Engaging students online – Day 4

Issues with engagement and participation

Thus far in the course we have been discussing the value of student engagement and participation in online learning. While it has been proven by many studies that engagement leads to improved outcomes for students (see Kahn 2014), a growing body of literature is questioning our understandings of engagement. Let’s take a look at some of these critiques, and then examine how they might influence our teaching practices in concrete ways.

A woman in hospital scrubs reads notes while laying down.
Photo by Aaron Jacobs

To begin, Kahn (2014) highlights that student engagement as a concept remains somewhat under-theorised. He points out that the literature lacks investigation into the student‚Äôs own intentions and downplays student‚Äôs role in shaping their own engagement, and tends to focus on the role of teaching staff in fostering engagement. This is not surprising, as we ourselves have done this over the previous days of this course! In her comprehensive review of student engagement research, Trowler (2010:9) finds that, “The literature often has a normative agenda, characterised by discussions of gains and benefits while ignoring possible downsides, and at times a reductionist approach‚Ķ” In many studies, student engagement is taken to be inherently beneficial and positive.

“The tyranny of participation”

Gourlay (2015) in particular offers a critical perspective on student engagement. She questions whether we are putting too much stock in engagement as the only measure of whether or not students are learning. The move towards active learning, with its emphasis on public, observable participation (such as discussion and participation in activities), is becoming increasingly widespread in Western higher education. This type of learning is easier to measure, to be sure. However, Gourlay points out that learning on one’s own, privately and through individual study, is not privileged in the accepted understandings of engagement: ‚ÄúSilent listening and thinking are assumed to be markers of passivity and therefore not indicative of engagement.‚ÄĚ (2015: 404) She continues: ‚Äú…There is a risk that the orthodoxy of student engagement may lead to practices which are quiet, private, non-verbal and non-observable becoming bracketed as essentially deviant and in need of remediation‚Ķ‚ÄĚ (2015: 405)

In fact, unlike active learning principles which emphasize engagement with peers, the most common type of engagement in higher education is engagement with texts, and this is not present in the discourse around student engagement. By privileging public and verbal ways of learning over solitary practices like silent study or reading, Gourlay points out that practices common in other educational cultures such as East Asia are seen as “deficient” in a student engagement model. She calls this the “tyranny of participation”, where prioritising verbal and textual performances of participation are seen as superior to individual, passive practices.

Pedagogical Lurking?

Photo by Stoffel Van Eeckhoudt

An example of this in an online context is Dennen’s (2008) study of student participation in discussion forums. As with Gourlay, Dennen points out that active messaging is implicitly valued as it is the easiest to see and measure, but she notes that students may be participating as “lurkers” – reading and reflecting on posts but not writing.

While lurking is usually seen as having negative connotations (benefitting from discussions without contributing to them), Dennen questions whether this is the case in educational settings. Alert physical attendance is noted as a marker of participation in face-to-face classes, and we acknowledge that not everyone will be able to speak every time. Can this not be true online as well? Those who do not post in forums are often still legitimate participants – it’s just that we don’t know that they are there (2008:1626).

Dennen’s survey of students indicated that lurkers had a variety of reasons for not posting: they did not feel the need, they felt they had nothing original to contribute, or they were having technical difficulties: ‚ÄúIn class settings‚Ķ lurkers may be silent due to confidence-related issues, afraid to do something incorrectly in front of their peer group, but still committed to learning.‚ÄĚ (2008:1627-8) In fact, Dennen discovered that: ‚ÄúStudents who participated solely to meet course requirements and who focused on posting messages more than reading messages had less positive impressions of the discussion activity‚Äôs impact on learning.‚ÄĚ (2008:1624)

Connecting critique and practice

In this course, we’ve talked a lot about the value of engagement, active learning, and discussion. It’s something that is promoted and encouraged for academics to undertake– including by this course and its facilitators! So what do we do with these studies that question the role of engagement? Here are a few suggestions, and I welcome more in the comments.

  • Look at what types of engagement you are including within your course, and try not to privilege one type of engagement (the active, visible kind). Are there opportunities for other types of engagement, including solitary, individual study?
  • If so, how are these “measured” or valued by assessment, like active, verbal participation?
  • Reflect on the context of your course and its students: what types of skills are required for this discipline? Where do the students come from and what might their needs be?
  • How might you deal with the issue of lurkers in your course?

Resources and Further Reading


You can respond to the questions above, but here are a few more to get you thinking as well.

  • What do you think of Gourlay and others’ critiques of student engagement? Do you think active learning is the best way for students to learn or are you swayed by their arguments?
  • How can we apply these theories to the work we’ve done in the previous days of the course?

30 thoughts on “Engaging students online – Day 4

  1. Within Medicine I think alto of what is important is not just the student’s engagement within the session but their ongoing engagement in using what was covered. For example using the session to better engage with patients to practise or talking with other members of the health care team.

  2. Many of us who have been involved in courses would be aware that some of the brightest students are among the quietest. I always like chatting to students about the courses they like, and dislike, and why. One student told me that he loved a lecturer who randomly pointed to students and asked questions of them in class. The student told me it kept him on his toes. I began doing this myself until my daughter told me the opposite: she hates teachers who put her on the spot in front of a class. My daughter moved to distance learning in Year 8 (because she is also studying dance) and says she is more inclined to engage in class discussions when they are online. This was a good lesson for me. Students are inherently different learners (for a host of reasons), so I tend to agree with Gourlay that associating active learning with verbal, written or other “active” participatory measures is simplistic.

    I guess this goes to the comment that has been raised a few times in the course thus far that formally marking certain forms of active engagement must be done with caution. Thinking about constructive alignment (the alignment of teaching methods and assessment with learning outcomes), one has to question whether forcing students to engage in a way that they usually don’t, or is uncomfortable to them, is good practice.

    That said, students must eventually enter a workforce and the culture that goes with it. The brightest student will find it difficult if they don’t demonstrate some form of active engagement, whether this be body language or verbal communication. I’ve noticed over several years of working in different organisations, including here at The ANU, that individuals with good verbal communication skills and an appropriate demeanor do well in their careers. Can you name one senior person you know that doesn’t have excellent verbal communication skills? Given the globalisation of society, I’m not sure this is something that we can say is unique to Western cultures.

    1. Excellent points Phil. I totally agree with the fact that all of our students must gain strong communication skills, this is what employers are looking for. Yet is it our role to teach our students those skills, are we communicators specialists? I also think that the basics of those skills (such as use of proper grammar, spelling, punctuation and appropriate vocabulary) should have been taught to students before they reach university (for Australian students at least). However, what I noticed is that the level of simple basic writing skills is often lacking in the vast majority of our Australian students (well in science anyway, maybe it is better in humanities).

    2. Hi Phil, you’re right about it being a balancing act, between preparing students for careers in their fields (and the necessary communication skills) and not demanding that everyone engage in the same way. When I taught it was in communications and media studies – strong communication skills and speaking skills are essential for that field (as might be obvious). I think the challenge is to scaffold the participation carefully so that students who are not naturally comfortable in this area can develop their skills.

  3. Reading Day 4 content about our Western way of using and defining active learning I am wondering if it is not linked to flexible learning. Indeed, flexibility may encompass many different ways of providing course’s resources, in-class and/or online learning activities, and many more options so that students may be able to choose what suits best their learning style. So if we want to indeed provide flexible learning (which is what most online courses advertise anyway!) then we need to consider all the views of Gourlay. We shouldn’t, I believe, impose that all students participate equally to the forum (this is another reason for my opposition to allocating marks to forum’s postings). It may be that some students do not engage with the course’s content via the forum but via the many other learning opportunities that the course should offer. Hence is it essential for teachers to focus so much on this aspect of their courses? I think focusing on keeping an active forum is crucial for fully online courses, mainly to create a learning community and to avoid students’ isolation, yet putting too much pressure on students regarding postings in the forum might be counter-productive for some of them. So it is a hard balance we must try to reach, one where we do our best to create social engagement while allowing for many other learning opportunities which, ideally, should be diverse.

  4. I was a little perplexed by the suggestion to not privilege “active, visible” engagement. What other sort of engagement is there: inactive, invisible?

    Solitary, individual study should be an active process, made visible. I ask students to do some activity based on what they studied, to make it visible. This is a routine practice in the courses I teach and have been a student of. It would be pointless to ask the students to study something with no follow-up activity.

    I measure the study by asking the students to answer questions and participate in a discussion. This is usually using text forums and automated quizzes. Doing this verbally is too cumbersome.

    Computer professionals need a mix of technical (hard) skills and so-called soft skills. My interest is in teaching the latter. The postgraduate students I teach are more than technical enough, but they need to know how to manage project and work in teams.

    It is very easy to deal with lurkers in on-line courses. Each week I have the Learning Management System sort the class grades for the week. Those who have no grade appear first and I send then a private message, pointing out that participation is mandatory and offer assistance. Most respond positively.

    I did not find Gourlay of use in “… understanding of the day-to-day unfolding of higher education as situated social practice …”.

    Engagement, I suggest, is both an end in itself (you want graduates who can engage) and a study technique (you want them to engage as part of the learning). So we need to decide what engagement skills the the graduate needs, then how to test this, and lastly how to teach it.

    1. Hi Tom, thanks for your comments. I just wanted to hopefully clarify what I believe Gourlay is arguing in terms of invisible engagement. My understanding from her article is that this relates to processes like reading, making notes, solitary study, watching lectures, and so on. She points to reading in particular as foundational for most disciplines – needing to be familiar with the key thinkers in each field – and that this can be done in an engaged way, but a way that is invisible. But I like your strategies for dealing with this, in terms of using quizzes and so on. The main thing I take from Gourlay’s work is to be critical in how we apply “engagement” to our courses.

  5. I certainly value the importance of solitary private study, and think it is important that this remains a component even of online courses. However, as pointed out above, this form of “engagement” must still measured/assessed in some way, since there is no other way to determine whether students are participating in that aspect of the course, unlike in a face-to-face course where you can at least measure attendance. In our course, students are expected to watch all lectures online and complete required reading for each weekly session. Assessment of their understanding of the lecture material is achieved through weekly multiple choice quizzes as well as participation in the discussion forums.

    I found the quote from Dennan interesting: ‚ÄúStudents who participated solely to meet course requirements and who focused on posting messages more than reading messages had less positive impressions of the discussion activity‚Äôs impact on learning.‚ÄĚ In our course we have focused on posting replies to forum questions as the main aspect of participation – now I am thinking that we may also need to make it clear that students are expected to read other students’ posts and comment on them occasionally, in order to achieve full participation marks. Definitely something to think further about.

    1. Like Naomi, my attetion was also caught by the distinction between “posting” vs “reading”. It sort of summarises the whole complexity around capturing/measuring learning in particular in an online environment. An example I remember from when I was a Master’s student was that each student had to post one summary of a reading over semester and also had to reply to another student’s post. From memory, I approached the exercise as a box-ticking thing – aka which is the shortest reading that I could pick to summarise, and which was the shortest student blog that I could reply to – but I do still have on my shelves today(four years on) the full transcript of that course’s blog in my papers. So I went to the trouble of copying and pasting out all this content from our Wattle course site and keeping it. Somewhere along the line, this exercise led to content that piqued my interest… I wonder if a neat solution to all of this ‘how long is a piece of string’ debate about what does active leanring look like & how do we measure it on-line might be something as simple as — here are 4,5,6 different types of activities you can get extra marks for (writing a post , responding to someone else’s post, collecting a top ten list of excellent web resources on a topic, uploading a video or 3 minute audio only file, moderating our student forum for a week) – choose one, or all, and find your thing… Obviously you’d need to tweak the marking scale (probably a cap of maxiumum bonus points you can get), but that aspect of choosing your style and making it work might make it possible for everyone to find a way to flag their learning progress online in a way that suits their learning patterns… while also generating content that not only helps the author learn but also helps others learn too…

  6. This makes me ponder the need to explicitly disentangle engagement as a means to an end, or an end in itself, and what this means in when defining the nature of engagement specifically in an online context.

    The difficulty is setting an expectation without devolving into teaching to the test. It is much more obvious when the ‘test’ is a literal written test (teacher just goes through questions and answers by rote), but this tendency can still be there if the ‘test’ is vocal or written comments or discussion (e.g. choosing points on the basis that that will make for good discussion, rather than choosing on the basis of enhancing learning). As some people have noted, overt engagement in itself can be a completely valid skill set to focus on for later employment. But this post has really got me thinking about its validity as a proxy for deeper learning. In physical classes, it is not uncommon for the more inherently extroverted and switched-on students to ‘engage’ just to move the lesson along/spare the tutor awkward silences. For them, the learning had already happened days prior via invisible engagement of learning via the textbook, and the engagement is more a social necessity than element of learning. But we don’t get that with online classes; there can’t be ackward pauses. Then again, posting a comment could serve a similar purpose of meeting an assessment quota or goal, rather than serving to actually solidify learning. Of course, these points presuppose the students will spontaneously learn the material without the need of enforced monitoring of their learning as they go. Which often isn’t the case, which then casts overt engagement in the role of enforcing learning rather than being a genuine mechanism for learning and reflection… Which is perfectly OK if that is the explicit purpose of the engagement, and mechanisms are in place to avoid ‘teaching to the test’ (teaching engagement rather than deep synthesis and recall). Hm, much to think about.

    1. Hi Erin, I loved your example of the super-engaged face-to-face students who bring all their invisible participation to class! It’s a tough area because obviously there are no easy answers on how to address this, but I think you’ve teased out the key concerns: visible engagement does not equal learning, and invisible participation does not equal disengaged!

      1. Yes, that’s a nice nutshell line there Katie: “visible engagement does not equal learning, and invisible participation does not equal disengaged!”

      2. Indeed! I am in 100% agreeance Katie. I teach a blended unit and it is the students partaking in invisible engagement online that often seem more prepared for F2F activities. I find they are often more consistent in their approach to learning as well. In contrast, many students who are frequent contributors online struggle to articulate conceptual knowledge and application in class and assessment.

        Interestingly, when I have spoken to students whose participation is invisible, they mention that they feel no real need to ‘get in on the online discussion’ and are comfortable in using other measures to support learning. That to me, shows resourcefulness and insight into what approaches to learning work for them as individuals. I think this is why participation marks make me feel uneasy in both the online and F2F environments. I agree that the focus of measuring engagement is directed at the visible participants. I am very curious though as to how we can also measure the participation of invisible learners. The combination of the two would be a very insightful reflection of overall student engagement.

        1. Hi Courtney – great comment! I might have to quote you next time we discuss this issue! I too am concerned as to how we can measure contributions of invisible learners in a thoughtful way. Many universities are jumping into the “learning analytics” boat, hoping to capture this information, but I always wonder how effective an algorithm will be in capture this sort of data. I think it requires the thoughtful and reflective interpretation of the teaching staff!

  7. I feel that the participation is also related to the student’s personality. Probably many of us experience that some students are more extrovert and less serious about the studies, but they mostly lead the conversation – even by telling that they just want to pass the unit. They are not shy of talking whatever comes to their mind. They listen as well as talk. Since I teach F2F classes, I make it a point to ask questions to the students who never speak. Surprisingly, they can participate well but lack the initiative or probably the confidence that of an extrovert student. I guess both types of students learn – active participants and the lurkers.

  8. *How might you deal with the issue of lurkers in your course?*
    I really appreciate Gourlay’s observations. I remember my young learning self as a “lurker” — very willing to give back and to my colleagues f2f, one-on-one or in small groups, but not prepared to risk looking stupid (as many of my peers appeared to look to me!). I don’t think that made me not “engaged” , just someone with a quieter learning style. So I sympathise a lot with those Eastern learners, while also recognising that (as has been mentioned here) the very vocal verbal communicators are usually the ones who get noticed and “succeed”.
    So, I will deal with it in my nearly-all online course by (reluctantly) attaching marks to posts, as advised many times here ( but probably just sat/unsat so the lurkers can get away with a token effort if that is what suits them) as well as self-assessment quizzes for all (so the lurkers still have enngagement activities to complete and learn from).

  9. Maybe i am playing the advocate’s devil – but i wonder if one could make the argument that the “need” to measure student’s engagement by having them participate in the online forum discussions is more about giving us, the teachers, the possibility of somehow feeling the pulse of a class of students who we never see (if they are only online), that is also a reflection of how good we are delivering content, while the course is happening, instead of waiting to the end of the course when most likely students will be evaulated in essays or exams…(and how sad would it be to find a high % of failing students at that stage?!)
    Using the example of our course again – students are assessed based on the participation on the online forums and multiple choice questions, but also on the participation on tutorial exercises and mainly on 2 essays…i guess this format of evaluation gives more emphasis to silent engagement, while still acknowledging the value of “active” ongoing engagement…

    1. Hi Susana,
      I have a feeling you are probably right about the need for “visible” engagement being more for the teachers’ benefit in the online space. Even if only a few people are talking in a face-to-face tutorial, you can “read the room” pretty easily and get a sense of how the students are going when you are together in person. Much harder online!

  10. I agree with Gourley… An exchange student of mine from Columbia, came to me and said she has a fear of presenting to a group and whether she can make the presentation in private only to me. I told her that you should do what you feel comfortable with and I am happy for you to present only to me. However, I suggest that (a) if ‘fear’ is keeping you away then presenting to the class provides the best opportunity to overcome the fear since all your fellow students are more or less in the same boat. Also I always praise a student whatever the quality of presentation s/he makes. My concerns I express to the student individually and not in the class and (b) if there is a medical condition which is driving it then it is fine that you don’t present in the class. After much careful thought she decided to present in the class. I made sure that she is not asked questions else it derails her new found confidence. I was happy for her to stand in front of the class and show her slides and read from these without even once looking at the class. I gave her the top mark. She was very surprised. Asked me why she got the best marks. I told her you overcome a big hurdle and that deserved best marks.

    1. That is such a beautiful story Milind. It sounds like you really helped that student overcome a personal fear and feel more confident. I’m glad you were there to support and encourage them!

  11. I’m happy to say that I’ve been a lurker in my time and been comfortable to read and reflect on posts in my own way rather than engage visibly. Engagement with texts (in the visual arts or art history this could be objects and artefacts) in the quiet, internal, personal reflective space is where deep learning begins, independent of assessment or ticking boxes. The next step of being able to express and critically evaluate ideas and hypotheses with peers can then solidify/build/adjust that learning. However, as others have pointed out, there needs to be a mechanism for assessing/grade students’ learning and understanding of content.

    Perhaps using apps and fun/more visual tools and other non text-based options come into play here?

    Maybe, as we do in face to face classes, small group activities and peer assessment online is a good strategy? Maybe smaller discussion groups, video conferencing, visual or creative writing responses, reflective blogging (in disciplines where this is appropriate) – in which access is limited to group members and the teacher only – provide options for engagement in other ways.

  12. Meant to say…where Gourlay calls this the ‚Äútyranny of participation‚ÄĚ, where prioritising verbal and textual performances of participation are seen as superior to individual, passive practices….I believe this is quite true and can inhibit deeper, quieter reflective learning. We all hate being forced to churn out responses for the sake of assessment and box ticking. I guess this brings us back to skillful teaching and facilitation that enables finding a balanced way to draw out evidence of learning.

  13. What a great discussion here! Another way we can look at this is learner differences and how we are supposed to cater to different learning styles. Having a combination of different engagement methods (discussion forums and individual assignments) would help to strike that golden mean.

    1. Hi Ksenia, I also find a combination of methods to be very effective for things like this to try to address diverse student needs. What are your thoughts on how easily multiple approaches are scalable for large class sizes?

  14. I have been teaching fully online courses for a few years now and I still can’t describe what an engaged student looks like. The only reason that I would require what they call “active learning” is for assessment purposes which is a university requirement. But as mentioned in the previous discussions, people “engage” in different ways. I’m a very quiet, solitary learner. I don’t feel the need to participate in discussions especially if it is only to share my opinions or tell everyone what I think. Because I don‚Äôt care and I don’t feel the need to do that…unless it is imposed and it will be graded. Then I’m doing it to fulfill a requirement. But I am very engaged with the learning…just not in that “social, noisy” way.

    As to lurkers, I just sit and wait until week 2. Then I send out an encouraging email to the whole class to get more involved. In week 3, I start sending individual emails to the lurkers. I ask if they are ok and tell them that I noticed that they have not been participating. I ask if there is anything I can do or if they need any support/help. I then close with a reminder that they can always tell me / email me their concerns or if they are struggling with the course. Most of them would email back with appreciation that I noticed them at all. Some start participating but some remain in lurker mode in which case I really cannot do anything about it. BUT, I also cannot judge them and say that they are not “learning” as much as the others who are participating and writing 1000 word posts every hour.

  15. As my application of a theory of my choice from above (i.e., ‚ÄúStudents who participated solely to meet course requirements and who focused on posting messages more than reading messages had less positive impressions of the discussion activity‚Äôs impact on learning.‚ÄĚ (Dennen, 2008:1624)) to the days 1-3, I would say that the expectations were set for this course that we should comment by posting every day to get a mark and the video clips emphasised that one need to set these ground rules that posting alone is not sufficient but one must also comment others posts and synthesise posts to reflect genuine learning and higher level skills. Another example of having put theory into practice was motivating our discussion participation via assessment marks.

  16. While I agree that students can engage with learning material individually and learn just fine, I feel like this is what traditional lectures and assessments, whether formative or summative, already cater for. I feel that providing opportunities for dialogue and peer-to-peer interaction acknowledges that people can learn from each other, and through discussion (some may not, or may not want to, granted). While I would certainly learn a lot from others by lurking, they are not getting the opportunity to learn from my perspective, and that feels a little selfish and one-sided. Originally, I was a very individual learner, as I had been brought up to be, but having been exposed to and marked on participation, and so forced to engage, I now really value what I can learn from other people’s perspectives, experience, backgrounds and ways of thinking.

  17. Perhaps, clearly introducing the learning outcomes associated with discussion forums could help stimulate greater participation among students who are ‚Äėposting only for the mark‚Äô? I think one of the major reasons that students decide to complete only the bare minimum required for a given assessment piece is because they are either uninterested in the item or don‚Äôt see its value. Emphasising the concrete skills that can be gained through peer-to-peer learning, and their applicability to later careers etc., could combat this. Time is also, of course, a major factor so making sure that the requirements for participation are reasonable and clearly defined (such as in the word limit suggestions made earlier) seems like a good strategy as well.

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