The Impact of Instructor Posts on Student Participation

Many of us in online education preach that instructors should be active in discussion, but not monopolize it, but we do not have any real research that says how instructor involvement affects student participation in discussion. Cheryl Murphy, associate professor of educational technology at the University of Arkansas, has done research on this subject, and found that the quantity of instructor involvement did not affect the quality of student postings, but it was negatively correlated to the quantity of student postings. This suggests that instructor involvement can reach a point of diminishing returns.

We have invited her to discuss the findings with us.  

Why might more instructor participation in discussion reduce student participation?

Learners may come to rely on the instructor to carry the instruction, leading students to take a more passive role. This would be similar to a face-to-face classroom environment where, as an instructor, we can stymie good student discussion and lull students into passive learning roles simply by inserting ourselves into the conversation. But, as Conrad and Donaldson point out, because many students have been educated in a predominately lecture-based environment, they may actually be more comfortable taking a passive online role. 

We also found that when students received no instructor intervention, they posted more frequently. One possible explanation is that the group who received no instructor guidance may have felt the need to work with peers to clarify understandings and share resources. Students may have been interacting more frequently to provide resources and support to each other in the absence of the instructor.

You also suggest that less instructor involvement might have led students to package their posts differently. How so? 

Even when student participation is minimal, posts can be extremely focused and extensive, and can exhibit deep levels of understanding. Our findings indicated that students posted less often with instructor intervention, yet scored just as well on the quality measure as did students who did not receive instructor intervention. This could lead a reader to infer two things: That instructor intervention helped students create posts that were more focused, so that they were expressing the same quality of ideas in less time, or that the group members who received no instructor guidance may have been posting more frequently to provide clarification, resources, and support to each other in the absence of the instructor. 

These two potential explanations mirror what can occur in an in-class group discussion activity. If the instructor provides a prompting question and follows up by suggesting resources and key points that groups should consider, versus providing a prompting question without additional guidance, we would expect the group discussions in the first scenario to be more focused than those in the second.  

Is there agreement within the literature on what amount of instructor participation is ideal in an online course?

There are a wide range of thoughts on this topic, with researchers such as Andresen recommending as little instructor posting as possible, and others such as Bedi and Brookfield and Preskill arguing that instructors must maintain a substantive and ongoing posting presence. Personally, we take the middle ground and advocate for a balanced instructor intervention that offers guidance, but does not lead to overreliance.  

Professor Murphy’s research leaves open the question of the “sweet spot” of instructor involvement in discussion. But it also raises more fundamental questions about the purpose of discussion that any online instructor should consider to guide their own participation in discussion. Does the instructor want to use it to force student engagement with the course topics? In that case, quantity might be the most important goal. Is it instead used to develop critical thinking skills, in which case quality might be more important? Professor Murphy mentions that it can be used as a formative assessment to gauge class understanding and react to widespread misunderstandings. In this case the instructor might be more interested in corralling discussion so that students can show they get the material, rather than allowing it to run to different topics. 

Despite efforts to flatten the hierarchy of an online course, anything that an instructor does is done as an authority, and thus can have chilling effects on student involvement. As online instructors, we think our involvement in discussion can only improve its quality, but that may not be the case. Maybe it just orients discussion toward the topics that interest us. Online instructors need to carefully consider the purpose of discussion, and the effects their own involvement will have in it, in order to gauge how much involvement is right for their courses.  

Murphy, C. & Fortner, R. (2014). Impact of Instructor Intervention on the Quality and Frequency of Student Discussion Posts in a Blended Classroom, MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, v. 10, n. 3., 337-50.

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