How do I get students to…?

…do the reading?

…participate in discussion?

Well, I don’t know. But here’s what I’ve been doing, and I’m pretty happy with it.

Getting students to do the reading

Here’s where the rubber hits the road on accountability. Like most people, I assign quizzes designed to make sure they “do the reading”. But unless you have 100 questions on the weekly quiz, or get draconian about quiz timing (I don’t time any quizzes – I think it’s rude in an online class), they can skip to answer the questions.

Besides, I don’t really want them to do the reading – I want them to engage it, as scholars do all texts. I want them to observe, note, ask questions. So, since few of my classes have discussions, I’ve combined reading and discussing using group annotation, originally in and now using Perusall in Canvas.

I call each week’s reading “Read and discuss the chapter and documents”. The only link to the reading for the week is that one – they cannot access the reading without being inside the annotation program. Reading and discussing is 20% of the grade. I suggest in the first week what they might do to appropriately discuss, and set auto-grading accordingly. My student surveys suggest it worked well, though some balked at having to do it since the grade percentage was so high. To me, that means it’s working!

Getting students to participate in discussion

This may be the longest-standing concern about online classes, especially if you naturally encourage and enjoy discussion in the classroom. I enjoy it, but have trouble getting it to happen naturally, so perhaps that’s why I have spent more time trying to make it happen using technology!

This last year, I had a new class in early American history, and I didn’t want to write quizzes (laziness is actually the mother of invention). So I designed discussion boards around a short video prompt from a series on controversies in American history. These are simple, and just present a couple of sides on an issue. Using my patented two-step discussion process (well, ok, it’s not patented, but I did do a presentation on it in 2010), I allowed the first half of the week for responses (often emotional and immediate, since here I wasn’t tracking their reading). Then I came into the discussion on Thursday for my “Take discussion from here!” post. This post, in a different colored text, summarized the discussion they’d had so far, mentioning students by name, then suggested a different (deeper) direction for the second half of the week, based on their responses.


Discussion was worth (you guessed it) 20% of the grade, given in two 10% grades, one a mid-point and one at the end, with feedback. Student survey responses at the end of the class featured rave reviews:

I absolutely love the interaction from the discussion boards. There is a lot of reading but it is not difficult. I also loved Lisa’s constant interaction and getting the second part of the discussion board going by setting up a prompt. I loved this class!

The discussions were very engaging and forced students to really think about and consider the topics, not just memorize dates and events.

I really liked the discussions because it’s not an online class where we just take quizzes every week, but we get to form arguments and change our perspectives by our classmates.

Make it important: the magic 20% (or more)

I’ve come to the conclusion that whatever important thing we want them to do, it must be worth at least 20% of the grade. If I really want them to read, our grade percentage should say so. If the goal is discussion, ditto. 20% is a serious grade swing. The only complaints I got from students on either of these techniques was that they wished it wasn’t 20% or didn’t realize until late that it was 20%. They owned that this was their problem, not mine.

If I’m going to dedicate hours and hours to designing discussions, and creating second posts, it can’t be a 10% assignment (to me, 10% says “optional”). I’d be comfortable, if I didn’t also have them doing primary source posts, at 30% for either of these.

This post was inspired by the wonderful faculty at Yavapai college, and their posts  about professorial participation in discussion and getting students to read.