Teaching & Learning Resource Center

Student Interaction Online

Ashley Hope Perez

"In every class, we make sure at least once to interact in pairs or in small groups. These interactions begin with a reminder that every person in the room is a source of knowledge and end with a prompt for students to thank each other for sharing their insights."

- Ashley Hope Perez, Assistant Professor, Department of Comparative Studies

Whether you teach in person or online, your classroom is a community of learners. Your students have a lot to learn from each other, but the importance of student-student interaction is often overlooked in online spaces. How can you translate Perez’s approach to provide students in an online course with regular opportunities for meaningful engagement with their peers?

When talking about online courses, researchers focus on three types of student interaction:

  • interaction with content
  • interaction with the instructor
  • interaction with peers

While these categories overlap and are all important to your course's success, this resource focuses on how to foster meaningful student-student interaction online.

Background

Online classes offer an attractively flexible experience to students. Often, they don’t have to meet for class on a set schedule, which can save them time, money, and energy.

However, asynchronous learning necessitates that you, as an instructor, put extra thought and energy into promoting student-student interaction. There is a very real potential for isolation and disconnection in online courses (Besser & Donahue, 1996; Kerka, 1996), and you must plan well to avoid this possibility. The good news? Building a classroom community that helps students overcome such feelings of isolation has been shown to increase their engagement, lead to higher grades, and deepen their learning (Young & Bruce, 2011; Cho et al., 2007; Ascough, 2007).

Alfred Rovai (2002a) claims community is “what people do together, rather than where or through what means they do them” (p. 4). Setting can play a role in a community and how it functions; a school community will by default revolve around intellectual pursuits, while an office may revolve around a particular business practice. But stripped of a physical location, these communities can still perform the same functions. A thriving community is created not by physical proximity, but by a sense of belonging, trust, commonality of purpose, and interaction (McInnerney & Roberts, 2004; Rovai, 2002a).

While community may develop more organically in person, the online space does not preclude it. Instead, your online course should be designed with community in mind. It is our responsibility as instructors to not simply create a space for collaboration, but to intentionally promote interactions that build belonging, trust, and solidarity among students.

Wondering how you can accomplish this? In a 2007 article on course design and community building, Richard Ascough emphasizes the importance of “hospitality.” An environment in which the instructor welcomes learners, encourages participation, promotes conversation, and helps students make connections contributes to a deeper learning experience. You can model the type of interaction you’d like to see among your students as you facilitate shared discourse and group activities.

In Practice

Group virtual collaboration

Below are specific approaches you can take to build a hospitable online course and foster student-student interaction. 

Begin with an Icebreaker 

Joanne McInnery and Tim Roberts (2004) suggest incorporating a warm-up stage early in the semester. Having students introduce themselves at the start of class, in a manner unrelated to course work, familiarizes them with one another and the new learning environment. Students can post photos or a video, share something interesting about themselves, or respond to a unique question—a debate of the optimal study snack food, for example. 

Browse sample icebreaker activities for building community at the start of term.

Incorporate Group Work  

The mere mention of group work can provoke frustration. But a well-structured group project can increase students’ sense of community and help them practice effective team collaboration. To offset possible anxieties, encourage your class to draft rules or guidelines for working together in groups. Develop a rubric, ideally with students’ input, that clarifies expectations for assignments and each group member’s contribution. Transparency in grading will alleviate some of the tension that may arise when a student is graded as part of a group. 

Plan ahead which technology students can use to collaborate. You might set up Groups in CarmenCanvas or leverage other Ohio State supported and approved tools. For example, consider OneNote or Whiteboard in Microsoft 365 for collaborative note-making and idea generation, or U.OSU for blogging. For group assignments, students could cocreate graphic, web, or video projects using Adobe Spark, available via Adobe Creative Cloud.

Learn more about questions to consider when planning group work in your online course. 

Craft Thoughtful Discussions 

Discussion boards often get a bad rap, and poorly designed ones can smother rather than stimulate conversation. But in a 2010 study of engagement among online students, Marcia Dixson found that those who felt highly engaged with a course were twice as likely to report the use of discussion boards to connect with peers. A clear prompt or question that encourages critical thinking—combined with a rubric that establishes expectations—can support students to understand what critical engagement with a topic looks like and to practice those behaviors.  

A perspective shift regarding discussion boards may be in order. Rather than a static forum that presents a list of opinions, a discussion board can be a collaborative document for generating knowledge. Encourage students to more fully engage with their peers’ posts by adding value to a comment, formulating responses using a yes/and or yes/but approach. Students can affirm a peer’s comment (the “yes”) and then either add to the concept (the “and”) or propose another perspective (the “but”). 

UX Tip

Group Discussions

"Online discussions quickly become overwhelming in a larger class. I therefore created Groups in Carmen and had students discuss in those groups. Online discussions in Carmen allow everyone to participate in thoughtful and meaningful ways, including the students who do not participate in in-class discussions." - Mark Moritz, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology 

Moreover, online discussions do not have to be conventional or boring. Integrating creative approaches will enliven your discussion board and keep students engaged. For example: 

  • Post scenarios or case studies for students to analyze 

  • Ask for predictions about something, rather than reflections or analyses 

  • Encourage students to connect responses to personal experiences and/or current events 

  • Have students adopt the perspective of a historical figure or literary character 

Explore Additional Considerations for Online Discussions in Facilitating Discussion and Effective Online Discussion Questions

Open Multiple Communication Channels 

Dixson (2010) advocates for the creation of multiple communication channels, in which students have a number of pathways and venues to connect. Incorporating discussion boards, pair and group work, peer instruction, and peer review—or any other means of student-student interaction—accommodates various communication styles and learning preferences. It also gives students more avenues in which to bond, build trust, and find commonalities in learning expectations or goals. 

UX Tip

Universal Design for Learning

No two students are alike in how they prefer to interact. Be sure to offer multiple means—beyond writing—for students to share ideas with peers. Options can include audio responses, links to online resources, and relevant images or videos on a given topic.

Two female students looking at an ipad

Encourage Social Connection 

Including avenues for interpersonal, social connections can also strengthen the bonds within a learning community, ultimately leading to deeper learning (Rovai et al., 2004). For example, set up a study strategies advice thread where students can post study hacks or arrange group study sessions. Informal questions or prompts can be added alongside academic topics in discussion spaces—a recipe swap is a favorite. Ascough (2007) suggests encouraging extracurricular communication, or helping students connect outside of class over shared interests via email or other means.  

Include Collaborative Writing and Peer Review 

Writing promotes critical thinking and learning, and collaborative writing allows groups of students to draw on each other’s strengths in the process. Consider incorporating peer review activities for the proposals, outlines, and drafts you assign. Participating in peer review enables students to: 

  • Receive additional advice and perspectives on their writing 

  • Critically assess and offer constructive feedback on others’ writing 

  • Consider a concrete audience beyond their instructor 

  • Engage with different writing styles and approaches  

Let Students Teach 

Inviting your students to teach, such as through student-led discussion boards or student-authored video lectures and presentations, gives them ownership of their learning. The act of teaching prompts students to think explicitly about how to memorize and recall information as well as how to synthesize and translate that information in a manner their peers can understand. Moreover, it helps students feel that they are meaningful contributors to a dynamic community of inquiry. 

UX Tip

Students as Teachers

"Instead of me presenting different education theorists, the students presented them to each other. Later, they had to use what they learned from each other by identifying how their approaches to teaching are supported by multiple education theories." - Judy Ridgway, Assistant Director, Center for Life Science Education 

Use Phased Engagement 

Phase your course activities to scaffold student-student interaction in the online environment. The following suggestions are adapted from Rita-Marie Conrad and J Ana Donaldson’s Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction.

Weeks 

Student role 

Instructor role 

Process 

1-2 

Newcomer 

Social negotiator 

Provide activities that help students to get to know one another. Bring up issues of etiquette and expectations about participation in the course discussions. 

3-4 

Cooperator 

Structurer 

Provide paired student activities that require critical thinking, peer review, and reflection. 

5-6 

Collaborator 

Facilitator 

Provide collaborative group activities, projects, or debates. 

7-16 

Initiator or partner 

Community member or challenger 

Set up student-designed and student-led presentations and discussions. Allow students to reflect and discuss without intervening too forcefully.

Summary

It’s easy for students to feel isolated in online environments, but research shows that meaningful student-student interaction is a crucial component of a successful course. Plan in advance how you will build classroom community and foster peer connections throughout the semester.  

  • Incorporate icebreakers and warm-up activities to help students get to know each other 

  • Include group work assignments with transparent expectations for how students should collaborate 

  • Develop thoughtful and creative discussion questions that encourage critical thinking 

  • Set up multiple channels of communication, including ways for students to connect socially 

  • Integrate collaborative writing or peer review for written assignments 

  • Engage students as teachers by inviting them to facilitate discussion or present certain topics or lessons to the class 

References

  • Ascough, R. S. (2007). Welcoming design: Hosting a hospitable online course. Teaching Theology and Religion, 10(3), 131-36. 
  • Dixson, M. D. (2010). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1-13. 
  • McInnerney, J. M. & Roberts, T. S. (2004). Online learning: Social interaction and the creation of a sense of community. Educational Technology and Society, 7(3), 73-81. 
  • Rovai, A. P. (2002a). Building a sense of community at a distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1), 1-16. 
  • Rovai, A. P., Wighting, M. J., & Lucking, R. (2004). The classroom and school community inventory: Development, refinement, and validation of a self-report measure for educational research. Internet and Higher Education, 7, 263-80. 
  • Young, S., & Bruce, M. A. (2011). Classroom community and student engagement in online courses. MERLOT, 7(2), 219-30.