Listening in Online Discussions

What’s the best way to engage students in online discussion? Research suggests that students learn better when they pay attention to each other in dialogue, and asynchronous discussion forums are often the main mode of student-to-student interaction in online courses. A recent study investigated whether assigned discussion roles lead to enriched post quality and student engagement. In this case, undergraduate students were assigned summarizing roles on a rotating schedule, and the study examined the effects of these roles on discussion quality.

Over the course of the semester, group discussions generated between 30 and 60 posts per week. Students generally viewed most posts, but read less than half of them: log-file data showed the length of time students viewed each post, which the researchers used to determine whether the posts were actually read or simply scanned. The study revealed that when students were assigned summarizing roles, they attended to the posts of other students more widely, and in some cases more deeply.

The sustained impact, however, was weak. Students who played a summarizing role continued to view more posts made by others in subsequent weeks, but they did not read more. Furthermore, after playing a summarizing role, students began to underperform: post-role students averaged fewer post reviews and exhibited less listening behavior.

Role rotation is an appealing strategy: it seems to benefit all students by allowing everyone a chance to try out different roles. However, the role-rotation strategy appears to have unintended negative side effects. If students abdicate responsibility in discussion after completing their roles, the negative effects may outweigh the benefits, particularly for students who are assigned roles early in the rotation.

That students increased their listening behaviors while performing summarizing roles, only to relinquish them post-role, suggests several implications for the role-rotation strategy. The first is that listening behavior may be a part of the summarizing strategy—i.e., students listen because they need the contributions of others to most effectively summarize the material. The second is that—given post-role behavior—instructors need to employ additional strategies to encourage sustained student engagement. Future research should investigate whether other kinds of roles can be assigned in order to maximize benefits for all students in online discussion.

Wise, A. F., & Chiu, M. M. (2014). The impact of rotating summarizing roles in online discussions: Effects on learners’ listening behaviors during and subsequent to role assignment. Computers in Human Behavior, 38, 261-271.