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What strategies can enhance community in my online course?

Part 3: Fostering Community


Establishing a welcoming online learning environment is only the first step. To promote student success, you’ll need to continually provide opportunities for students to engage — in other words, active learning experiences. Active learning is an important part of any course, regardless of delivery modality. Online learning offers a variety of innovative ways to engage students. Here, you will explore active learning strategies, identify new opportunities for interaction, and discover approaches to facilitating asynchronous discussions that you can use in your course.

What is "engagement"?

  • What is engagement?
  • How do I know if my students are engaged?
  • What kinds of activities can I use to engage my online students?

There is no shortage of evidence highlighting the importance of engagement for deep learning. Major (2015) argues that “student engagement is a prerequisite to learning” (p. 211). It is important to clearly define engagement so that we can look for new opportunities in online learning. In its broadest sense, engagement might equate to attentiveness. In a more specific interpretation, engagement might require interaction with and/or application of a concept. According to Major (2015) student engagement consists of four interrelated factors (pp. 209-210):

  1. Motivation: the drive to learn deriving from internal desires and/or external pressures
  2. Attention: the ability to focus on a task 
  3. Involvement: time and energy devoted to learning
  4. Intellectual effort: skills to engage in deep learning approaches (beyond memorization)

Depending on your approach to teaching in a face-to-face classroom, teaching online may require innovative and varied approaches to engagement. In online learning environments, engagement can (and should) be present throughout the learning experience - from the orientation to the final evaluation. Locating opportunities for independent and collaborative activities will strengthen engagement and deepen learning. This document will focus on three forms of interaction: 

  • Student-to-Instructor
  • Student-to-Content
  • Student-to-Student

Learning objectives

After reviewing this material, you will be able to:

  • Summarize the importance of active learning
  • Identify three different types of interaction
  • Apply techniques to foster interaction

[Note: The content you will explore here has been modified from its original version as an asynchronous micro-course offered to faculty in August 2022. Some language in the following text and/or videos may refer to this course. Future offerings can be found at]

Active Learning Online

Active Learning in Online Courses

This resource is meant to aid in identifying, practicing, and implementing research-based active learning approaches. It can be used in both online and face-to-face learning environments. This guide should help you create and recognize opportunities to integrate active learning activities that facilitate desired student learning outcomes into your course in planned and dynamic ways.


Case Studies

The Case Studies approach has student teams review a written study of a real-world scenario containing a field-related problem or situation. Case studies usually include a brief history of the situation and present a dilemma the main character is facing. Team members apply course concepts to identify and evaluate alternative approaches to solving the problem.

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Defining Features Matrix

Defining Features Matrix requires students to categorize concepts according to the presence (+) or absence (–) of critical defining features. This activity helps students develop conceptual and organizational skills and data on their analytic reading and thinking skills. In large courses (150 +), it can be difficult to facilitate active learning. This document walks you through planning and implementing this approach in your large course.

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Minute Paper/Muddiest Point

The Minute Paper/Muddiest Point approaches have students write quick responses to questions to help instructors gain insight or understanding of content. Questions could include: “What was the most important thing you learned today?“; “What important question remains unanswered?”; or “What was the muddiest point in _______ ?

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The Fishbowl Discussion is a teaching strategy that encourages full student participation, reflection, and depth of knowledge. A small group of students is selected to be the fish (in the fishbowl), while the rest of the class will be observers (out of the fishbowl). Students in the bowl participate in a discussion by responding to an instructor's prompt. Students outside of the bowl listen and reflect on the alternative viewpoints.

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Pro and Con Grid

The Pro and Con Grid approach has students follow a decision-making process by reviewing an issue, creating a list of pro and con arguments, and deciding based on the weight and analysis of those points. A review of students’ lists reveals the depth and breadth of their analyses, capacity for objectivity, and strength of their decision-making skills.

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Student-Defined Questions

Student-Defined Questions help students individually reflect on a reading assignment, lecture, or presentation. Before class, students write a question based on that content and write a model answer for it. In class, student pairs exchange questions and write a response to the partner’s question. They trade, read, and compare answers. In large courses (150 ), facilitating active learning cannot be easy. This document walks you through planning and implementing this approach in your large course.

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The Think/Pair/Share approach poses a question, asks students to reflect on the question, and has them share their ideas with others. Think has students reflect before speaking to organize their thoughts. Pair and Share asks students to compare and contrast their thoughts with others and rehearse their responses before sharing them with the whole class.

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Watch the video below to learn about three different types of interactions.

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You should also read this article, Engagement Matters: Student Perceptions on the Importance of Engagement Strategies in the Online Learning Environment (Martin & Bolliger, 2018) to learn more about the types of interaction and which are most beneficial to students.


Consider different ways to incorporate the three types of interaction in your own online course.

Asynchronous discussions

Asynchronous discussions are a nearly ubiquitous strategy to enhance learning through interaction in online courses. There are many ways to approach asynchronous discussions, but here are a few key tips:

  1. Keep them small. Limit discussion groups to about 5-7 students to allow for relationships to develop and discussions to deepen.
  2. Set up staggered due dates. Clarify that first posts are due at least three days before the final due date to ensure discussion can develop.
  3. Offer scaffolding to teach students how to discuss. Use sentence starters, roles, or clear instructions about how to post and how to reply.
  4. Use a rubric to clarify your expectations and make grading more efficient and equitable.

Resources for asynchronous discussions


Select a strategy to apply to your own online discussions.

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Keywordsonline, teaching, community, asynchronous discussions, interaction, engagementDoc ID121807
OwnerKaren S.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2022-10-11 13:03:25Updated2024-04-18 08:00:46
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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