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If you’ve taken an online course in higher education, it’s likely that part of your participation grade was based on your interaction with your classmates via a discussion forum of some kind. Chat (both synchronous and asynchronous), discussion boards, wikis, blogs -- these are tools that are commonly used in formal, online education settings to encourage interaction. But why? What’s the science behind these tools, and how can they be leveraged in the workplace and in informal learning to improve engagement and outcomes? Let’s take a look at one study, conducted in 2016, for some related research and important findings.

Overview & Methodology

In this study, Carmel Kent, Esther Laslo, and Sheizaf Rafaeli, researchers in Israel, proposed that interactivity in learning communities is a social constructivist process in which learning results from the interactive exchange of information; interaction, they propose, “is one of the most important tools for learning” because it “affords [learners] the opportunity to share ideas, learn from peers and build knowledge collectively, while reading and reflecting on each others’ thoughts” (2018, p. 117). Previous researchers found correlations between learners’ participation in discussion forums and overall grades, and in their study, Kent, Laslo, and Rafaeli sought to examine the relationship between students’ online interaction patterns and their learning outcomes. Using a multi-dimensional operationalization framework of interactivity that included four levels of granularity for a discussion (including content and inclusion of external resources), the researchers conducted the study with four separate graduate and undergraduate-level courses (n=231) using a third-party discussion tool.


By extracting analytics from the discussion tool, researchers found significant correlation between several interactivity parameters and learning outcomes. Specifically, learners who posted more frequently and had greater “depth” of posts (including responses from others) had higher grades in the classes than their peers who posted less frequently. In addition, researchers found that learners who viewed more discussion posts had higher grades. These findings are confirmed by researchers who later found that students learn by both active engagement (such as posting and commenting) and passive engagement (such as viewing others’ posts) (e.g. Kim, Yoon, Jo, & Branch, 2018; Wise & Hsiao, 2018).


So, what can we learn from this study? These findings can be applied to both workplace training and customer education and indicate that collaborative learning has the potential to encourage knowledge retention as well as learner/learner engagement and learner/content engagement. Discussion tools, like chat, can be a valuable addition to any course to provide learners with meaningful opportunities to construct their own learning by interacting with others and exchanging information and ideas.

Read the full study for more:

Kent, C. Laslo, E., & Rafaeli, S. (2016). Interactivity in online discussions and learning outcomes. Computers & Education, 97, 116-128.