The group project regularly begets under-participation. No student situation in college teaching better illustrates the free-rider phenomenon. Perhaps Homer Simpson demonstrates the free-rider phenomenon best. Individuals who receive collective benefits without contributing are common in group work. One or more students in a group project can easily slack off while only one student fulfills the assignment requirements.

The online discussion forum, like the group assignment, begets under-participation, too. In most cases, it takes the form of lurking, where students observe what is happening without participating in the discussion themselves. Why do lurkers lurk? Well, there is a study about it. Surfing, the practice of flitting across content, is a form of lurking.

All of these behaviors are common among students in the face-to-face, large-enrollment course. Jean B. Mandernach et al. (2009) wrote about the role of instructor interactivity to argue that neither face-to-face nor online courses are inherently more interactive than the other. Here is what I see happening in my courses:

  • Free-riding while the few keen students respond to our questions
  • Surfing along to what is happening and only pay attention when something important might be happening
  • Lurking in the classroom just to see what is going on

These are common classroom behaviors. Does it matter when students in our courses lurk, surf, and free-ride? Perhaps these issues matter in the context of higher-stakes assignments but not in the context of regular course participation. I mean, does everyone need to give their $0.02?

Teachers surf, lurk, and free-ride, too (e.g., when we plan to catch a break by filling class time with student presentations). When teaching large-enrollment courses, we should check our impulses in both directions.

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Having everyone participate may become burdensome for teaching and may leave students in some combination of boredom, anger, frustration and disengagement. Having nobody participate lightens the teaching load, but doing so may leave students disengaged from the course.

Treading between these extremes is the teacher who questions the pedagogical direction of the course to consider when and how to ask for students to get more directly involved in their learning.

Our reflections as pedagogical directors can take us to the granular level of each teaching decision.

Here are some slides from Lolita Paff that pose questions about what sort of participation you desire in your class sessions:

Slides from Lolita Faff's presentation


Nathan Loewen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts & Sciences

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