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Participation and interaction: F2F vs. online.


Research has shown that traditional college classrooms do not produce copious classroom discussion or participation and interaction is largely teacher directed. Current distance education pedagogy promotes extensive student-to-student interaction. This project involved researching student interaction and participation. Research methods included faculty interviews, classroom observations, analysis of student course evaluation forms and online database transcripts. The results of the study showed that online classes generated more interaction and discussion than traditional face-to-face classes and upper level classes produced more discussion and interaction than lower level classes.


The constructivist paradigm views students as inquirers or explorers--not as passive recipients of knowledge. Students must play an active role in knowledge construction and learning is based on social interaction. Learning through discussions or conversations has traditionally been viewed as a fundamental part of teaching and learning, particularly in higher education. Research has shown, however, that classroom discussion and participation are sadly lacking in the college classroom. Can online education promote and develop the interaction and participation found lacking in face-to-face college education? The purpose of this study was to determine if online discussions could be more productive and fruitful than that reported in the literature for face-to-face classrooms.

In July 1976, Karp and Yoels published one of the first studies on the apathy of most students in college classrooms and the lack of class participation. They found that a handful of students in all classes account for more than 50% of total class interactions. In classes with fewer than forty students, four or five students accounted for 75% of the total interactions per session. This situation has been termed "the consolation of responsibility". In the typical classroom, participation in discussion will be consolidated in the hands of the few with the majority of students being passive observers.

Karp and Yoels (1976) also found that questions posed by the teacher and teacher comments accounted for 88% of the classroom interactions. Two separate studies in 1983 supported this finding and found that 80% of class time was spent in lecture or "professor talk" (Fisher and Grant 1983; Smith 1983). Fassinger (1995) concluded that the lack of classroom interaction was due to classroom peer groups in "chilly" college class climates.

In 1996, Nunn found that typically only 2.28% of class time was spent in student participation and student talk occupied only about one minute out of a forty minute observation period. Half the students surveyed by Nunn reported that their participation in class was infrequent or never. Howard and Baird, in a 2000 classroom study, attributed low classroom participation rates to the view of "students as customers". Students have purchased the fight to a comfortable environment and should not be made to participate if they do not want to.

In a 2000 study, Fritschner found that in 344 observed class sessions; an average of seven students (25%) participated verbally in class. An average of 4.4 of these 7 students accounted for 70% of all student comments in class. Fritschner, did, however, find more class participation in upper level classes. Students in this study also defined participation differently from their professors. Students viewed participation as attendance, active listening, completing assignments and being prepared for class, not necessarily speaking in class. Students who participated too much were negatively viewed by other students.

A common theme presented in recent research in distance education is that the degree of student satisfaction and retention is related to interaction between the teacher and students (Saba 2000). Satisfaction is increased when students are in frequent contact with the instructor and structured contact is a motivation tool (Coldeway, MacRury and Spencer 1980). Rovai (2002) compared online and face-to-face classes and found that dialogue was more important than structure. Both students and faculty reported increased satisfaction in online courses with more interaction (Hartman and Truman-Davis 2000). In a survey of 3800 students enrolled in 264 courses through SUNY Learning Network, students equated satisfaction with greater interaction. The higher the percent of the course grade that was based on discussion, the more they thought they learned, and the more satisfied they were (Fredericksen, Pickett, Swan, Pelz, and Shea 2000). Picciano, in a 2002 study, also reported high correlations and relationships between interaction in online courses and student satisfaction.

In addition to the possibility that students will be more motivated to participate in online classroom discussions because they want interaction, the online discussion format itself offers certain advantages over traditional classroom environments. Asynchronous distance learning has a different type of dialogue and interaction process. Virtual classrooms afford equality of opportunity for students with oral communications or shyness problems. Online discussions do not have the dimensions of visibility and transparency. They are not in real time and are not transient. Students can think and prepare ahead of time for discussion questions, comments, and responses. The interactions are permanent, stored and can be looked back on.


Two research questions were posed in this study. 1. How does online student-to-student interaction compare to in-class student-to-student interaction? 2. Are students satisfied with online classroom discussions?

Triangulation in methods as well as respondent groups was utilized. Four different research methods were employed: class observations, faculty interviews, review of student course evaluation forms, and analysis of online database transcripts. The study started with an ethnographic study of four classes in the School of Business at Farmingdale State University. The objectives of this initial starting point were to

1. Determine if previous literature findings were consistent with classes at Farmingdale State or if for some reason, Farmingdale students were different or unique in the areas of interaction and discussion.

2. Develop a body of data to serve as a basis for comparison to on-line classes offered at the same school.

The focus of the study was not to determine why students did or did not participate in discussions. The focus was to compare the quality and quantity of online vs. face-to-face interaction and discussion. Two classes were upper level classes (junior/senior level) and two classes were lower level (freshman/sophomore). Each class was observed three times for a two hour period. The observer sat in on the class and noted the number and type of student and teacher interactions that occurred. Interactions were evaluated and recorded as

1. Teacher initiated or student initiated

2. Academic conversations or "housekeeping" conversations. Housekeeping conversations related to due dates, testing, homework assignments, etc. Academic conversations related to coverage of topics within the course curriculum and discipline.

Four teachers from the School of Business at Farmingdale who teach the same course online and in class were interviewed using a series of open ended questions. These teachers were not the same teachers observed in class. Evaluation forms for five online School of Business classes, three lower level and two upper level, were examined for comments on class interaction and discussion. A total of fifty-nine evaluations were reviewed. Database transcripts for four online School of Business classes were analyzed. One course was an upper level class and the other three were lower level courses. Transactions within the online threaded discussions were tallied and recorded on class transaction sheets.

Results and Discussion

The class observations supported existing literature findings that there is not an abundance of class discussion and interaction in college classrooms. In all four classes, most discussions were initiated by the instructor. Questions were presented to the class as a whole, not to individual students. Most of these teacher initiated questions were posed after showing a PowerPoint presentation or presenting notes on the board. The instructors accepted responses from students raising their hands or calling out. Many students appeared to repeat basically the same answer given by the student before them. A small percentage of students responded more than once and most of the class remained silent.

As supported by existing literature research findings, the upper level classes did have more class interaction than lower level classes. More students in the upper level classes initiated interaction, particularly when homework or a case study was being reviewed. The upper level students were more likely to offer personal opinions about the topic being discussed. Still, even in the upper level face-to-face classroom, less than 25% of the students seemed to be participating. In the face-to-face lower level classes, the percent of class time allocated to discussions was low. The teacher would generally present the material and then ask for questions. Student questions were generally for clarification or explanation of the presented material or about assignments to be turned in.

Four professors were interviewed. Three of the professors have been teaching over ten years and have taught at other schools. The fourth professor has been teaching for four years and has never taught anywhere else. The three professors with experience teaching elsewhere stated that they felt that the level of class participation at Farmingdale was similar to that encountered at other colleges for both upper and lower level classes. All four professors stated that class participation is mandatory in both their online and traditional classes. Three of the professors stated, however, that they would not penalize shy students and that they basically considered coming to class with the homework done as class participation. The fourth professor stated that his definition of class participation required students to actually participate in the discussion. When asked about shy students, he stated that he gave extra credit points for other types of learning activities if students felt uncomfortable speaking in front of the class. All four noted that there are always students who do not participate orally and some students do tend to monopolize the conversations. All four professors, on the other hand, insisted that all online students must participate in online discussions and penalized students up to 25% of their grade if they failed to do so. As such, all felt that there was more class participation in the online classes and that almost all students participated to some extent. The three more experienced professors stated that they did not consider the quality of interaction and discussion online as good as that in the classroom. It was also mentioned that sometimes the threaded discussions can be confusing and difficult to follow. The other professor stated that he did not note much of a disparity between online and face-to-face discussions.

In summary, all professors felt that there is more interaction and discussion online, but that interaction and discussion may be of a lesser quality and educational value. They pointed out, however, that other advantages of online learning may outweigh this disadvantage. The SUNY SLN student evaluation form consists of seven parts. Students answer open ended questions in narrative style. Fifty-nine evaluations from five School of Business online classes were reviewed. Student answers were considered only when they related to the topic of this study--interaction and discussion.

* Part 1: What did you like best about this course? Answers varied and most were unrelated to this topic. However, good interaction with the teacher was mentioned ten times (out of 59 evaluations).

* Part 2: What specific things do you think could be improved in the structure or design of the course and learning activities? Twenty-three students requested a live chat room. Five students suggested group projects. Four students suggested an in-person meeting. Two students suggested pictures of the students be posted online. Two students suggested more scenario and case study type problems for discussion.

* Part 3: How would you improve the quality and participation in course discussions/interactions? Two students suggested that students should be required to post and respond more often. Two students stated that extra credit should be given for students who participate more often. One student stated that discussions should be graded. Fifteen students stated more participation in class discussions was needed. Four students stated that there was too much discussion. Two students stated that the discussion should be eliminated totally.

* Part 4 & Part 5: No relevant answers to this study

* Part 6: How could the course be improved in terms of teacher interaction, participation, and management of the course? Two students mentioned more teacher participation in the class discussions. Two students mentioned more teacher interaction with students.

* Part 7: What other suggestions, comments or recommendations would you have for the instructor? Most responses were not relevant to this study. However, two "good interaction with students" comments were noted.

Analysis of the online class database transcripts for the four classes found virtually all students participated in the online discussions. This is in sharp contrast to the observations made of the face-to-face classes. For the upper level class, there were 522 responses to ten threaded discussions in a class of 18 students. Many of the online responses, particularly in the lower level classes, however, were short and somewhat repetitive. Summarizing the findings, how does online student-to-student interaction compare to in-class student to student interaction? There appears to be more interaction and discussion in online classrooms. A larger proportion of students participate and they appear to do so more often than in the classroom. This increased interaction could be caused by any number of factors. Among them would be the fact that most instructors require online participation in threaded discussions and enforce penalties for non-participants. Further, students may feel more of a need to connect to other students and the teacher due to the nature of the online environment. Increased interaction may be an effort to counteract the potentiality for misunderstanding caused by transaction distance (Moore and Kearsly 1996). Students, who are shy or lack oral communication skills, may be more comfortable responding in writing. In an asynchronous environment, students have time to think and prepare adequate responses to questions. They do not have to answer spontaneously as if called upon in a classroom. They do not have to worry about being unprepared. Another factor may be peer pressure. Peer response is more valuable in online classes and thus, students may feel obligated to respond and to support views of their classmates (Sengupta 2001).

The study found that other areas of interaction between online and in class courses were similar. Upper level classes had more interaction and more students participated in the conversations, both in class and online. Are students satisfied with online classroom discussions? Many of them are but a few are not. A common thread among student course evaluations indicated that some students wanted a different type of interaction in addition to the threaded discussions that are widely used. Students seemed to want to connect in more visual or synchronous methods. They asked for chat rooms, open forums, and photos of the other students. Some wanted teachers to participate more actively in discussions. It was also noted, particularly by the faculty, that threaded discussions can be confusing and difficult to follow if there are abundant conversations on the same screen. There was no doubt, however, that interaction was considered important. Some students just did not seem to feel that the interaction had to take the form of a threaded discussion.

There seems to be a decided difference in the amount of interaction desired by online students and those students in traditional face-to-face classes. Online students want interaction. They may not be totally happy with the use of threaded discussions, but they definitely want student interaction and participation. As indicated in the literature review, numerous studies have been conducted on face-to-face classroom participation. The majority of students do not want to participate in classroom discussions. Face-to-face observations seem to reveal that Farmingdale students are no different than other students observed numerous times in the past by other researchers.


Class database transcripts showed the development of social relationships in what appeared to be a warm and nurturing environment. Students and teachers exchanged personal information and offered to help each other. They told of personal experiences and beliefs. They discussed work and family issues. It was obvious that the online students and faculty wanted interaction and participation. This need was not always met through online threaded discussions and a number of students wanted other avenues to achieve this interaction such as live chats or instant messaging. The majority of students in traditional face-to-face classrooms did not seem to have this need for interaction and participation. Higher level classes, both online and face-to-face, had more participation than lower-level classes.

This study's major findings may be a call for reevaluation of discussion and participation in teaching and learning. If discussion and participation are important in the classroom, why are they not fostered by professors? If interaction and participation are possible online, can these activities be added to a face-to-face classroom to enhance the learning experience? This study was limited in time and scope. The samples were not random. They were convenience samples taken from only one school within one university. The expansion of more classes and other disciplines would have enhanced the study and is recommended for future research.

Also recommended is further research to determine the reasons for the increased online interaction. Possible factors to investigate might include mandatory participation requirements by online teachers, efforts to transcend transactional distance confusion, compensation for shyness or oral speaking problems, additional preparation time, and the social culture developed in the online environment. Additional research could also be performed from the viewpoint of the instructor.


Coldeway, D. O., K. MacRury, and R. Spencer. 1980. Distance education from the learner's perspective: The results of individual learner tracking at Athabasca University. ED259228.

Fassinger, Polly A. 1995. Understanding classroom interaction: Students' and professors contributions to students' silence. The Journal of Higher Education. 66(1): 82-97.

Fisher, C. G. and G. E. Grant. 1983. Intellectual levels in college classrooms. In Studies of College Teaching, ed. E. L. Ellner and C.P. Barnes, Lexington: D. C. Health 47-60.

Fredericksen, Eric, Alexandra Pickett, Karen Swan, William E. Pelz, and Peter Shea. 2000. Course design factors influencing the success of online learning. In WebNet 2000 World Conference on the WWW and Internet Proceedings, San Antonio, TX, October 30-November 4, 2000. ED448760.

Fritschner, Linda Marie. 2000. Inside the undergraduate college classroom: Faculty and students differ on the meaning of student participation. The Journal of Higher Education. 71 (3): 342-63.

Hartman J. L. and B. Truman-Davis. 2000. Factors related to the satisfaction of faculty teaching online courses at the University of Central Florida. In Online Education: Proceedings of the 2000 Sloan Summer Workshop on Asynchronous Learning Networks, ed. J. Bourne and J. Moore. Needham, MA: Sloan-C Press.

Howard, Jay R. and Roberta Baird. 2000. The consolidation of responsibility and students' definitions of situation in the mixed age classroom. The Journal of Higher Education. 71 (6): 700-722.

Karp, David A. and William Yoels. 1976. The college classroom. Some observations on the meaning of student participation. Sociology and Social Research. 60(4): 421-39. Moore, Michael. and Greg Kearsly. 1996. Distance education: A system view. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Nunn, Claudia E. 1996. Discussion in the college classroom: Triangulating observational and survey results. The Journal of Higher Education. 67(3): 243-67.

Picciano, Anthony G. 2002. Beyond student perceptions: Issues of interaction, presence, and performance in an online course. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 6 (1). [cited on March 17, 2006]

Rovai, Alfred. 2002. Building a sense of community at a distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 3 (1). irrodl/issue/view/13 [cited March 18, 2006]

Saba, Farhad. 2000. Research in distance education: A status report. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 1 (1). index.php/irrodl/issue/view/6 [cited March 18, 2006]

Sengupta, Sima. 2001. Exchanging ideas with peers in network-based classrooms: An aid or a pain? Language, Learning and Technology 5(1): 103-134.

Smith, D. G. 1983. Instruction and outcomes in an undergraduate setting. In Studies of College Teaching. ed. C. L. Ellner and C.P. Barnes. Lexington: D. C. Health, 83-116.

Paula Maurino is an assistant professor at Farmingdale State University and a doctoral candidate at Long Island University.
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Author:Maurino, Paula San Millan
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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