1. Engaging Online Students
    1. Tips
  2. Facilitating Effective Online Discussions
  3. Online Discussion Tips for Students
  4. Netiquette in Online Courses
  5. The Role of Presence in Online Courses
  6. Online Assessments
  7. Strategies to Help Minimize Cheating in Multiple-Choice Quizzes
  8. Online Course Evaluation Rubric

Engaging Online Students

According to Lehman & Conceição (2014), there are many factors that influence online student retention. These factors can help us determine what strategies are needed to retain students, reduce dropout rates, and help students persist and succeed in online courses or programs. The factors can be classified into two buckets: internal and external.

External factors include non-school related issues that conflict with academic life, such as financial needs or childcare arrangements. Internal factors revolve around the individual student’s needs and include (a) consistency and clarity of online programs, policies, and procedures; (b) self-esteem; (c) feeling of identity within the school; (d) social integration; and (e) ready access to support services.

Among the reasons for student disengagement are feelings of isolation, frustration and disconnection; technology disruption; student failure to make contact with faculty; inadequate contact with students by faculty; lack of student and technology support; lack of instructor participation during class discussion; lack of clarity in instructional direction or expectation; and lack of social interaction (Lehman & Conceição, 2014).

Adopting teaching strategies that differ from those you would use in a traditional classroom is a key to online student engagement. As online learning limits the opportunities for face-to-face interaction, you must develop methods that foster communication and collaboration amongst students sitting at home in front of their personal screens or devices.


Set expectations: Clearly set work requirements, learning objectives and communication expectations before class begins. Learners need to know both what is expected of them, and what they can expect from you and their learning support team, including teaching assistants and technical support. Online learning may be a new experience for the learner, and it is important that this information is clear and easily available to address questions like: How long should it take to get a response from a question? Who do I contact if I can’t upload my assignment?

Evidence: A component that affected the engagement of online learners was access to clear learning resources and the ease of administrative processes (Daniel, 2000).

Personalization: Bring yourself into the online environment by posting a picture, voice recordings or an introductory video. Create short videos to initiate each new activity. This provides a personalized introduction to the work and students will feel more engaged.

Evidence: Encourage personal interactions (Hutchins 2003).

Get feedback: Ask for students’ input on class topics and assignments through a quick anonymous survey at the end of each learning module. Course design is an iterative process; the feedback can positively inform the re-design of the module for the next semester. Students learn by example, and they will be more willing to connect with you and their peers when you make the effort to get to know them.

Evidence: Ask for students’ input on class topics and assignments (Dennis et al. 2007).

Facilitating Effective Online Discussions

Acknowledge first responses right away. Your first goal is to create an online learning community. As with most social interactions, first impressions are very important.

Foster a warm environment. You may need to help students feel relaxed. Use students’ names. Be outgoing, positive and visible. Encourage an informal, conversational style, stimulate a bit of social chit-chat to help build relationships.

Respond to comments that have not received a response. Help move the discussion along with questions for other students to consider and ensure that all contributions are validated. Nobody likes to be left hanging.

Model how to be a productive participant. Group members look to you to set the tone, style, frequency and depth of discussion. Be the first to post and say something provocative, or ask a probing question to get the ball rolling.

Model how to give feedback. Critiques of postings should say something positive first and end with suggestions for further thought.

Be present. A strong leader is checking in and making postings at least 2-3 times each week. But try not to dominate; let the group have a voice, too.

Encourage students to respond to each other. Watch for emerging patterns in discussions and stimulate debate, offer ideas, connect different students’ ideas, and point out contrasts.

Ask probing questions:

  • How are you defining the term….?
  • What reasons/evidence is there for that point?
  • Why do you agree/disagree with that point?
  • Could you clarify your comment?
  • What alternatives are there to your idea?
  • If you were to take the other side of the argument, what evidence might you raise?
  • If you were [name an influential figure discussed in class] what might you say?

Encourage reluctant participants. Find out what the problem is (e.g. technical issues, lack of interest or lack of confidence). Praise any efforts made and show them they are not anonymous. If lack of confidence is the issue, engage in a private email exchange about the topic until they make a comment that you can encourage them to post in the discussion. This takes time and effort – feel free to involve a TA in this process.

Focus dominant participants’ energy. Recognize the outstanding contributions and enthusiasm of vocal participants. Ask them to reflect longer before posting. Assign them as mentors to less active students.

Reward quality over quantity. Tell good contributors when they’ve done a good job. Encourage contributions that further the discussion and stimulate thinking, rather than number of postings.

Summarize discussion. Weave comments together regularly, refer to specific comments, interpret main points of view, and provide a general summary to give a solid feeling of one discussion ending before the next begins.

Online Discussion Tips for Students

The point of a discussion is a back and forth conversation, rather than a show and tell of ideas. This is harder to do in an online setting. Here are some tips to help you achieve this goal.

Plan your posting. Think through your ideas, read other postings to see what others are saying, and address comments that support or contradict your ideas.

Turn your thoughts into questions. Make bold or provocative statements. Check back often to see what discussion you’ve generated and respond to it.

Add value. Say why you agree/disagree with other postings and explain your rationale. Raise some thoughts or questions for others to respond to.

Be concise. In general, short and sweet is best. Aim for short and purposeful postings – avoid repetition and lengthy explanations. Stick to one or two main points with supporting evidence in each posting.

Make the context clear. Be specific about what aspect of a posting you are responding to. Paraphrasing provides feedback for the poster on how well ideas were communicated.

Use keywords in your posting titles. This can include the discussion thread title and a bit about the content of the posting e.g., Discussion #3 Personality in Animals: Animals lack anatomical structure for personality.

Be open. Different perspectives are the point of discussions and can deepen your understanding of the issues being discussed. Difference of opinion is an opportunity for learning.

Feel free to change your mind. Take a stand at first, but realize that your ideas aren’t permanent. Let the new information from the discussion modify your stand and say so when it does.

Feel free to disagree. Disagree with points, not people. Support your contradicting point with evidence. Debate makes for a very productive and meaningful discussion.

Avoid emotional posting. In the heat of the moment write up a response but don’t send it. Wait a day or two then re-read your response and remove all the emotional statements. Stick to the main points and support your points with evidence from the lectures/readings.

Avoid sarcasm. It is easily misinterpreted in an online environment. Stay on topic, stick to the key issues raised and avoid personal judgments or emotional responses. If you are joking, use emoticons to convey the nature of the message.

Create cohesion and community. Get to know each other! A bit of friendly chit-chat and appropriate personal stories help your personalities shine through. Give positive feedback, use light humour, use first names, respond promptly, offer assistance, and avoid negative undertones.

Enjoy yourself! Online discussions will enrich your understanding of course material and foster cooperative learning with your peers. It is also an excellent forum for developing learning, communication and social interaction skills that are valuable in all aspects of your life.

Netiquette in Online Courses

You are probably already aware of the ground rules in a traditional, face-to-face classroom environment, but there is an additional code of conduct students should be aware of when interacting with others in an online environment: “netiquette.”

Netiquette is the practical code of behaviour for working virtually on the Internet. The following are some general netiquette guidelines to keep in mind in addition to the normal rules of behaviour for a classroom setting.

  • Adhere to the same standards of behaviour online that you follow in real life and in a real classroom.
  • Know where you are in cyberspace, and understand that many people will view what you type.
  • Respect other people’s time and bandwidth – so contribute valuable comments rather than “noise.”
  • Express yourself clearly online and respect the views of others.
  • Share expert knowledge rather than “keeping it to yourself.” And share this knowledge with respect rather than using it to put others down.
  • Don’t start “flame wars” (emotionally-charged opinions) and work to douse flaming whenever you see it.
  • Respect other people’s privacy by not sharing or spreading inappropriate information. If someone posts information that you think may have been posted accidentally, let them know about it privately.
  • Don’t worry too much about typing errors and spelling, as long as you can be understood. But be sure to spend time reviewing your messages before posting to be sure that they are written clearly.
  • Be forgiving of other people’s mistakes, and cheerfully acknowledge your own mistakes if you make them. Don’t correct insignificant problems in front of the entire class.
  • Use proper and respectful language and refrain from any off-colour jokes, insults, or threats.
  • Challenge ideas rather than the students who offer the ideas. When you challenge an idea, do so respectfully and with the goal of increasing everyone’s knowledge.
  • Remember that your colleagues can’t see you wink or smile when you type. You may want to use emoticons to indicate your feelings, such as the ubiquitous smiley face :) or frowning face :( Only use those emoticons that will be understood by others, or explain its meaning when you first use it.

For more information, visit The Core Rules of Netiquette.

The Role of Presence in Online Courses

Constructing presence in the online learning environment is very important to establishing a successful online community of learners. To design an online course with a sense of “being there” and “being together,” presence should be viewed from the following perspectives: social, psychological, and emotional:

  • Social perspective – Social presence pertains to how instructors and learners see each other as “real people” in the online environment. Social presence is important to online learners as it combats feelings of isolation and gives learners a feeling of community.
  • Psychological perspective – Presence is a psychological state in which the technology seems to disappear and learners feel a sense of “being together” as opposed to separated by time and location.
  • Emotional perspective – Emotional presence is the ability to show feelings in the online environment. This type of presence is achieved when learners and instructors are able to emotionally connect throughout the learning experience.

Establishing presence is important for the following three areas: the online environment, online interactions and the online learning community.

The Online Environment

Presence is naturally created in the face-to-face classroom, but instructors must make an effort to design online courses with the concept of presence in mind. Learners need to perceive something tangible, which may include the type of technology used for the course, the instructional strategies chosen by the instructor, and the role of the instructor.

Online Interactions

Online interactions and emotional connections are increasing with technological advances such as social networking tools. In order to foster presence in the online learning environment, instructors need to be aware of emerging technologies, as well as the evolving role of instructors as guides and the movement of learners to the center of the learning experience.

The Online Learning Community

The Community of Inquiry Model (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, 2003) recognizes three elements that are essential for a successful online learning experience: cognitive, social and teaching presence.

  • Cognitive presence relates to thinking and involves the ability of learners to construct meaning through reflection and communication in the online environment.
  • Social presence involves personal and emotional connection to the group and the ability of learners to project themselves as “real people.”
  • Instructor presence represents the course facilitator, who directs cognitive and social processes, and provides regular and constructive feedback to online learners.

This section provides information condensed from chapter one, “The Role of Presence in the Online Environment”, in the book, Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching: How to “Be There” for Distance Learners, by Rosemary M. Lehman and Simone C. O. Conceicao (2010).

Online Assessments

See the assessment section of this website for FAQs and how to’s related to online assessment.

Strategies to Help Minimize Cheating in Multiple-Choice Quizzes

See the resources for instructors section of the academic integrity resources page for strategies to reduce cheating in multiple-choice quizzes.

Online Course Evaluation Rubric

Carleton’s Educational Development Centre uses these guidelines when evaluating online courses developed in collaboration between instructors and our staff members. These guidelines can be used as a ‘self-evaluation’ tool to assist instructors in designing a new online course or in revising an existing one.

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