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Ask Questions

Why Participation Matters

By: Maggie Veneman

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

           – Rainer Maria Rilke

Participation is an essential part of learning and assessment, but it can be more challenging to effectively participate in an online course compared to on-campus course. Lack of face to face interaction with instructors, teaching assistants, and classmates can hinder a student’s willingness and ability to fully engage in an online learning environment.

text bubblesStudent/instructor roles shift

In online learning, the lack of traditional in person interaction causes the instructor to become more of a guide or facilitator. Consequently, students need to be more active learners, asking their professor and their peers questions to aid their learning. It can be difficult for students to take this initiative online; they may not feel confident when addressing other students since they have no background information about them, and they may struggle to find a balance when posting to discussion forums.

Active learning doesn’t mean that instructors are leaving students to figure everything out for themselves. Active learning means that students who ask questions and communicate have the ability to direct their own learning in a productive way. Despite not initially knowing much about your classmates and professor, online discussion forums allow you to learn about them and build relationships.

See this guide from Queen’s Student Academic Success Services for tips on how to succeed in an online course.

Social presence

Social presence is defined as the degree to which someone is perceived as real in mediated communication. In online learning, studies have found that the higher a student’s perceived social presence, the higher their perceived learning. In other words, students who reported more interaction with their classmates also reported higher satisfaction with the course and increased levels of learning. As online students, you should make participation in class discussion a top priority.

student raising handBenefits of asking questions

Asking questions and actively participating in a course has many benefits:

  • Students learn more interacting with others than they can learn from reading materials alone.
  • The asynchronous nature of online discussion encourages mindfulness and thoroughness in students’ responses to discussion forums.
  • When students receive positive feedback, their intrinsic motivation increases, meaning they are compelled to put more effort into their academics. Giving your peers positive feedback in discussions will encourage them to do their best work.

The best way to ensure that you have a satisfying experience with your online courses is to participate. Ask questions that elicit discussion, and don’t be afraid to contribute to that discussion. Your classmates and your instructor want to hear what you have to say.



Dissolving Boundaries with Online Discussion

Online course discussion boards offer an excellent opportunity to interact with your peers in a new and unique way. When all you know about someone is their screen name, discussion becomes a way to learn not just about the course, but about each other.

One of the greatest benefits of online learning is the multitude of ways to participate. Online courses are known as a great leveler, meaning that no matter who you are — extroverted/introverted, male/female, younger/older, traditional/non-traditional student, etc. — there are ways to participate based on your preferences and without the fears that can arise in face-to-face classrooms.

           - Online Universities

Here are some tips to help you in online discussion forums:

  1. Be yourself. Your differences with your classmates will make the discussion all the more interesting.
  2. Ask questions. Respond to other students’ inquiries, and ask your own questions as well. You may find that the discussion you elicit is helpful for an assignment you’re working on.
  3. Share resources. If you find an article that is particularly relevant to the unit you’re studying, share it with your discussion group!
  4. Talk about the assignments. You may gain some helpful tips from your peers about upcoming assessments if you initiate the conversation.
  5. Be respectful. Everyone has different opinions, and it’s important to keep that in mind when participating in online discussion. Contrasting opinions can actually be the starting point for some very lucrative discussion.

Types of Questions to Ask in Forums

Adapted from the University of Waterloo website.


“How does … compare/contrast with …?”

“What are the parts or features of …?”

“Classify … according to …”

“What would you predict/infer from …?”

“What might happen if you combined …?”


“What evidence can you list for …?”

“What would you predict/infer from …?”

“What ideas can you add to …?”

“What solutions would you suggest for …?”

“How is … an example of …?”

“How is … related to …?”


 “Do you agree …?”

“What do you think about …?”

“What is the most important …?”

“Place the following in order of priority …”

“How would you decide about …?”

“What criteria would you use to assess …?”

Participation Styles

There are as many different types of learners engaged in online learning as there are students, but it is possible to narrow them down. In their article “Factors that Influence Participation In Online Learning”, Selma Vonderwell and Sajit Zachariah describe three main types of participants in online discussions:

Workers: proactive participation group

  • Workers take initiative and are actively engaged in discussion

Lurkers: peripheral participation group

  • Lurkers participate occasionally, but mostly in a read-only mode

Shirkers: parsimonious participation group

  • Shirkers perform the bare minimum

The amount of effort students put into their participation is a precursor of their overall success in the course. In order to be successful, you should be a worker. Vonderwell and Zachariah identify three different roles for students in online learning:

  1. Facilitator: initiate discussion, oversee the knowledge building process
  2. Critical reflector: analyze and critique posts, promote questions
  3. Summarizer: summarize and reflect

You can use any or all of these approaches in discussion forums to boost your participation grade and foster discussion.