8 Strategies to Improve Participation in Online Courses
To improve the overall participation and the quality of the discussions in online courses, the Edutopia foundation surveyed more than twenty educators to learn about their best practices, which they then summarized as 8 concrete strategies. I have adapted them for college-level courses.
Stimulating classroom participation is already a challenge in person, but it is even harder in an online course. The video conferencing platforms create additional obstacles as it becomes harder to plan when to speak, or to guess how our message is perceived. Additionally, access to technologies (computer, high-speed internet) complicates spontaneous exchanges as well. To counter those technological hazards, a large number of teachers have chosen to go with individual assignments handed in via submission boxes, which limit interactions even more.
1) Spider web discussion
As part of a synchronous class, it may be interesting to let students lead discussions on their own.
For example, as an icebreaker for a synchronous meeting, the students could share their answers to preparatory questions related to their readings.
Throughout the discussion led by the students, the teacher draws the links between the different speakers. At the end of a discussion, the teacher presents their sketch, which has the shape of a spider web. This allows the teacher to illustrate the interactions and push the students to think about their contribution to the conversation, the quality of their interventions, and their ability to react to and build upon the ideas shared by their peers.
2) Using chat to check for understanding
During the first synchronous class, establish clear rules with your students and show them the usefulness of participating and writing in the chat of your video conferencing platform.
The reaction function of your video conferencing platform can also be useful. A simple thumb down in the chat might be enough to tell you that the content discussed needs to be explained further.
3) Flip your classroom to stimulate deeper discussions
Many teachers have adopted a hybrid synchronous-asynchronous formula that resembles the flipped classroom.
Be it through videos, readings, or online activities, the students first interact with the new content asynchronously. When everyone gets together during the synchronous class, it may be interesting to use the breakout rooms to solve problems or do case studies in teams. This way, the students are active and the teacher can better identify the difficulties they experience and re-explain difficult content.
4) Rethinking the think-pair-share for Zoom
A preparatory assignment to be done individually can be given to the students before a synchronous class. During the synchronous class, the students are placed in small groups and go through a new step of the activity. Then, a designated speaker from each team shares the elements brought up during the group activity with the rest of the class.
In the Edutopia Foundation article, Emelina Mireno explains how that kind of activity can be integrated in a project-based approach. This approach can help students develop their autonomy and minimize the shyness associated with having to speak during a video conference.
For some teachers, synchronous discussions reflect better the exchanges that normally take place in class. However, asynchronous discussions can appear as more equitable, as they allow the students who do not have access to high speed internet, have scheduling problems, or simply students who are shy about talking to still share with the class.
5) A new twist on “show-and-tell”
Creating a virtual writing community can foster participation in an online course. With the Padlet [in French] digital tool, the teacher shares a large collaborative white board with their students where they can drop pictures, videos, and personal reflections and get inspired by what their peers have shared. This way, every contribution is a source of inspiration for their different writing projects (dissertations, essays, longer assignments, lab reports, etc.). The students could eventually submit excerpts of their texts to receive feedback from their peers.
Some suggested uses of Padlet at the college level [in French].
6) Create engaging conversations with online forums
A class forum is nothing new. However, used well, it can stimulate enriching discussions.
Real exchanges can happen on a forum when the teacher comments on each original comment left by their students. Unavoidably, the student will look at the response to their comment and, often, will clarify their thoughts.
In order for the exchanges not to be limited to between the teacher and their students, it might be pertinent to oblige the students to reply to at least two interventions from their peers. This will help them to develop the reflex of interacting with their classmates.
7) Gallery walk
The idea of a gallery walk is to give the chance to the students to see the assignments of their peers, to get inspired, and to learn among themselves. The students can present their project in a 5-minute video uploaded onto the class forum or do a presentation during a synchronous class. The idea is to put the students in contact with the work of their peers so that they learn to provide constructive feedback to help one another.
8) Online brainstorming session
Whether it be in a synchronous or asynchronous formula, it may be interesting to create collaborative note-taking documents on different subjects that the students can add to throughout the meeting. They build their knowledge together while interacting with their peers remotely.
The main takeaway from those 8 strategies is that class participation will not come by itself. Both the teacher and their students need to put their shoulder to the wheel to create a feeling of community, and that, even in a distance learning context.