Engaging Students in the Online U.S. History Survey Course

Tracy Davis

As more community colleges and universities are turning to online (and hybrid) courses to increase enrollment and funding, several factors challenge the efficacy of teaching the U.S. history survey course online.

While popular with college administration due to low overhead, the ability to extensively populate virtual course sections, and no physical facilities commitment, the push to offer more “distance education” impacts history departments and faculty and has led to several issues faced by those teaching and learning online.

The primary focus of this article is engagement: how do we engage students in the basic U.S. history survey course(s) online? Specifically,

• How do I engage students I may never physically see?

• How do I provide effective guidance and feedback that mirrors what I am able to do in the regular classroom?

• How can I help students succeed academically and encourage them to continue history education?

Regular Effective Contact (REC), also referred to as Regular Substantive Interaction (RSI), has come under increasing scrutiny from accrediting institutions such as the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). The emphasis on REC/RSI and how to effectively implement it has resulted in individual community colleges and accrediting agencies striving to find ways to engage students comparable to the traditional classroom.

So, what is REC/RSI and what does it mean for online history instructors? Essentially, the concept of “regular effective contact/regular substantive interaction” means that the contact time between instructor and students in an online course should be the equivalent of the face-to-face contact hours in a traditional classroom. Since online instructors and students may not ever meet in person, assignments in an online course should reflect the interaction between students and instructor that we take for granted in a traditional face-to-face environment. What adds another layer to REC/RSI is that modes of contact should be documented and verifiable; tools such as email, regular announcements in the course management system (CMS), timely and substantive feedback on assignments, original instructor content (such as lectures posted online), and threaded discussion forums are all ways instructors can demonstrate that they are not simply setting up asynchronous assignments that are automatically graded without instructor involvement with the materials and the students. Online instructors should be active, not passive, in the online classroom.

While there are many ways to demonstrate REC/RSI, for this article, I’m going to focus on the online discussion, which seems to be one of the most challenging areas for U.S. history survey instructors. We must demonstrate evidence of:

• Instructor-student interaction

• Student-instructor interaction

• Student-student interaction

Unlike the physical classroom where we can immediately gauge the reactions (or lack thereof) of the students we are interacting with in a face-to-face discussion, the online discussion does not reflect the idea of spontaneously adjusting our questions and responses to try to elicit analysis and thought. Instead, we have to prepare a whole semester (or quarter) of discussions in the course management system that our institution uses. While we can monitor what’s effective—and what’s not—and adjust some elements, if a U.S. history instructor is teaching an eight-week online course, the time factor of preparation, grading, and effective interaction prohibits constant revision.

Let’s examine what we mean by a “threaded” online discussion. Just as an instructor would pose a question to students in a physical classroom, perhaps in group work or an individual writing assignment followed by group or class discussion, a threaded discussion means that the instructor posts a question (or a few small questions) for students to demonstrate their proficiency in that unit of the course. “Threaded” means that each student can create their own response to what the instructor has asked, not simply reply to the instructor. What’s the difference? In a threaded discussion, each student essentially creates their own mini-discussion that the instructor and students can then respond to with their comments and thoughts.

Online discussions can be synchronous (real time, such as a chat room) or, more commonly, asynchronous (where students may have a few days to read and formulate a response to what is being asked for a specific topic). Synchronous and asynchronous can be mixed in a course, depending on the instructor. What’s important, regardless of the time factor, is that these discussions are documented and verifiable for accrediting agencies (and this can also be important depending on how colleges are funded; since the contact hours required in an online course should be comparable to face-to-face courses, documented contact hours can be seen clearly in the course management system for online courses. There have been cases where colleges have to pay back funding if their online courses are audited and instructor contact is not equivalent to traditional courses).

With that in mind, here are some things to consider for effective online discussions in the U.S. history survey course:

• Solicits more than a rote response from students

• Provides room to expand, analyze, comment and learn

• Requires activity, not passivity

• Needs to be college-level work in terms of content presentation

No More “Rote” Responses!

When I began to teach online, my discussions were very simplistic. Like many early online teachers, I went for the standard response to a question (or questions) where students could demonstrate knowledge gained from online lectures, reading, video sources, etc.

As I evolved over fifteen years of teaching, my discussions began to take on a different focus. Some of this was a natural evolution, as I was dissatisfied (and frankly bored) with reading rote responses that had little variation. I also became more involved in my college’s online program and committees, attended more workshops, and watched how the ACCJC began to focus more on the quality of online instruction.

What followed, about eight years ago, was an expansion of what I was doing in the face-to-face classroom, as the student population dramatically changed: less evidence of student readiness for college-level work; a new generation of millennial (and post-millennial) students with different academic values; and a general lack of engagement in social sciences/humanities as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) became the focus for funding and publicity. How was I going to engage all of my U.S. history survey students, especially online?

I like to work in multiples of three in my discussions, covering small areas of the course material for any given subject. My history courses are very discussion heavy. In an eight-week course, my students have seven discussions (one of these is a simple introduction), and I also offer three optional extra credit discussions students can use to help boost their overall grade. I build discussions to “raise the bar” as the course progresses, starting simply, then asking students for more analysis and opinion.

In this three-point discussion idea, I do have one “rote” response on some element of what the student was supposed to read or watch.

For example, an early content-related discussion may look like this:

• “After completing the text and materials in the Module on _________, discuss the following:”

• Ideas or concepts you’d like students to explore

• Does a “you are there” idea fit? Problem solving exercise?

• Be specific in referencing course materials

Link these points to a specific Student Learning Outcome (SLO) so students know that what they’re doing fulfills something important in the course

Here’s one example:

“Now that you have examined the impact of European countries in the Americas by the mid-18th C, using all the available course materials, answer the following:

• Choose one example of European imperialism from 1600-1763, and briefly describe why it was effective. (Make sure you know what the term “imperialism” means!)

• How did African slavery affect the development of the Americas?

• Based on the Learning Module video “Managing a New Empire”, how was colonial economics impacted by the British Government after 1763? Briefly explain your reasoning.

Please remember that spelling, clarity and content are all a part of your 4-2-0 score! This post is due ____________, by 11:55 p.m.

This discussion fulfills SLO #1: Develop analytical skills in relation to historical time period, cause and effect.”

Note that while there may be a “rote” answer for the third point, the other two areas require students to choose how they approach the material and will offer substance for them to demonstrate both their knowledge and their “personal take” on the historical material. This would then provide them with opportunities to discuss their ideas with each other.

“You Are There”

One of the most interesting techniques to engage students is to try to get them into the historical period the class is analyzing. It’s no surprise that many students have no sense that the reality they currently live in is not the historical reality of the people we are studying.

Using a personal approach can help students understand the limitations they would have faced living in a previous century.

For example:

“After reading all the available course materials, discuss the following as if you were alive as a Native woman during the 15th to mid-17th C:

• As a Native woman in the Americas when Europeans begin to arrive, what do you think of these new people? How might they have impacted your life?

• What do “you” (as a historical Native woman) see as differences between Spanish women and Native women in the 15th-16th C? Similarities?

• Do “you” (as a historical Native woman) have anything in common with other European women? Why or why not?”

The “you are there” example forces students to reflect on the materials they’ve read and viewed, and ideally come to a narrative that fits into the historical time frame.

Comparative History and Analysis

One could argue it’s “easy” to discuss modern events in the U.S. history survey—let’s face it, there’s a lot out there that can engage students. In the earlier sections, this is not as obvious. However, encouraging students to see their own time in relation to past events can be an effective discussion tool.

For example:

“Now that you have completed the extensive course materials for this section, discuss the following:

• Why is this called the “Jacksonian Era” or “Jacksonian America”? Why is Jackson so memorable that an era of American History is named after him? Provide three examples, using examples from both the text and the online lecture.

• Besides Andrew Jackson himself, who had the biggest impact on US society and politics from 1824-1840? Why?

• Is there any modern politician or president that compares to Jackson or his peers in US society today? Can we authentically compare these two eras — why or why not?”

I have used a version of the discussion questions above for several years (well before 2016), and while I tweak it a little every semester, it provides one of the most interesting forums for the first part of the U.S. history survey.

Responding in the Online U.S. History Survey Discussion

Providing timely and substantive feedback is another area that institutions (and accrediting agencies) are focused on and can prove quite daunting for the online history instructor.

There are many ways in the online discussion that you can demonstrate interaction with your students and keep them engaged in the material so they can successfully complete your class.

In my online U.S. history survey courses, for the second through sixth discussion, I respond to every student. For the first and last discussion, I provide overall comments within the discussion, as well as formative comments in an announcement sent out after grading is completed. For discussions, I grade the student responses after the due date, then open up the discussion for three to four days for students to see my comments, and, if they haven’t already, respond to their peers (for which they would get a “bonus point”). Once the discussion finally closes, the students should have moved on to the next assignment. Normally, discussions are graded within forty-eight hours of the due date. Bonus points are updated throughout the semester.

In the discussions where I personally respond, I try to use what some instructors call the “burger method”: one positive element, a growth element, end on a positive/reinforcing comment. While this is not always easy or possible, my ultimate goal is to encourage (it is a public forum, after all), while reminding students of the basic parameters and function of the discussion assignment.

However, if your online classes have over thirty-five students, responding to each student is not an effective use of your time.

Here are some ideas to both keep the personal touch, and not be overwhelmed, in demonstrating timely and substantive feedback:

• Post a general response after the discussion has been graded

• Choose three (or a few more) students to personally respond to in every discussion; depending on the size of your online classroom, you may get to personally respond to all students in at least one discussion

• Create a grading rubric with the ability to add a few personal comments (Canvas and Blackboard have this, and it can save time in grading while clearly indicating to the student why they earned their grade)

• Follow up with announcements with formative comments that are emailed to students (Canvas and Blackboard have this feature)

In addition, you may wish to try these techniques for encouraging student-to-student comments and interaction:

• Post “follow-up” questions in some of your individual responses (or choose a few students and post these under their initial response). I do this in three of my personal responses per discussion, alerting students that they can answer the question I pose or further comment on their peers for a “bonus point.” Students have to search their peers’ posts to find these questions, and this means they will see what their peers are doing, which may encourage interaction.

• “Easter Eggs” can also be effective tools. In one class, I posted three additional videos and informed students they could find these and make comments. The videos I chose dealt with supplemental material that could help them with certain questions on the final exam.

• Enforcing interaction between students is something that many instructors do. For example, the initial grade for a discussion may be 10 points; if the student does not respond to at least 1-2 of their peers, the instructor takes 2 points away.

• Creating discussion groups within a discussion can force students to interact with each other in a demonstrable way to provide an answer to your discussion question(s). For example, Canvas gives you the option per discussion to automatically group students together (you can also do this manually).

Group Discussions

One of the ways the U.S. history survey instructor can mimic the traditional classroom is by creating groups of students in an online discussion. Depending on your CMS, creating groups is easy! For example, in Canvas, creating a discussion provides the instructor with the ability to manually create groups of students, or Canvas will automatically do this randomly. An instructor can change the groups for every discussion if they wish, or have static groups throughout the term of the course.

On the positive side, students may learn effectively from each other, which can ease new online students into the virtual classroom. Providing the opportunity to formulate a group response may take the pressure off some students who are paranoid about being “wrong” to the extent that they have problems developing analytical skills early on in the course.

On the negative side, think about what happens in a traditional, face-to-face classroom: do all students participate in a group discussion when you can see them? Maybe, maybe not. In the online discussion, it could come down to one or two students doing all the work, but the group receiving the same grade. If you choose to use groups in online discussions, consider clear guidelines that make each group member accountable, such as demonstrated participation in the group part of their answer before it’s presented to the entire class for review.

A Note on Threaded Discussion Grading

While discussions are a huge part of my online U.S. history survey courses, the points students can earn is relatively low compared to exams and papers (however, the percentage of discussions is always the highest for students in their overall grade for the course). My 4-2-0 range essentially tells students that they are 4 (proficient: college-level work); 2 (proficient: satisfactory); 0 (not proficient). Other online history instructors may provide a wider range of points, such as 10 with a sliding scale, or 5-3-1-0. Whatever grading scale you chose, explanations of what these points mean (which should be repeated in general feedback) is essential.


It’s important that students are fully cognizant of what you require of them in a college-level discussion. In the online classroom, you have multiple opportunities to reinforce your expectations, beginning with the syllabus. Repeating your standards will help students begin to formulate college-level responses, and ideally engage them in the material.


Tracy Davis has taught in the California Community College system since 1990. A proud product of the California Community College system (Mt. San Jacinto College, San Jacinto, CA), Professor Davis also attended the University of California, Riverside for undergraduate and graduate studies in History and Theatre Arts. In addition to Victor Valley College (since 1999), Professor Davis has taught multiple areas of emphasis in History, Theatre, Film and Art History for Mt. San Jacinto College, Crafton Hills College (Yucaipa, CA), San Bernardino Valley College (San Bernardino, CA), California Baptist University (Riverside, CA), DeVry University (Pomona, CA) and the University of Phoenix (Ontario, CA). In addition to teaching, Professor Davis is also the Distance Education Facilitator and chair of the Distance Education Committee for Victor Valley College, Vice President of the Victor Valley College Faculty Association, member of the California Community College Association (CCA), and serves on the CCA Faculty Equity and Diversity Committee and Membership Committee.