Rethinking How to Actively Engage Students in Online Chat Spaces

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session Research

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

We will discuss how we expanded the use of online discussion forums beyond the stereotypical “post your thoughts and comment on your classmate’s posts.”  Additionally, we will discuss the perceived effectiveness of our activities as expressed by two different student populations.

Extended Abstract

Have you ever asked yourself how students can be better engaged with course content in an online chat discussion?  And how do you establish clear usable grading criteria to measure and reward participation?  Many of us encountered these questions the hard way in our virtual pandemic classrooms when we no longer had access to our students in a traditional class setting. Discussion boards remain a primary way of engaging students, with the stereotypical instructions sounding similar to “write your thoughts on X and reply to Y number of your peers’ posts.”  While effective in some situations, this format does not work well for all subjects. Another challenge is providing effective feedback to students in online courses (Bonnel 2008). In a face-to-face setting, students can readily interact with the instructor during class time to receive feedback. However, in an asynchronous online course, such options are limited or time-consuming (Baran and Correia 2010). Additionally, there is a lack of support in the literature for developing robust online discussions for certain areas such as mathematics (Bliss and Lawrence 2009). In our experience, it is not easy to have online conversations/arguments in mathematics courses, especially at the introductory level, due to a lack of students’ motivation and students’ confidence with the material.  While our background is in math, none of these challenges are strictly inherent to mathematics courses. If you have experienced a similar struggle in designing online dialogues in the courses you teach, then you might appreciate how challenging it is to successfully and meaningfully engage students online. 

As mathematics instructors, we struggled with the aforementioned challenges and, in response, developed a set of online activities that can be implemented in online discussion boards. We used an online discussion platform embedded in our institution's learning management system where students engaged anonymously with their peers. To encourage students’ participation and assist with motivation, we designated a portion of the final course grade for completing online tasks that we named star point activities.  These included a variety of options for students to choose from, including weekly mind maps, exam reviews, and a few others. After completing an activity students would be awarded a certain number of star points based on a grading rubric.  Students were expected to reach a stated threshold of star points at various points in the semester.

As previously mentioned, each star point activity had an associated grading rubric to award star points.  The goal of each rubric was not to break down the assignment into multiple partial credit opportunities. Instead, they focused on providing a qualitative assessment of the student’s work and allowed students to submit corrections to earn back full points based on instructor comments. Depending on the activity, the rubric was geared towards student effort or the correctness of a student’s response. This grading strategy can be easily adopted in any course. Even the activities can be implemented across most subjects. In the presentation, we will be sharing details about these activities and the rubric.

A study investigating students’ perceptions of the star points activities was conducted in precalculus and differential equations courses. We analyzed five key areas related to student perception of the star point activities: (a) how comfortable they were doing the activities in the online chat forum (b) how helpful they found the activities (c) whether they thought the rubric/grading criterion was fair, (d) which activities were the most preferred, and (e) their thoughts about the workload of the activities. Responses in each of these areas will be discussed. Overall, the activities appeared to be more appreciated in the differential equations course than the precalculus course for a variety of reasons.

Audience Participation:

This presentation will include an opportunity for audience interaction with a sample star point grading rubric.  We will divide participants into groups to grade provided sample mind maps on a fun food classification framework called “The Cube Rule.” The goal of this activity is for instructors to see firsthand how simple grading star point activities can be while also offering a rich experience to students. We will end the presentation with a takeaway group discussion where participants can brainstorm how to adapt star points activities to their own courses.

Session Goals:

At the end of the session, participants will be inspired with new engagement ideas to implement in their online courses, whatever their subject area. In addition, the results of our study will allow participants to make an informed decision about which activities they may want to try in their own classrooms. Participants will also be provided details about a rubric that can be easily used in their courses.


  • Baran, Evrim, and Ana-Paula Correia. Student‐led facilitation strategies in online discussions. Distance Education, vol. 30, no. 3, 2009, pp. 339-361.

  • Bliss, Catherine, and Betty Lawrence. From posts to patterns: a metric to characterize discussion board activities in online courses. Online Learning, 2009. Online Learning Consortium,

  • Bonnel, W. Improving feedback to students in online courses. Nursing Education Perspective, vol. 29, 2008, pp. 290-294.