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Participation Strategies

Communication techniques to encourage participation in an online course

Frequent communication is important in an online course, including between instructors and students and students and students. Therefore, it is important to have an understanding of the dynamics of online communication and how to encourage students to participate online. While the course is in progress, there are a number of communication techniques that can be employed to manage the participation of students in the online environment.

Tips for Dealing with Student Participation Challenges

One of the best ways to prevent behavior issues is to communicate expectations early and often. The following are strategies for keeping online students focused and on task:

  • Be explicit and detailed in the syllabus about course participation guidelines.
  • Make sure that expectations—and intolerable behaviors—are clear to all students at the outset.
  • Reinforce due dates, schedules, and timelines.
  • Post materials and conduct activities on a preset schedule.
  • Allow students to keep track of their own progress.
  • Be organized — model the behavior you would like to see from your students.
  • Create clear and concise grading rubrics that define what is expected in each assignment as well as how the final grade will be calculated.
  • Model the expected behavior in discussion postings and in sample responses.

Explore several communication techniques by clicking on the drop-down topics below.



It's acceptable to be intrusive when the instructor recognizes that a student may be falling behind or has not logged on to the course for over a week. Normally appreciated by the student is a simple e-mail asking, "Is everything OK?" A student may have a problem in their personal life or just need to know that someone like the instructor is aware of their absence.

Example: Sometimes just a gentle nudge by the instructor to let the student know that they are there and aware that they have been missing in the course is enough to generate an explanatory response. Once the opening is there with a response, then the instructor can explain what the consequences are if they continue to miss assignments. You may also find out about personal problems, accidents, deaths in the family, and births of babies that may enter into your decision about permitting makeup exams or submission of late assignments. By encouraging participation at this time, the student may still have time to catch up and complete the course.

Tip: Canvas provides the ability to check user progress to determine which students have entered the course and which have not. Cross-reference this information with the weekly discussion questions to determine who is keeping up with assignments and readings. Send an e-mail to the students who are missing assignments and/or have not logged in.


One cannot emphasize enough the development of strategies to respond to students in a timely manner. Students may not expect a same-day answer, but answering e-mail and discussion board responses within a 24-hour period is highly recommended. The virtual communication environment stimulates students to continue to connect with the instructor and other students.

Example: Friday evenings tend to be a slow time as well as some Saturdays, but Sundays and the rest of the weeknights are usually quite active. Reading all weekly discussion board messages once a day will prevent accumulated responses from overburdening the instructor. Reading responses all at one time provides the opportunity to send a group response at the end of the week when the deadline for submissions is passed that summarizes the class responses and includes instructor comments; inform students that you respond to the weekly discussion question as a group response. By being available, the instructor can more quickly be on top of student problems and/or issues and can encourage participation in a timely manner.

Tips: Try to enter the course at least once or twice a day. Be sure to clearly state your availability for holidays and weekends; for example, will you be posting content or comments on weekends? And if not, be sure to set expectations ahead of time and inform students that you are available during regular business hours. When there are important deadlines in the course - for projects, tests, or activities - be sure to clarify when you will be available, as well as when you will not be online. Respond to messages within 24 hours when possible.


All instructors make decisions during the offering of a course that are in response to a student who has given an excuse for missing an assignment deadline or an exam. Regardless of whether the decision is in the student's favor or not, try to be as understanding as possible about a student's problems. If a student believes that the instructor did not take the time to understand their situation, they can easily become more discouraged and stop participating in the course. Above all, be consistent in your decision-making process.

For example: Students will e-mail or phone you when they have a problem. It may be a missed exam, missed assignment, or even a clarification of testing procedures or material covered. Each instructor will have his or her own level of understanding when it comes to student excuses. The challenge is to be consistent in decisions so that all treatment of students is in a similar manner. By including information about this in the syllabus, students know the instructor understands their issues and decisions are consistent. Because of this, using the instructor as an excuse for not participating in the course will not be applicable.

Tips: Be more lenient and understanding with first excuses. Be consistent in how you handle problems. Include a paragraph in the syllabus that explains this position. Be sure to provide clear and detailed instructions for assignments; test your written instructions by having someone else (a colleague, friend, or student) review them. Don't use "midnight" as a deadline for an assignment since it will introduce confusion about which middle of the night; use 11:55 p.m. instead.


Students have a keen sense of fairness for their treatment in a course, and if a student believes that their treatment is unfair compared to other students, they will not be encouraged to participate in the course. Even fair decisions that go against a student can be accepted and will not discourage further student participation in the course as long as everyone is treated similarly.

For example: In responding to a student with a problem, the instructor should try to ensure that the student understands that the instructor has to treat him/her like the rest of the class in any decision reached. For example, a student who may not be doing well in the course may ask if there is any extra credit work. The instructor's response would be “no” because extra credit is not listed as an option in the syllabus. If the instructor let this student get extra credit, all the class members would need to have the same opportunity; it begins to get quite complicated to begin doing things like that. In the syllabus, the instructor can emphasize that the syllabus is a contract for learning and contains all the rules that everyone follows in the course. The bottom line is to treat all students the same when making decisions about missed deadlines or other problems that arise in the course. A student who feels that their treatment is unfair in a course is more likely to stop participating in the course activities.

Tip: Establish fair policies for issuing extra credit opportunities, and follow the guidelines set up in the syllabus.


The online discussion world and e-mail can sound harsher than intended. Respond considerately regarding what may or may not be a disagreeable comment. (Note: Later in this course, course policies will be explored. In an online course it is recommended to include a clear online etiquette or netiquette policy to help establish a framework of respect and courtesy.) Sometimes noting harsh comments in student responses to each other will draw other students into responding, and this is even more instructive to the offending student than a teacher's response.

For example: If a student's e-mail or discussion board response appears harsh, try to exhibit a considerate reply so as not to add fuel to the flames. If an e-mail is harsh or sounds angry and engenders anger in you, in some situations it may be best to wait to respond until the next day, to avoid a harsh response on your own part. That decision has to be a judgment call on your part, so in cases where it is important to act decisively, you may have to take more immediate action.

You may also contact the student privately to address an issue, rather than continuing with an online discussion in front of the other students. Other students may also respond to a discussion board's harsh comments, and this helps to control the continuance of such comments. By working to make the discussion board and e-mail environment one that is conducive to open and critical discussion, greater student participation will be encouraged.

Tip: Refrain from responding to harsh e-mails or discussion posts until the next day (when possible) to allow time to calm down and let other students respond.


Inclusive can refer to sensitivity to cultural differences as well as to the physical limitations of the learner. For example, providing transcripts of audio and video files demonstrates that the instructor or course designer has demonstrated sensitivity for the inclusion of students with hearing disabilities, or students who didn't learn English as their first language. Cultural inclusion represents awareness that students from any country in the world take online courses. Acceptance by one culture of certain uses of language or some examples in a course may be offensive to a student in another culture. An awareness of minority cultures and social perspectives will support international and minority student participation in online course activities.

Be sensitive to different communication styles and varied cultural backgrounds. For example, students may have different language skills, and humor is culturally specific and won’t be perceived the same by everyone.

Example: Plagiarism is a serious issue for any student, but for some international students who are from countries that emphasize collaboration, plagiarism may seem not only natural but also a way to honor the person(s) by plagiarizing the work. Does this mean that an instructor permits international students to commit plagiarism? Courses, especially ESL (English as a Second Language) or other freshman writing courses, explain that copying without attribution is not acceptable in the United States, and that is plagiarism. Offices of International Studies exist on many campuses, and their efforts combine with yours to convey to international students that only their own individual work is acceptable. A clear understanding of plagiarism by international students will go far in avoiding problems that eventually would lead to decreased student participation.

Tip: Be sensitive to different communication styles and varied cultural backgrounds. For example, students may have different values, perspectives, and language skills, and humor is culturally specific and won’t be perceived the same by everyone.

Become familiar with the University Code of Conduct for students. For additional information, please refer to the section in the Student Handbook titled Student Academic Disciplinary Procedures. UW-Madison provides the following: Student Academic Misconduct Policies.

Keywordsonline, teaching,Doc ID123151
OwnerKaren S.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2022-12-20 18:33 CSTUpdated2023-09-11 11:43 CST
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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