Student-to-Student Interaction in Online Courses

by Jackie Wickham

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.

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