How Much Participation Is Too Much?

As teachers, we are used to being the center of attention. Unlike students, we can pretty much talk whenever we want to, interrupt anyone for any reason, and say whatever we feel like. Even those of us committed to student-centered instruction probably dominate talk and activity in the classroom far more than we think we do. This is often painfully obvious in classroom discussions that are supposed to be places where students interact about important content-related toopics. We want students to take the lead in discussions, but that is more easily said than done.

My experiences at making students responsible for discussions have taught me some valuable lessons:

  • Expecting students to guide discussions is a radical departure from what they are used to, and feels very uncomfortable for them (and for the teacher).
  • The smallest word, gesture, or expression immediately returns the teacher to the center of the discussion, leaving students to sigh with relief that things are returning to normal. Then they can sit quietly and wait for the teacher to take on the natural role of guiding and directing talk.
  • Progress at giving students control over discussions is slow and challenging. Students can learn to do it, but only if they really believe the discussion is their creation, and not some kind of a puzzle where they have to guess what the teacher wants but, for some perverse reason, won’t tell them.

So what does this mean for online discussions? Are they parallel or different in so many ways that what I’ve learned about promoting student-centered discussions doesn’t apply to virtual discussions? This is an issue I’m struggling with.

One big difference is that a teacher’s presence in a traditional classroom environment is obvious. He may not be talking, may be taking notes, or sitting on the outside of a circle, but he clearly is there. In an online environment, your presence is your words, but how can we refrain from letting our words give us contol?

The question is, given students’ reactions to teacher comments, how do you facilitate online discussions without dominating them?

I’m still working through this issue, but I’m exploring a few ideas.

  • Set up expectations for online participation with extensive instruction and examples.
  • Limit teacher participation to comments about discussion strategies—content, interaction, questions, tone—instead of content.
  • In a blended learning environment, plan student-controlled face-to-face discussions to reinforce the concept of student-led discussions that you want to take place online.
  • In a fully online environment, include references to student discussion forum comments in other kinds of instructional strategies, such as video presentations, resources, announcements, assignments, and the like to let students know that you're paying attention.
  • Reduce participation in online discussions over time while still finding ways other than direct participation to let students know you are reading and thinking about their comments.

My ideas about how much and how to participate in online discussions are still evolving, and I’d love to hear other ideas on the topic.

Read More about Online Facilitation

Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation

A nice summary of research on facilitation of online discussions.

Online Discussions: Tips for Instructors
A nice list of practical tips for designing as well as facilitating online discussions.

Generating and Facilitating Engaging and Effective Online Discussions
General tips that include information about the different kinds of activities that can incorporate online discussions.

In December 2015, Peggy Grant joined our extended network of alumni.