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Ask a REL Response

Research-based online learning practices — April 2020


Could you provide research evidence on how instructors foster collaboration, group discussion, and interaction in an online learning environment, that is, during live, synchronous, online discussions?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for reports and resources on research-based online learning practices with a focus on fostering collaboration and synchronous discussion. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

Brindley, J. E., Walti, C., & Blaschke, L. M. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3), 1–18. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Collaborative learning in an online classroom can take the form of discussion among the whole class or within smaller groups. This paper addresses the latter, examining first whether assessment makes a difference to the level of learner participation and then considering other factors involved in creating effective collaborative learning groups. Data collected over a three year period (15 cohorts) from the Foundations course in the Master of Distance Education (MDE) program offered jointly by University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and the University of Oldenburg does not support the authors’ original hypothesis that assessment makes a significant difference to learner participation levels in small group learning projects and leads them to question how much emphasis should be placed on grading work completed in study groups to the exclusion of other strategies. Drawing on observations of two MDE courses, including the Foundations course, their extensive online teaching experience, and a review of the literature, the authors identify factors other than grading that contribute positively to the effectiveness of small collaborative learning groups in the online environment. In particular, the paper focuses on specific instructional strategies that facilitate learner participation in small group projects, which result in an enhanced sense of community, increased skill acquisition, and better learning outcomes.”

Dailey-Hebert, A. (2018). Maximizing interactivity in online learning: Moving beyond discussion boards. Journal of Educators Online, 15(3), 1–26. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Emergent technologies and communication channels have evolved over time and now offer more connected interactivity between students, their peers, course content, and their instructor. Yet, many who teach in the online environment continue to utilize the traditional forms of communication (such as discussion boards and email). This article explores practical strategies for maximizing interactivity, shares specific synchronous and asynchronous channels for communication, and identifies pre-planning techniques to ensure timely communication with your learners. It will explore opportunities for students to co-create and co-produce content in a course, provide time saving strategies for customizable feedback, and share ways to produce materials that can be accessed on demand for learners.”

Kreie, J., Johnson, S., & Lebsock, M. (2017). Course design and technology for synchronous interaction in an online course. Information Systems Education Journal, 15(5), 60–67. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Online course offerings in higher education continue to grow because of the strong demand. Though many online courses are based on an asynchronous model, there are courses that require real-time interaction between students themselves and between students and the instructor, which means synchronous interaction is necessary. The technology exists to support this mode of instruction but there are challenges to how to structure an online synchronous meeting. This paper presents the approach taken for an online business course about enterprise resource planning (ERP) and the techniques applied to help ensure successful student interaction and learning. The added challenge in this course was the use of a simulation that runs live during synchronous class meetings. From the outset the design of this synchronous online ERP course was based on the Quality Matters (QM) Program standards to help ensure the course structure was effective in guiding students through the course requirements and content. The article summary has some feedback from students and gives suggestions for improvements to future course offerings.”

Martin, F., Chuang, W., & Sadaf, A. (2020). Facilitation matters: Instructor perception of helpfulness of facilitation strategies in online courses. Online Learning, 24(1), 28–49. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Online course facilitation is critical to the success of online courses. Instructors use various facilitation strategies in online courses to engage students. One hundred instructors were surveyed on their perception of helpfulness of twelve different facilitation strategies used in online courses to enhance instructor presence, instructor connection, engagement and learning. Instructors’ timely response to questions and instructors’ timely feedback on assignments/projects were rated the highest in three of four constructs (instructor presence, engagement and learning). For instructor connection, ability to contact the instructor in multiple ways was rated the highest. Interactive visual syllabi of the course was rated the lowest in all four constructs. In the open-ended comments, group projects and synchronous sessions were rated helpful. Descriptive statistics for each of the construct by gender, delivery method, course level taught are presented. Significant differences were found between gender but analysis of variance failed to detect differences between primary delivery method or course level taught.”

Martin, F., Ritzhaupt, A., Kumar, S., & Budhrani, K. (2019). Award-winning faculty online teaching practices: Course design, assessment and evaluation, and facilitation. Internet & Higher Education, 42, 34–43. Full text available from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this study was to identify the course design, assessment and evaluation, and facilitation practices from the perspectives of award-winning online faculty. Aligned with this purpose, we developed a conceptual framework focused on online course design, assessment and evaluation, and facilitation; and review relevant literature in light of this framework. We interviewed eight award-winning online faculty members from across the United States. These faculty received online teaching awards from one of the following professional associations: Online Learning Consortium (OLC), Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), or United States Distance Learning Association. Based on the interviews, it was found that online instructors use a systematic design process, backwards design, considered learner needs, and designed learner interaction during the design process. Faculty recommended using a variety of assessments, using traditional and authentic assessments and used rubrics to assess students, course templates and quality assurance process and surveys, learning analytics, and peer reviews for assessment and evaluation. Timely response and feedback, availability and presence, and periodic communication were some facilitation strategies the award-winning instructors used. We discuss these findings and provide suggestions for future research and practice. These findings can add to what is known about effective online teaching best practices, standards, and competencies.”

McDaniels, M., Pfund, C., & Barnicle, K. (2016). Creating dynamic learning communities in synchronous online courses: One approach from the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL). Online Learning, 20(1), 110–129. Full text available from

From the abstract: “The ability to convert face-to-face curricula into rigorous and equally rich online experiences is a topic of much investigation. In this paper, we report on the conversion of a face-to-face research mentor training curriculum into a synchronous, online course. Graduate students and postdoc participants from the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) reported high satisfaction with the online training and increased confidence in their mentoring. Both quantitative and qualitative data indicate that the synchronous environment was successful in creating a strong sense of community among the participants. Specific pedagogical approaches for cultivating learning communities online as well as implications for scaling up such efforts are discussed.”

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. Full text available from

From the abstract: “A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning. Analysts screened these studies to find those that (a) contrasted an online to a face-to-face condition, (b) measured student learning outcomes, (c) used a rigorous research design, and (d) provided adequate information to calculate an effect size. As a result of this screening, 51 independent effects were identified that could be subjected to meta-analysis. The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).”

REL West note: Three sections in this meta-analysis are most relevant to your request, in Chapter 4 Narrative synthesis of studies comparing variants of online learning (pp. 44–46): “Supports for learner reflection,” “Moderating online groups.” and “Scripts for online interaction.”

Muljana, P. S., & Luo, T. (2019). Factors contributing to student retention in online learning and recommended strategies for improvement: A systematic literature review. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 18, 19–57. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “This systematic literature review investigates the underlying factors that influence the gap between the popularity of online learning and its completion rate. The review scope within this paper includes an observation of possible causal aspects within the non-ideal completion rates in online learning environments and an identification of recommended strategies to increase retention rates. Background: While online learning is increasingly popular, and the number of online students is steadily growing, student retention rates are significantly lower than those in the traditional environment. Despite the multitude of studies, many institutions are still searching for solutions for this matter. Methodology: A systematic literature review was conducted on 40 studies published between 2010 and 2018. We established a set of criteria to guide the selection of eligible articles including topic relevance (aligned with the research questions), empirical studies, and publication time frame. Further steps were performed through a major database searching, abstract screening, full-text analysis, and synthesis process. Contribution: This study adds to expanding literature regarding student retention and strategies in online learning environments within the higher education setting. Findings: Revealed factors include institutional support, the level difficulty of the programs, promotion of a sense of belonging, facilitation of learning, course design, student behavioral characteristics, and demographic variables along with other personal variables. The recommended strategies identified for improving student retention are early interventions, at-all-times supports for students, effective communication, support for faculty teaching online classes, high-quality instructional feedback and strategies, guidance to foster positive behavioral characteristics, and collaboration among stakeholders to support online students. Recommendations for Practitioners: Since factors within the open systems of online learning are interrelated, we recommend a collective effort from multiple stakeholders when addressing retention issues in online learning. Recommendations for Researchers: We recommend that fellow scholars consider focusing on each influential factor and recommendation in regard to student retention in online learning environments as synthesized in this study. Findings will further enrich the literature on student retention in online learning environments. Future Research: Future research may investigate various data-mining and analytics techniques pertaining to detection and prediction of at-risk students, the efficacy of student support and faculty support programs, and ways to encourage struggling students to adopt effective strategies that potentially engender positive learning behaviors.”

Nacu, D., Martin, C. K., & Pinkard, N. (2018). Designing for 21st century learning online: A heuristic method to enable educator learning support roles. Educational Technology Research & Development, 66(4), 1029–1049. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “With the growing emphasis on developing 21st century skills among today’s youth, there is continued optimism about the possibilities granted by increasing access to networked technologies, particularly for encouraging youth to pursue their interests and take ownership of their learning. Yet, research demonstrates the importance of adult support in realizing the promise of achieving these outcomes. Designers of such systems are thus faced with the need to create youth-centered spaces that also provide adult facilitation of learning. This paper presents an adaptation of the traditional heuristic evaluation method which provides designers of online learning systems with a holistic view of how adult learning support is enabled across the system. We describe how the heuristic evaluation method was adapted, and through a case example analyzing one online social learning system used in a middle school context, we demonstrate how it can be used to help identify areas for improvement and promising areas for further research. We also present a framework of heuristics which reflect specific educator learning support roles that have been found to be important for youth learning, particularly for supporting 21st century skills. This work contributes a novel heuristic evaluation method that can help designers of online learning platforms attend not only the experiences of learners, but also to how educators are enabled to support their learning.”

Peterson, A. T., Beymer, P. N., & Putnam, R. T. (2018). Synchronous and asynchronous discussions: Effects on cooperation, belonging, and affect. Online Learning, 22(4), 7–25. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Supporting productive peer-to-peer interaction is a central challenge in online courses. Although cooperative learning is a well-established method for eliciting productive interaction (Johnson & Johnson, 1989), online modes of cooperative learning have provided mixed results. To explore the factors underlying these mixed results, we used a quasi-experimental design to examine the effects of synchrony on students’ sense of cooperation, belonging, affect, and cognitive processes in online small-group, discussion-based cooperative learning. Fifty-two undergraduate students were assigned to synchronous and asynchronous interaction conditions in an online course. The findings support prior research that asynchronous communication interferes with the relationship between cooperative goals and the outcomes of cooperation. The results extend the literature by indicating that synchrony positively affects students’ perceptions of belonging, positive affect, and cognitive processes. Results inform theory and practice by showing that asynchronous cooperative learning may not work as designed due to students’ lack of perceptions of interdependence.”

Poellhuber, B., Chomienne, M., & Karsenti, T. (2008). The effect of peer collaboration and collaborative learning on self-efficacy and persistence in a learner-paced continuous intake model. Journal of Distance Education, 22(3), 41–62. Full text available from

From the abstract: “In an attempt to find ways to improve persistence rates in its distance courses, the Cegep@distance introduced different forms of collaboration (peer interaction and collaborative learning activities) in selected courses. A mixed methodology was used to understand the effects of these interventions, relying on a quasi-experimental design for the evaluation of the effects of peer interaction. The objective of the study was to understand the impact of peer interaction and collaborative learning on student self-efficacy beliefs and persistence in a distance education context. Persistence rates were in favor of the control group, but confounding variables were found related to academic background. A qualitative analysis of the interviews in the collaborative learning activities condition showed that the learners related the course materials and tutoring to their motivation (self-efficacy and interest) and that they evaluated positively the peer interaction.”

Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. (2020). Ask A REL response: What research is available on practices to build a sense of community in online courses? Chicago, IL: Author. Full text available from

Excerpt: “Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and literature reviews on practices to build a sense of community in online courses. We included relevant resources at the elementary through postsecondary education levels.”

Sun, A., & Chen, X. (2016). Online education and its effective practice: A research review. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 15, 157–190. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Using a qualitative content analysis approach, this study reviewed 47 published studies and research on online teaching and learning since 2008, primarily focusing on how theories, practices and assessments apply to the online learning environment. The purpose of this paper is to provide practical suggestions for those who are planning to develop online courses so that they can make informed decisions in the implementation process. Based on the findings, the authors argued that effective online instruction is dependent upon 1) well-designed course content, motivated interaction between the instructor and learners, well-prepared and fully-supported instructors; 2) creation of a sense of online learning community; and 3) rapid advancement of technology. In doing this, it is hoped that this will stimulate an on-going discussion of effective strategies that can enhance universities and faculty success in transitioning to teach online. Under current debates on the cost and quality of higher education, this study could help for the improvement of higher education and student enrollment and retention.”

Thomas, G., & Thorpe, S. (2019). Enhancing the facilitation of online groups in higher education: A review of the literature on face-to-face and online group-facilitation. Interactive Learning Environments, 27(1), 62–71. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “There still appears to be a gap between what online learning promises and what it can deliver in terms of student learning. Developments in online pedagogies and professional learning appear to lag behind the developments in technology and the promised benefits of technological transformation may not be realized. In this paper, we bring together perspectives that highlight vital aspects of online group-learning by reviewing the group-facilitation literature and the latest online learning literature to interrogate the pedagogical theories and practices currently used in online group-learning in higher education. We specifically focus on the interpersonal interactions between teachers and students, which are described in the online learning literature using the terms instructor immediacy, teaching presence, and social presence. We note differences in the literature regarding how “teacher presence” is interpreted and enacted and we expound the importance of the personal characteristics of the online teacher. Finally, we provide some signposts that might help course designers and teachers to improve online group learning: the intentional use of effective online learning pedagogies; a deeper understanding of what constitutes teacher presence; and strategies to enact that teacher presence with online groups. Recommendations for further research in online group facilitation are provided.”

Wang, Y., & Chen, D. T. (2010). Promoting spontaneous facilitation in online discussions: Designing object and ground rules. Educational Media International, 47(3), 247–262. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Facilitation is a key factor in ensuring the success of class discussions. Traditionally, instructors are the ones who assume the role of facilitators in discussions. Online learning environments open opportunities for students to assume the role of facilitators. In well-designed online learning communities, spontaneous facilitation would likely emerge; students took the control of the discussion process, spontaneously facilitating the discussion and directing its development. This paper reports a study in designing such an online discussion environment that stimulated spontaneous facilitation among participants, which led to the success of the discussion, and thus resulted in productive student learning.”

REL West note: This is an international study conducted in Taiwan. Given its relevance to the theme of your request, we included it here for your information.

Additional Organization to Consult

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) –

From the website: “The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is an independent charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement.”

REL West note: EEF has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Education Endowment Foundation. (2018). Using digital technology to improve learning. Guidance report. London, UK: Author. Full text available from


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[(“research-based” OR “evidence-based”) AND (“online synchronous discussion” OR “online facilitation/discussion” OR “online collaborative learning” OR “spontaneous facilitation”)]

[(“research-based” OR “evidence-based”) AND (collaboration OR discussion OR interaction) AND (“online learning” OR “virtual learning”)]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

In response to COVID-19, the 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) have collaborated to produce a series of evidence-based resources and guidance about teaching and learning in a remote environment, as well as other considerations brought by the pandemic. To access a full list of these resources, visit from

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.