Wolf, Otter, or Mouse? Improving Online Discussion with Archetypes

Credit: iStock.com/ownza
Credit: iStock.com/ownza

Instructors and students have a love-hate relationship with the online discussion board. On the one hand, it can foster dialogue and a sense of community. On the other, it can feel forced and flat.

Many instructors find themselves at a loss as to how to encourage meaningful conversations. While there are numerous suggestions for discussion activities in articles, in conference papers, online, and elsewhere, most treat all students the same. But students differ in how they participate in discussion, and thus improving online discussion requires understanding and addressing the issues each individual student faces. Happily, most student participation can be fit into categories, or archetypes, that instructors can use to provide the interventions that will help each student. Using the work of Salmon (2013) as a guide, I started applying the archetype framework below to students in my own courses.

  • Wolves visit once per week, do lots of activity, then disappear again until the next week or the week after.
  • Stags tend to dominate discussion at certain times.
  • Elephants are steady, visiting on most days for a short time.
  • Pandas are good communicators and playful online but may annoy peers who think the discussion board is for serious conversations only.
  • Hedgehogs are inclined to post disembodied comments in a random way.
  • Squirrels seem to live online. Prolific message writers, they respond rapidly to the initial prompt.
  • Mice visit once per week to read but contribute little.
  • Rabbits,always in catch-up mode, complete several assignments in one session then disappear again until the next prompt is posted.
  • Foxes reuse others’ ideas without acknowledgment.

While there are many possible ways to “use” these archetypes, I have found particular success with two general approaches that can be implemented either alone or separately.

The first is instructor centered. As a semester progresses, these archetypes enable me to identify the best ways to encourage students’ participation on the discussion board, using their own patterns of behavior as a guide. So, while I of course reflect frequently on the quality of the prompts I’m providing (I am a big fan of “be curious, not furious”), these archetypes serve as helpful reminders that not every student comes to the discussion board in the same way. That said, what works for one creature often works for all of them. For example, it is likely that it’s not only the fox who will need assistance with citing sources or the squirrel who will need to learn how to adjust their LMS notifications. In other words—and to carry the animal theme further—when it comes to discussion boards, what’s good for the goose is often good for the gander.

Here are a few of the species-specific interventions I have found most useful:

  • Wolves: Nudge them regularly to see the responses they’ve sparked. Show them how to connect another activity or assignment to their post.
  • Stags: Offer them a structured and specific role, such as moderator. Provide opportunities for them to reflect on their participation. Suggest that they try to ask questions rather than make statements.
  • Elephants: Congratulate them on their steady, reliable participation in the discussion. Ask them to encourage and support others—especially mice and squirrels. Allow for liking of posts or tags to encourage elephants to revisit or visit longer so that they can see how their posts are contributing to the ongoing conversation.
  • Pandas: Help them find a balance between playful and serious by posting prompts that support a “balanced diet” of responses (e.g., ask for a meme one week and a self-reflection the next). Create a peer survey and share anonymous feedback with pandas. Emphasize critical thinking by giving them examples of strong posts.
  • Hedgehogs: Praise them when they make relevant comments—perhaps including them in response summaries to further motivate them. Employ gentle nudges to keep them on track. Encourage them to pursue connections between comments and course content.
  • Squirrels: Remind them to hold back and others shine. Show them how to adjust notifications so that those messages arrive less frequently. Play on their strengths: put them in charge of follow-up questions.
  • Mice: Ensure that they can see all messages and that there are no difficulties with language, access, and so on. Talk with them about why they make minimal contributions (and then try to accommodate them accordingly). Consider having a separate reflective assignment in your course so that mice don’t feel put on the spot.
  • Rabbits: Remind them that regular check-ins make life easier. Check in with them on their other commitments. Set expectations for when they should make their first posts, first responses, and other contributions.
  • Foxes: Share links to relevant guides to citing sources. Model how they should refer to others’ ideas, comments, and the like. Include netiquette resources in course files.

The second approach is student centered. At the beginning of a semester, I provide the descriptions of each animal and ask students to identify which one they believe themselves to be—a twist on the oft-used “If you were an animal, which would you want to be?” icebreaker. They share this information with me privately in a separate assignment (such as a journal entry), along with strategies they have enjoyed or found helpful in their previous experiences with discussion boards—which is where many of the intervention strategies above originated. This approach not only allows students to practice a bit of self-reflection and metacognition in terms of how they could improve their participation but also enables me to assign students to groups (either mixed or homogenous) for activities beyond the discussion board. As a side note, I have found that the animal archetypes often have the unintended (but highly positive) consequence of creating a sense of identity and belonging in the online environment. In fact, it’s not uncommon for comments like “Well, you know, as an otter, I like to . . .” or “I know I’m not really a wolf, but . . .” to pop up. Using animal archetypes to diagnose patterns of participation and applying interventions tailored to each student can go a long way in making discussion board a more enjoyable experience for everyone.


Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: The key to active online learning (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Karrin Lukacs, PhD, is the director of Transformative Teaching and Learning and a professor of curriculum and instruction at Shenandoah University.

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