Different Grouping Methods in Asynchronous Online Instruction: Social Presence and Student Satisfaction

Concurrent Session 4

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This research examined the effects of different grouping methods in an undergraduate asynchronous online course. Findings indicated that the different grouping methods have no significant influence on the social presence, student satisfaction and outcome. However, the Permanent Small Groups yielded more discussion posts and started to show signs of a learning community at the end of the course. 



Dr. Celia Shi is an Education Specialist of the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Support of West Virginia University Libraries. She obtained a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction/Literacy Studies from the College of Education and Human Services, WVU. Dr. Shi is currently teaching and designing Information Literacy courses at WVU.

Extended Abstract


Although improving social presence in an online teaching setting has gained popularity during the past decades, little research has investigated the outcome of different grouping of students in an asynchronous online course during the pandemic. This quantitative study examined the effects of Permanent Small Group and Variably-Sized Group in an undergraduate asynchronous online course. Findings indicated that there is no statistical significance in terms of social presence between the two grouping methods. However, the Permanent Small Group yielded more discussion posts than the Variably-Sized Group. In addition, this research indicated the correlation between the social presence and student satisfaction is low. This study aims to call for more research attention on the impacts of social presence and methods of enhancing social presence for online teaching in the pandemic and post-pandemic era.


The purpose of this study was to examine the impacts of permanent small grouping on social presence in an undergraduate asynchronous online course. Most of the previous research (i.e., Akcaoglu & Lee, 2016; AbuSeileek, 2012; Erdmann et al., 2017; Yang, Sinha, Adamson & Rosé, 2013; Kim, 2013; Bristol & Kyarsgaard, 2012; Lowry et al, 2006) has suggested that placing students in small and permanent discussion groups can augment social presence and affect students’ outcome and satisfaction. However, other researchers (i.e., Al Mulhim & Eldokhny, 2020; Bristol & Kyarsgaard, 2012; Pollock, et. al, 2011) argued either no statistically significant difference in student outcomes for group size or preference in larger group. This study investigated the outcome of different grouping methods in an asynchronous online course during the pandemic.


This study was conducted with four different sessions of one undergraduate asynchronous online learning course, Introduction to Library Research, at a university during the spring 2021 semester. All courses were eight weeks in length. The four sessions were using identical asynchronous course syllabus and eCampus online modules which were designed by the researchers. The students were undergraduates from various majors of the university. Throughout the course, there were three group discussion tasks and an open discussion forum that students could drop in anytime. The treatment group set up permanent small groups at the beginning of the course, each group had 4-5 members. The control group changed group size from a large group (16-21 students), to a smaller group (5-7 students) then to a paired group (2 students) for each forum. A survey (5- Likert-type scale questions and 3 open-ended questions) which were revised from Richardson and Swan (2003) and Swan and Shih (2005) was administered to the students in the last two weeks of class (weeks 7 and 8). The instructors of these classes were trained to socially and effectively approach and interact with the students. Altogether 41 students (16 treatment and 25 control) completed the survey. 11 males and 30 females. The participants’ average age is 21.

Data Analysis and Results

The class mean and standard deviations were calculated using SPSS. A two tailed two samples t-test was conducted to compare means between student responses in the course with a Permanent Small Group and student perceptions for a Variably-Sized Group. With a power of 0.05, no statistically significant difference was noted in the mean scores of the Permanent Small Group and Variably-Sized Group. There was no significant correlation for the items between the two survey submissions. At the end of the courses, students’ grades were compared to find differences in scores. No significant difference was found based on the different grouping methods. The variables of an online community of both groups showed the lowest mean as 2.63; the peer social presence was in the middle as 3.17; and the satisfaction with the instructor as the highest, 4.60.

Overall, in the open questions, a dominant number of participants believe that the online class was not a good place for peers’ interaction. However, in the Permanent Small Group, 40% of students comment that “I feel like ‘know’ some of my classmates pretty well in terms of their hobbies and likes outside of school.” “I think the discussion boards truly helped in the get to know aspect. I do feel that I know them now.” While in the Variably-Sized Group, only 2 out of 25 students feel “even though we never met face to face to the discussion boards allowed me to create a relationship with a few classmates.” 90% of students from the Variably-Sized Group strongly claim that “I feel that I don’t know them at all” or “It’s not like we have conversations with them through the discussion board I feel like I don’t know any of them at all.” “Online courses just don’t have the same effect as in-person.” In addition, by counting the discussion post entries, it was found that the Permanent Small Group have on average 14 entries per person while the control group has only 8 entries per person. The Permanent Small Group observed more interactions, group references, acknowledgement, and social sharing.   90% of both the treatment group and the control group students believe they “enjoyed getting to know the instructor” and feel the instructors respected their opinions.

Substantiated Conclusions

The study revealed that different grouping methods (Permanent Small Group vs. Variably-Sized Group) was not significantly related to either social presence or student outcomes and satisfaction. However, there are a few noteworthy points from the study.

Firstly, although the difference in terms of social presence between the Permanent Small Group and the Variably-Sized Group was not significant, the small permanent group had started to show higher social presence in terms of discussion depth and quantity at the end of this study. Overall, the discussion posts of the Permanent Small Group had posted 1.6 times more than the Variably-Sized Group. In addition, the Permanent Small Group yielded more in-depth posts in the last discussion forum, which happened in the second to last week of the course. This may reveal that the online asynchronous classes need a warm-up process of building a community that is longer than the face-to-face classes. Students may have just gotten familiar with their group members at the time when the 8-week course almost ends. This may be further supported by the high correlation between the peer presence and the course satisfaction (r =0.72) for the Permanent Small Group.

Secondly, the survey revealed that students did not regard online classes as nice platforms for communication, but they still showed high satisfaction toward the course and the instructors. Furthermore, there is no significant difference in the mean final grades of the Permanent Small Groups and the Variably-Sized Group. This result is not aligned with the researches that argue social presence boosts student’ outcome and satisfaction. However, it is worth to note that this study was implemented during the second year of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the entire university to shift to online instruction. Therefore, by the time of this research, students had at least one semester of fully online learning experience. They may have been used to the online classes and changed their evaluation metrics of satisfaction to lean on other elements such as accessibility and the flow of the online course than the social presence.

Thirdly, the analysis showed that the overall rating on the satisfaction on the instructor was very close to the evaluation on the course. This may indicate that students link the class quality closely with the quality of the instructor. Whiteside (2015) argues that although students see their role in cultivating social presence all the way through the program, instructors may feel they bear more responsibility in the early stages of the program. This study supports that student’s perception and interaction with the instructor outperforms the interaction between their peers.

In conclusion, this study did not support that Permanent Small Group has positive impact on social presence for an asynchronous online class. The pandemic changes the education profoundly. It accelerates the shift from the traditional face-to-face teaching to online education. It may also change the expectation of the education. This study raises questions about the impacts of social presence in online teaching in the pandemic and post-pandemic era.  It calls for more research attention on this topic. 

Presentation Plan

The presentation will open with a short conversation or an activity among attendees about the grouping experiences with online classes. After that, the presenter will introduce the design and implementation of this study. In the conclusion part, it will have a short brainstorming about the reasons for the results. If time allows, an activity (i.e., information gap, BINGO etc.) about different grouping may be added to all the attendees in the hope to provoke thinking about the topic as well enhance the interactivity of the presentation. 

Thank you for your nice consideration.