Open Access

Referring to other participants in asynchronous online discussions: Citation patterns in a higher education context


The effectiveness of asynchronous online discussions as a learning tool in higher education critically depends on the participants’ ability to create a cohesive social space. Referring to one another’s messages is a key way to display a sense of affiliation and solidarity, and contribute to the consolidation of the learning community. However, research has shown that students often fail to adequately exploit this dimension of the online forum, as it requires considerable involvement in the activity and is very time-consuming.In the current study, we examined references to previous posts in a set of online discussions held during a one-term undergraduate course. The overall frequency of citations was low, with slightly over half of the 885 analyzed posts containing at least one reference. While this seems to indicate that a large number of participants conceived the activity as hardly interactive, for those who did quote their classmates, the preferred practice was using their first names, although the more formal name+surname pattern increased in the second half of the course, possibly indicating an awareness of the academic character of the activity. If the frequency and kind of mutual references can be taken as a measure of how successful asynchronous online discussions can prove as a collaborative learning tool, our results invite deep reflection regarding task design to ensure that students and instructors understand their goals in the same way.

Publication timeframe:
1 time per year
Journal Subjects:
Social Sciences, Psychology, Applied Psychology