 2 students said it depended on the particular topic and the rest indicated the presence of the instructor was not a large influence on their posting frequency. Students in this online course have had previous online discussion experience. Perhaps, the instructor’s presence would make a bigger difference in a beginning online course(s).
The number of responses to the question “does the subject line influence your decision to read the post” was equally spread out. 38.5 % of the students answered “yes”, 30.8 % answered “sometimes”, and 30.8 % answered “no”. The students who stated the subject line influenced their decision to read the post also indicated lack of time was one of the reasons they read the posts but did not respond to them.
Students were asked to rate their discussion input and comfort level as they progressed through the masters program (Figure 3).
Rate your discussion input and comfort level
A few courses later
Now (if you are a class or two away from completing the program)
Total # of respondents 14. Statistics based on 14 respondents 0 filtered; 0 skipped
One of the students summed up well the major reasons students felt more comfortable participating in a discussion forum, “Generally getting used to something new, Encouragement from instructor and understanding how important discussions were for learning” (Lorraine, 2004).
How often students hesitated to post when they had questions or opposing opinions and reasons for their hesitation was also examined. Most students hesitated 20 to 30% of the times. Lack of time, other students already responded and not overburdening other students with extra reading were some of the causes for hesitation. It is important to note even though there may not have been a written response, reflection about what was read is evident. For example, one of the questionnaire’s respondents writes “I also don’t see a need to respond to everything- I may respond mentally, but don’t need to post” (Deano, 2004).
Using time efficiently to read and respond to post appears to play a major role in the level and quality of student participation. Many students do not want to be overloaded with information. However, they still want the opportunity to discuss in depth their selected topic. The right amount of discussion participation appears to be at best a balancing act (Figure 4).
Organization and length of threads can also affect where students’ time can be best spent. Several students indicated they scanned the subject line before reading the posts. Other students also mentioned they avoided lengthy discussion threads. Instructors can encourage students to categorize and give specific titles to discussion threads. Course management discussion software could be improved for easier readability and organization.
Students improved comfort level with online discussion is influenced by several factors. These factors include participants personalities, instructor’s encouragement, group activities, participant’s responses and the one most cited- opportunity to practice discussion. Therefore, the opportunity to practice different levels of discussion, especially in the beginning courses, could have a major influence on how soon students will feel comfortable and successful in an online course.
What can online instructors do to improve student involvement in their courses? Specifically, what can be done to help students become more comfortable and at the same time not become overwhelmed with the discussion process?
Helping to Make the Discussion Boards Easier to Navigate
Use specific title in the subject line.
Include a line or two of the post you are responding to.
Write easy to read posts by applying text formatting and avoiding lengthy blocks of text.
Categorize or start new threads when the discussion threads become too long.
Give enough time to students to read and respond to discussion topics.
Do not overload student with information at one time.
Helping Students Become More Comfortable Participating Online
Provide students MANY opportunities to practice discussion
- feedback to peers
- sharing experiences
- group work
- sharing resources
- leading a discussion topic (student facilitators)
- analyzing and commenting on research
Provide a safe and encouraging environment.
Explain the value of discussion and its connection to learning.
Provide a discussion rubric which includes good student participation examples.
This article looked at how students participate in an online course. Students’ frequency and comfort level with online participation was stated to be influenced by time, organization of threads and opportunity to practice different levels of discussion. Frequency and comfort level are just a few aspects of student participation. There is still much more to learn about students’ online discussion practices. Studies similar to this one will be beneficial to facilitators who are looking to improve student engagement in their online courses.
Roblyer M.D. & Ekhaml, L. (Summer 2000). How interactive are your distance courses? A rubric for assessing interaction in distance learning. Online Journal of Distance Learning Adminstration, Volume 3, Number 2. Retrieved May 5, 2004, from http://www.westga.edu/%7Edistance/roblyer32.html
KeySurvey (2004). The One Stop Survey Service. http://www.keysurvey.com/creating_questionnaire_survey.html
Bhupinder Virk is in her last course in the Online Teaching and Learning Masters Program through California State University, Hayward. Her comfort level with participating in discussion forums has changed considerably since the beginning of the program. She personally experienced the positive impact online participation has in learning. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.