Creating online courses does not stop at uploading videos and activities to the VLE. You need to ensure that your students are actively participating in your course and getting real value out of it. The higher the participation, the more likely students will complete the course, experience a deep learning that stays with them for longer, and feel satisfied and fulfilled by the learning experience. There are lots of different ways you can use to encourage student to interact with each other, however, these are just tools.

The truth is that student participation starts with your leadership and guidance. You must plan for and design it into every aspect of the course… but also do not set your expectations higher than you would have for you on campus course. We have all asked students if they have any question or we ask a question and we are faced with a room of blank faces all looking away trying to not catch our eye. So, just like we do in our on campus environment, we need to adapt, listen and work with students to get to a stage where they are comfortable sharing with us and the wider class.


Discussion boards

What you can do

Discussion boards encourage and invite participation in the online environment. Their use makes staff and students visible and they provide an opportunity for staff to create a social presence. For discussion boards to be effective at creating a social presence, they need to facilitate and encourage conversation.

Tips for creating successful Discussion Boards:

  • Consider setting a requirement that students post at least once on every discussion board.
  • Encourage their use though positive reinforcement, such as highlighting the ‘best post of the week’ etc.
  • Use them first! Students are less likely to use discussion boards where a tutor hasn’t posted first.
  • Frequently visit discussion boards throughout the course to keep interest levels high.
  • Make it clear that the space is designed to enable conversation rather than simply acting as a facility for Q and A between staff and students.
  • Provide informal café style discussion boards so students get used to joining in and writing something. In this way, their confidence may grow.
  • Select discussion prompts that encourage structured interaction and critical thinking, while also supporting specific learning objectives.

Things to consider

  • Facilitate purposefully and set up ground rules.
  • Give clear guidance on the role of the tutor in the forum. This may differ for different boards.
  • Specific techniques, such as questioning and assuming a challenging stance can be effective ways of helping students to develop critical thinking skills, however, remember that for many cultures’ students will need to be supported in challenging and questioning a tutor. Some may find having the option to post anonymously gives them the confidence to begin engagement.
  • Track who is participating and who is not. You could then follow up on the students who are not participating and try to find out why that is and what might be done to help them take part.

How to do it

For some really good examples of how to create and facilitate discussion boards please see these resources from Blackboard.

Download a discussion board code of conduct template.

Pedagogical evidence base

  • deNoyelles A. (2014) Strategies for Creating a Community of Inquiry through Online Asynchronous Discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 10(1) 153-165
  • Kebritchi, Mansureh & Lipschuetz, Angie & Santiague, Lilia. (2017). Issues and Challenges for Teaching Successful Online Courses in Higher Education: A Literature Review. Journal of Educational Technology Systems. 46. 4-29. 10.1177/0047239516661713.
  • Stearns, S. (2017). Student Responsible Learning: Getting Students to Read Online Discussions. College Teaching. 65. 1-10. 10.1080/87567555.2016.1244654
Activity led

What you can do

When designing a course, it is good practice to:

Step One: Draft the intended learning outcomes.

Step Two: Consider what activities will support students to achieve the learning outcomes.

Step Three: Consider what the course assessments will be.

Step Four: Consider if there are any activities that could help students prepare for the assessments.

Step Five: Consider what learning materials will be required to support steps 1-4.

When delivering learning online, it is good practice to focus first on what activities students can undertake to support their learning. Further information on this is provided here. These activities can provide an excellent way for students to get to know each other and develop their social presence.

Activities are different from formative assessments in that that they are directed elements of the course but are not assessed and do not require formal feedback. They can be either compulsory or not, allowing students to determine whether participating is useful for them. Given these activities are specifically designed to support social presence, engagement should be strongly encouraged, if not made compulsory.

There is some evidence that creating small* groups of students to undertake online activities is more effective at allowing social presence to develop. Consideration should be given to whether students stay in a small group throughout a course, whether they change group based on the activity and whether the group is self, or tutor selected.

*the definition of “small” appears to be between 3 and 5 students to benefit positive outcome.

Things to consider

  • At higher levels of study, some classes may be comprised of groups of students who all already know each other. At these stages, less support may be required to encourage group interaction.
  • At higher levels of study, be aware that while most students may know each other, there may be small numbers of students who are joining through direct entry etc. and may not be part of established groups.
  • Consider how groups can work asynchronously to allow all students to equally participate. This could be achieved through tasks such as developing a learning resource together, engaging with social media such as twitter or Facebook and setting up a class twitter feed.

How to do it

We have created a whole section which focused on types of activities that you can consider HERE.

Many of these will build in a component of social presence and collaborative learning

Pedagogical evidence base

Elaine Tay & Matthew Allen (2011) Designing social media into university learning: technology of collaboration or collaboration for technology?, Educational Media International, 48:3, 151-163, DOI: 10.1080/09523987.2011.607319

Akcaoglu, Mete; Lee, Eunbae (2016) Increasing Social Presence in Online Learning through Small Group Discussions, International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, v17 n3 p1-17


What you can do

Tutors commonly set rules or requirements that students must comply with in order to ensure they engage with learning opportunities and develop their knowledge and skills. However, consideration should also be given to whether a ‘tasks and rewards’ approach can be incorporated, increasing student commitment to learning, rather than enforced compliance.

Approval and praise from peers is something that motivates many of us and can be used in order to encourage social presence in a course. This could be implemented by:

  • Students nominating other students for rewards if they think they have specifically helped to build the community.
  • Setting a task for everyone to share something on a discussion board with the most interesting / funniest/ most informative post being acknowledged.
  • Acknowledging a particularly ‘good’ example of a student post or response, by responding along the following lines:
    • “I was going to respond to this but see that x has already given an excellent answer that covers everything that I could have said. Thank you!”
    • “This is a really interesting post; I hadn’t thought about it from this angle before”
    • “Thank you for sharing these resources they are great and I will make sure they are added to next year’s course content as they will be really helpful for others”

Things to consider

  • Be sensitive to perceived fairness whilst ensuring that the ‘rewards’ are seen as worthwhile.
  • Don’t single out students as others may interpret this as favouritism.
  • Remember that fairness does not need to mean that rewards are issued equally, so if you are aware of a student who is particularly hesitant to contribute to discussion boards and you see that they have, it may be worth a gentle acknowledgement to support this increased engagement. This may be that they have simply said they agree to a post of another student, if you then also respond saying you also agree, this may give them more confidence. In contrast, where a student who is very open and sharing, you may acknowledge only posts that are particularly “good”.

How to do it

For a wide range of tools to help with engaging students online see HERE.

Pedagogical evidence base

This is not a pedagogical paper but a very interesting book for anyone interested in understanding more about rewarding people

Rewarding People: The skill of responding positively; David Dickson, Christine Saunders and Maurice Stringer; Routledge Library Editions

Ask your students

What you can do

Students can be asked to help each other learn. This can help foster social and cognitive presence at the same time. Use a variety of media and approaches to allow learners to choose how to engage.

Here are a few examples from Level 1 Psychology:

Example 1. Forum Task related to assignment about 'getting to grips with reading scientific articles'

The instructions for students are:

Start a new thread, asking for help with a particular thing you are not sure of. It has to be about the content of the articles themselves, not about the mechanics of downloading articles etc. You can still ask these questions, but simply email them directly to me. Formulate your question as clearly as possible.

Then, look through the list of questions and respond to at least two of them. Try not to give a direct answer, but help the person to find the answer themselves, by giving hints or asking further questions.

Example 2. Forum Task related to assignment about 'practising APA style referencing'

The instructions for students are:

Post an APA reference or in-text citation that has a deliberate mistake in it. Have a look at last week’s “To do this week” for inspiration. When you have done that, have a look at the posts from other students, and choose one to reply to. In your reply, you need to say what you think the deliberate mistake is, and how it should be written instead. Once your post has had a reply, you then need to reply to the reply, telling the other person whether they were correct in spotting the mistake or not. If they didn’t spot it right, you can simply say ‘that was not the one, can you think what else it might be?’

Example 3. Forum Task related to Critical Review assignment.

The instructions for students are:

Choose one of the questions below and start one new post with this question and your answer. Then, respond to two other posts, by saying you agree, disagree, and why.

  • In what way are the articles similar? Different?
  • Do you think it is possible to compare quantitative (Paper A) and qualitative (Paper B) studies using the same criteria?
  • Which article has greatest ecological validity?
  • Which article has greatest rigour?
  • Which article has made the largest contribution to knowledge?
  • Can you think of a way that Paper A study could benefit from some of the methods of Paper B, if it had been published in the present day?
  • On balance, which article do you believe is best, and why?

Example 4. Forum Task related to Employability.

The instructions for students are:

Create a new post and describe briefly what you would like to do in your future career. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have very concrete ideas; vague ideas are welcome, too! After you’ve done that, respond to two other students. Perhaps you can comment on the similarity (or difference) between you and their idea, asking further questions (e.g. How are you going to do this? What got you interested?), or even offering ideas. With this forum in particular it is important to remember the Ground Rules. Other people’s ideas of their future may be different to yours and the only thing you can do is respect that.

To encourage participation, forum contributions can be part of a formative assessment with pass/fail, or they can be graded.

For example: Different types of forum may require a different rubric. For instance, Pelz's (2014) rubric model has been followed to create the one below for Example 1 above, where the aim is for students to help one another understand the articles they are reading. They cannot simply ‘give the answer’ their peer needs, but they are encouraged to help their peer find out the answer for themselves, by asking them further questions or giving hints. Students still get a pass if their comment/response provides social presence.

Grade band Criterion
Excellent (A) The response shows understanding of the other person’s question, and helps them to solve their problem. The response is well written. The response adds substantial teaching presence to the course and stimulates additional thought about the issue.
Very good (B) The response lacks at least one of the above qualities, but is still above average. The response is likely to help the other person move forward in their understanding of the issue.
Good (C) The response lacks two or three of the required qualities. Responses that suggest they did not fully understand the poster’s question, or responses that provide a direct answer, are likely to fall into this category. It may give the poster an answer but may not elicit further thought.
Pass (D) The response does not help the poster understand the issue further. However, it is still a pass if it provides social presence and contributes to a collegial atmosphere.
Fail (E) The response adds no value to the discussion.

Alternatives to discussion boards

There are a range of ways that you can ‘host’ interaction including discussion boards; however, it is worth giving some thought to alternative ways to support this including Microsoft Teams and wikis. It is important to consider the structure of a course and try not to introduce too many new ways of communicating. It may be that you decide discussion boards can be used for a specific aspect of a course and wikis or teams chat will be used for another feature. Clear communication of this will help students navigate what is expected of them.

Things to consider

  • Be aware that students who are on the autism spectrum or who are used to learning in a more rote fashion may find this a challenge.
  • Some students may find it very difficult to trust their peers and would be more comfortable with tutor input. You should be clear about these expectations and how this will be resolved.
  • For large classes, it is unlikely that a tutor will be able to comment on all posts.
  • Clarity as to what is expected and some ground rules on respect and guidance explaining that peers will learn and contribute differently, can help address this issue and assist in building a wider community of support.
  • Ensure enough time is built in as an inclusive measure to ensure that all students have sufficient time to complete the task.

How to do it

Enable peer support opportunities, such as discussion areas in your VLE.

Or for large course you may want to consider Group Discussion Boards

Any pedagogical evidence base

Keith J. Topping (2005) Trends in Peer Learning, Educational Psychology, 25:6, 631-645, DOI: 10.1080/01443410500345172

Karen Guldberg (2008) Adult learners and professional development: peer‐to‐peer learning in a networked community, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 27:1, 35-49, DOI: 10.1080/02601370701803591