Using Student Facilitators in the Online Classroom

Written by: Rob Kelly
Published On: January 11, 2013

If you’re trying to get your online learners more engaged in online discussions, consider turning over the facilitation responsibilities to your students. This approach, says Walter Woolbaugh, a professor in the master of science in teacher education at Montana State University–Bozeman, empowers students, increases participation, and improves learning.

Why have students facilitate?

There are several compelling reasons to have students facilitate. First, it engages students—both the individual who facilitates and the other students. Those who facilitate are typically more engaged than they might be ordinarily because they bear the responsibility of starting the discussion, keeping it on track, and putting it in the context of the course. “It’s a really nice engagement technique. When we release power to weekly facilitators, we’re bringing them into the class. We’re engaging them. We’re making them the instructor. We’re giving them the chance to offer their viewpoints,” Woolbaugh says.

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In addition, facilitators tend to learn more. “People will probably understand the content more as they work at a higher level. I think of my [previous job] as a plumber. When I had a beginner plumber I was teaching how to do things, I was at that higher level. I asked myself, ‘Why do I solder this way? Why do I hold it this way’ When students are doing some of this teaching, they end up learning it really well, and they end up presenting it in ways that many of the students in the class pick up on better than if the teacher presents it. I think it goes to the foundation of the research on cooperative learning and how many times the benefit is not only to the facilitators but [to] the other students as well. Despite our best attempts as instructors, we can’t get ideas across as effectively as student colleagues can.

“I’ve found over the years that a lot of students respond more positively to one of their own than they do to an instructor. My facilitators are a great way to put my content before participants in a very collegial manner,” Woolbaugh says.

In addition, rather than turning to the instructor for the definitive answer to a question, students tend to work out the answers among themselves when a discussion is facilitated by a fellow student.

Preparing students to facilitate

Woolbaugh has each student take a turn as facilitator throughout the semester. He begins the semester by modeling good facilitation. He also provides detailed information on the facilitator’s responsibilities, which consist of the following three functions:

  • Start—Begin with a posting prior to the opening of the discussion and making several posts throughout the week that get the conversation going.
  • Steer—Ask engaging questions that guide the discussion to a higher level. Redirect the discussion when it gets off topic.
  • Summarize—Copy and paste the week’s main points in a message titled “summary” to try to bring closure to the discussion. “The summary is essential for some learners. They need to know, ‘Where have I been? What should I have taken from this discussion?’ That’s where the summary comes in.”

 Woolbaugh remains active in discussions even when they are facilitated by students. He sends an email to the student facilitator the week before the discussion begins, suggesting some possible points to address in the discussion.

Some facilitators do not need any guidance beyond this initial email. Others require more support. “A great many I’m steering behind the scenes as the week goes on: ‘You might do this …’ ‘You might have this happen …’ Some facilitators are overanxious and keep posting. When that happens, I send that behind-the-scenes email that says, ‘We might want to wait a day or two before we post anything else,’” Woolbaugh says.

Although he wants students to take control of the discussion, he still maintains a presence and participates in the discussion. “They defer to me because, of course, I know the content, and I’ll answer those questions. It starts out that way, but they eventually see that I’m really a participant, not a leader, in the discussion. Many times my posts don’t get a lot of hits,” Woolbaugh says.

Maintaining a presence is essential, Woolbaugh says. “The instructor cannot walk away from the discussion. That’s a disaster. That’s not what facilitating is about. Students have to realize they can put in the middle of a post, ‘Walt, is this right?’ and I’ll be back there within 24 hours with a comment on that. I think that’s really important.”

Contact Walter Woolbaugh at

This article originally appeared in the newsletter Online Classroom (January 2012): 3. The Online Classroom newsletter helps you stay current with the latest trends in online learning by offering ideas and advice for the new trailblazers in higher education.