Have you ever wondered how to structure or strengthen a requirement for students in your online courses to interact with each other in meaningful ways? Perhaps you assigned discussion forum posts and responses or assigned team work only to notice that interactions devolve into superficial exchanges. In a study we recently conducted asking students their perceptions of required student-to-student interactions in online courses (Lesht & Schejbal, 2020), undergraduate and graduate students in online programs were eager to share their perspectives. Comments on the matter ranged from “waste of time” to “can be beneficial,” depending on the design of the required interactions. What follows are tips based on student insights and our experience.
Rather than require that all students in a class respond to the same question, consider assigning them to small groups each of which focuses on a different topic, posing questions that help them dig more deeply into those topics, and extending the conversation by including links to related resources. Then make available to the entire class the various small group online discussion posts to efficiently expand knowledge and skills. Above all, be certain that you reward substantive discussions with substantive responses rather than just “good idea” or “I agree.” Students in our study repeatedly mentioned that the main shortcoming of discussion forums was a lack of authentic interaction with their peers and with faculty.
According to students in our study, this two-pronged approach—graded and ungraded discussion boards—helps reduce the sense of isolation that can sometimes emerge when learning online. For example, through the virtual student lounge, students can share concerns they have with any aspect of the course or program; ask peers for advice, including about course selection and career development; post job announcements; learn from each other how to apply course concepts outside the classroom; and develop a sense of community in their online educational pursuits.
Consider alternatives to discussion boards in terms of student-to-student interactions. For example, several students in our study found peer review useful provided that the instructor included in the syllabus a clear rubric for critiques and participation. Peer review can be based on written work, or students can be asked to present or demonstrate their ideas via a video that their classmates then critique. Here, too, the small group approach works well. In our study, instructors in some cases also included a regularly scheduled, optional, synchronous session for student–student interaction that was recorded and those unable to attend the live session could later review.
Another option—about which students felt conflicted—is the use of group projects. While challenging, some students found beneficial working with others to share presentation responsibilities and to engage in problem-solving activities. As one participant noted, students might not need to interact with their classmates to deepen their understanding of content but would be “missing 21st-century skills” without the opportunity to interact. But as with group projects assigned to students in residential courses, some students were frustrated by group projects that devolved into one or two members of the team doing all the work. As with group projects in any environment, student accountability needs to be addressed in the syllabus. Students also noted time zone differences as an obstacle to group work. Furthermore, adult students taking courses online may be juggling careers, families, and other obligations and so may have limited time to coordinate with other students. Hence, if group projects are assigned, we recommend structuring them in ways that hold all members of the group accountable and limiting the time students need to focus on group work.
Show students what you have in mind by providing samples of exemplary work related to the assignment. In our courses, students have expressed that models—used with permission—of former students’ exemplary work have been helpful. In the case of student–student interaction--and depending on the assignment—an instructor might share a substantive thread between former students, post a paper with peer comments, or provide an example of a well-organized team project.
Students in our study urged instructors to stay involved with peer-to-peer interaction assignments. Students indicated that unsupervised discussion boards were not nearly as useful as were those in which the instructor periodically participated or helped students who appeared to be stuck move ahead. As one participant noted, “You can’t always trust what students are saying,” so instructor oversight—to ensure that students are deepening their knowledge—is important. Of course, instructors may not have time to monitor graded discussion groups or student-to-student interaction assignments. In such cases, students recommended that instructors seriously consider not requiring this type of interaction.
In short, when considering student-to-student interaction, ask the question: How, if at all, will this assignment further students’ understanding and mastery of the material? If the answer is not clear, don’t include that exercise in your course. If it is, then share your rationale with the students and be an active participant in the process. As one student in our study said, “We don’t need busy work.” We imagine you feel the same.
Lesht, F. L., & Schejbal, D. (2020). Student perceptions of required student-to-student interactions in online courses. e-mentor, 2(84), 4–12. https://doi.org/10.15219/em84.1459
Faye L. Lesht, PhD, serves in the role of research associate professor, digital learning, at Marquette University; David Schejbal, PhD, is president of Excelsior College.
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