Promoting Participation in Discussions

In the online, constructivist learning environment, rich and robust collaborative knowledge
construction occurs on the discussion board. The constructivist approach shifts the focus from the instructor to the students and the students are teachers as they share their experiences, expertise, and worldviews (Rovai, 2004). The student-centered classroom is a place where the instructor becomes a facilitator or coach who encourages active student engagement by guiding, questioning students to help them construct knowledge, and modeling interactions in the online classroom (Rovai, 2004). Students are urged to become engaged learners (Hooks, 1994) rather than passive receptacles where instructors deposit information into students in a banking model of education (Friere, 1970/2000).

To promote better participation, we must explore the role of the instructor as course designer who encourages peer participation by engaging in the effective design of discussion boards and as a facilitator who observes student behaviors and interactions to ensure that peer participation and quality engagement. Specific tips to improve peer participation and collaborative knowledge construction on discussion boards are included as take out tips.

Collaborative Knowledge Construction

The online constructivist classroom is a dynamic environment that utilizes curricula that is
customized to students’ prior knowledge, backgrounds, and experiences (Rovai, 2004). The online instructor facilitates and guides collaborative knowledge construction through discussions and small groups to foster communication and learning among the students. According to Brooks and Brooks (1995), the constructivist approach incorporates respecting students as learners and allowing them to share their knowledge through activities. Using the Community of Inquiry Model (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) instructors can analyze how cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence influence the community of learners’ success.

Discussion Board Design

Student to student engagement using online discussion boards and group activities leads to greater student satisfaction and perceived learning. For example, Jiang and Ting (2000) found that instructor to student interaction, online discussions, time on course, and written assignments were the four key variables that predicted students’ perceived learning. Furthermore, Wu and Hiltz (2004) reported that students liked online discussion and believed they enhanced their learning.

Discussions that were clear, consistent, and included feedback from instructors were perceived more favorably by students. Students with positive relationships between student-student interactions report greater levels of satisfaction with the course (Swan, 2002). However, creating discussion prompts that can foster interaction can be challenging at times (Clark & Mayer, 2011).

Jonassen (1994) suggests that the online design should focus on knowledge construction and not reproduction by presenting authentic tasks that provide real world learning opportunities. Seven key instructional strategies can be used in the design of discussion prompts: What I know; Response to Lectures and Readings; Research and Investigate; Application; Role Play; Question the Expert; and Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning.

Discussion boards which focus on “What I Know” allow instructors to probe students’ prior
knowledge by having students make connections, survey students, or model reflections (Bonk & Zhang, 2008). There are a number of strategies that instructors can use in their design to provide students the opportunity to respond lecture and readings. Using common classroom assessment techniques such asking for the most important point, the muddiest point, or one-sentence summaries are common practices. Instructors may also ask students to write sample test questions and model answers for specific topics (Rovai, Ponton, & Baker, 2008). Instructions may also use a strategy of research and investigate which incorporates activities that require students to use resources to respond to an established question extending beyond the required course material. Something as simple as searching the web (Bonk & Zhang, 2008) can spark interesting discussions among students. An application strategy for discussion boards may include case studies or actual data analysis (Bonk & Zhang, 2008). Role play strategy encourages a great deal of participation among peers. Something as simple as a debate based on pros and cons of an issue to assigning stakeholder roles for students to play out a scenario related to the course content (Smith, 2008) can be effective role playing processes in the online classroom. A question the expert strategy is used to enable students to generate meaningful questions. Depending on the topic selected students could serve as experts (Horton, 2006) or students could submit questions to the instructor in an attempt to “Stump the Professor”. Computer-supported collaborative learning is a common usage of discussion boards in the online classroom. Using groups to process a discussion to develop a group response, to build a case reflection, or build a case history are just a few ways collaborative learning can be facilitated using discussion boards as long as the task is clearly defined for the group (Clark & Mayer, 2011).

However, having good discussion prompts is only one part of being ensuring success in using discussion boards in online learning. The students’ active participation in the discussion boards is crucial for the success of the learning process. In order to get students engage instructors must obtain “‘buy-in’ to the learning process from the student often requires interaction between the student and the instructor” (Hay, Hodgkinson, Peltier, & Drago, 2004, p. 196). Thus, we will discuss the importance of discussion boards for students’ satisfaction and perceived learning, designing discussion board prompts as well has how we can obtain “buy-in” from students. Examples from data will be incorporated throughout the chapter as it connects to specific concepts. A more detailed explanation of the data analysis will be included as footnotes or Nerd Notes.

Social Presence

Social presence is the “ability of learners to project themselves socially and emotionally in a
community of inquiry” (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001, p. 4). Social presence is impacted by peer interactions (Swan, 2003) and found to be significantly related to students’ perceptions of learning (Picciano, 2002). Lu and Jeng (2006) analysis of online discussions found that students stayed mostly in the first phase of knowledge construction (sharing and comparing) and only moved to higher phases when the instructor engaged the students.
Social presence is like a feeling of community in the online classroom (Tu & McIsaac, 2002).
Examples from data will be incorporated to provide examples of how self-disclosure by the
instructor and between peers has a positive influence on developing social presence in the online learning environment.

Teaching Presence

There are three components of teaching presence: Instructional Design, Facilitation of Discourse, and Direct Instruction (Shea, Pickett, and Pelz, 2003). Garrison and Cleveland-Innes (2005) found that deep approaches of learning that engaged students in few assignments and discussion, but provided a high level of reflectivity and level of interaction between instructors and students produced greater gains in students’ perception of learning. Essentially, students in classes withvinstructors who provide active leadership and engagement in the discussions felt that their learningvwas enhanced compared to students with low or medium levels of learning.

As Rovai (2002) notes, constructivist approaches rely on active participation in the learning situation. Interaction and participation are crucial ingredients in the learning process. But interactivity, as a specific learning concept that underlies the general notions of interaction and participation, is not easily tracked and evaluated. Rovai found that instructors in higher education can encourage students to have a more positive attitude through effective ways of increasing interaction, such as structuring the learning environment in such a way achieve a ‘conversational learning community’, a learning model that promotes informal, relaxed, and interactive communities of learners and teachers. In our analysis of our data, we explore how the teaching presence can be built with self-disclosure on discussion boards and provide a contrast of an online classroom that missed the mark because of a lack of facilitation and direct interaction in the online learning environment. 

Take Out Tips

  • Include a list of discussion ideas for each of the seven types of discussion prompts discussed in the Discussion Board Design section of the proposal (see next page for example).
  • Ask students to list their favorite professional book with a short description and the author. At the end of the week, the students have created a resource list of professional books that pertain to their career path. (Most LMS’ allow for the discussion board to be printed or exported into Excel.)
  • Group students weekly in order to collaborate and post several questions. Reassign these groups weekly to allow interactions with other students.
  • Effectively engage students in argument to improve critical-thinking skills. Post a debatable topic and divide the students into groups to defend or oppose the topic.
  • Post a superior, average, and poorly written discussion board posts in order to model the desired level of scholarly writing that is expected. 

Discussion Design

Role Play

  • Provide activities that encourage active participation. Assign or allow students to select roles in discussion. For example, one student can be assigned to be the Sumarizer for a group. Another can be the Questioner who asks for clarification.


  • To encourage lively debate on an important issue, divide the class into groups and have one group take the pro side and the other the con side (devil’s advocate). Such conflict-intensive debates foster continued student reading of the positions of others.  


  • Have students listen to online conferences, seminars, and institutes in the field. Before the event, provide students with guide sheets or learning scaffolds. Have students reflect on the experience (Bonk & Zhang, 2008).

Stakeholder Roles

  • Assign roles based on the stakeholders in a scenario you have presented. In a hospital scenario, stakeholders could include physicians, nurse, the patient, family members of the patient, hospital staff, the billing office, the medical supplies department, and the pharmacy (Smith, 2008).

Invented Dialogues

  • Ask students to synthesize knowledge of issues, persons, or events into a structured and illustrated conversation.


  • Once students have engaged in role playing, have them reflect on what they’ve learned by playing the role. These reflections can prompt discussion questions.