Student-to-Student Interaction in Online Courses

by Jackie Wickham Smith

Having worked in online education for the past five years, I was intrigued by Darren Rosenblum’s recent New York Times article, “Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom.” While reading it, Rosenblum’s observation of a colleague’s course, where laptops were allowed, stood out to me:

“[The students] took notes when [the professor] spoke, but resumed the rest of their lives instead of listening to classmates.”

At the School of Professional Studies, we focus on student-to-student interaction as one of the three types of interaction, along with student-content and student-instructor, when designing courses. Rosenblum’s observation that students didn’t value the other students’ course contributions in the course he observed made me wonder: would this observation apply equally in undergraduate and graduate courses? What about on-ground and online?

For help researching this question, I turned to the vast resources in the Northwestern Library, including Distance Learning Librarian Tracy Coyne. And, I may have uncovered a research opportunity of my own: there is not a large body of research on student-to-student interaction in online, professional graduate degree programs. Despite the lack of research specific to our situation, a few interesting points surfaced:


  • Student-to-student interaction has been correlated with increased student satisfaction with course experiences. Several studies (Sher, 2009; Hseih & Smith, 2008; Marks et al, 2005) demonstrated that students reported more positive experiences with online courses when they also reported richer interaction with fellow students.
  • Students do not always value student-to-student interaction. Kellogg and Smith (2009) reported “many of our online students reported indifference to, or even vehement criticism of, learning activities designed to promote student-to-student interaction (434).” Some of the dissatisfaction was due to the difficulty coordinating schedules with other students, one student stated, “having to coordinate with other people…practically doubles the workload of the course and should not be the focus (445).”
  • High levels of student-to-student interaction can impact retention rate of women. Muller (2008) found that engagement in a learning community was a top factor in persistence of women in online degree programs.

In addition to the three points above, several studies reported on student satisfaction with interpersonal interaction within online courses in general, but didn’t differentiate between student-instructor and student-student interaction.

At the School of Professional Studies, online students in graduate programs have, on average, over a decade of professional experience! Despite the finding, above, that students don’t always value interactions with other students, giving adult students the opportunity to learn from each other’s academic and professional experiences is a key part of SPS online programs. Here are a few recommendations to make student-to-student interactions more efficient and effective for your students:


  • Assist with coordinating logistics whenever possible. One easy tip for assigning students to groups for group work is to assign the groups by time zone – that way no one is getting up in the middle of the night to meet with their group! You can also point students to the collaborative tools offered at Northwestern – all students have access to Blue Jeans for free, synchronous web meetings, and Google tools for asynchronous collaboration.
  • Clearly tie all student-to-student interactions to a course learning objective. Don’t just add a discussion, peer review, or group project to your course because you heard it’s the right thing to do – clearly explain to your students how their interactions with each other will help them master the course goals.
  • Don’t forget about student-instructor interaction! Having multiple types of interaction in your course helps to keep students engaged. Setting up student-to-student interaction opportunities in your course is great, but it doesn’t mean your course can now run itself. Make sure you are involved as appropriate in course activities.


Kellogg, Deborah L., & Smith, Marlene A. (2009). Student-to-Student Interaction Revisited: A Case Study of Working Adult Business Students in Online Courses. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 7(2), 433-456.

Marks, R. B., Sibley, S., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2005). A structural equation model of predictors for effective online learning. Journal of Management Education, 29(4), 531–563

Sher, A. (2009). Assessing the relationship of student-instructor and student-student interaction to student learning and satisfaction in Web-based Online Learning Environment. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 8(2), 102-120.

Shu-Hui Hsieh, C., & Smith, R. A. (2008). Effectiveness of Personal Interaction in a Learner-Centered Paradigm Distance Education Class Based on Student Satisfaction. Journal Of Research On Technology In Education, 40(4), 407-426.

11 responses to “Student-to-Student Interaction in Online Courses

  1. Although many of students don’t like it, we all appreciate how important it is to have effective student-to-student ineractions.

  2. Dear Dr. Wickham

    Thank you for such an informative article. I have just started to teach online and am slowly learning how to do things better every time I teach. Student to student interaction is something very important for me when I teach which has been very helpful in on ground teaching methods. I have struggled recently to incorporate this into my online classes, but after reading this article am realizing how important it is to create a space for students to interact.

    I appreciated reading that we should not have this be the focus point of the course, so it down make it harder for them, but to ensure opportunities for easy interactions so that students will be more satisfied with the course.

    Thank you for this variable information.

  3. Just as in the classroom you pay attention to non responsive students, and ask questions directed to them to promote interactions to the lecture. As well as open questions to the class to promote open discussions in the entire class. Always assist a student if the are having trouble answering as to not make them feel bad, at the the same time that student as well as others may need some additional help to clarify their understanding on the subject.

  4. In this time of “Zoom Classroom” as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, engaging students online is more important than ever. I appreciate the research done and will try to engage students to interact with one another while remaining respectful of their outside and other course commitments.
    In my graduate program, we did peer review of our work which I found very helpful. I also learned a lot from my peers by reviewing their work and appreciated the feedback from a classmate as opposed to an instructor when trying to perfect my submissions. I will endeavor to find creative was to facilitate student-to-student interaction this semester.

    Thank you for the resources!

  5. I’ve always been interested in figuring out how to help my students be more engaged with the class material. In the case of teaching visual arts and the arts critique where students have to vocalize their opinions of other student’s work, the online format I feel, can certainly help those who are shy or weary of public speaking. In my first go-around at teaching online I hadn’t considered student interaction as a key component of learning, but I could see now , how it contributes to community building within the classroom and more engagement with the topics/lessons covered. Students nowadays are native internet and social media users where communication via the online format; discussion forums, chats, and comments box are second nature to them. I’m definitely going to take advantage of this medium, so that my students can make more active connections within the class work.

  6. Dear Dr. Wickham


    After reading your article, I have realized the importance of student engagement in my classes.  Your article is very informative and helpful. I could not agree more with you on the importance of creating learning opportunities where students participate in groups and thus allowing them to lead group discussions/assignments.

    In my personal experience as an instructor, I duly noted that teaching in a traditional setting, that is face-to-face, is more complicating to get students to participate. Majority of students experience social anxiety or pressure when expected to participate. Therefore, I always divide the class into small groups. This is always proven to be more successful because they can appoint a student who is willing to speak on their behalf, rather than forcing someone to do so.

  7. This is very helpful! Online interaction is so important and consistency is a big part of that.    I really appreciate the links to primary sources.   It’s good to be able to drill down.

  8. Dear Dr. Wickham,

    I never teach an online course. After reading this artical, I learned that I need to find a good way to help my students have a strong student-to-student interaction. Ever in face-to-fact classes, students don’t really talk to each other; unless they are forced to talk and discuss with someone. I liked the idea to group people in the same region so that it’s convenient to all members of the same group.

    Thanks for all information.

    Hung Trinh

  9. Dear  Dr. Wickham


    I enjoyed your informative and engaging article on Student-To-Student interaction in online courses.  Although instructor to student engagement maybe more commonplace in online course, the same is not the case for student to student interactions.  Discussion forums are good for students to post their idea, nonetheless, I find the discussion on peer-review interaction to be important and feasible.  As you stated the logistics in forming group assignments regarding coordinating schedules and logistics is challenging.  I feel it is important to assist in this logistics, but also have clearly stated goals and objectives on why this interaction is necessary. I will need to work on developing better ways of building student to student interaction in my online course.  Your article is very helpful in this endeavor

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