During the Semester

Online Discussions

How to create a discussion in the Canvas Discussion tool

The Canvas discussion tool allows you to create asynchronous (not in real-time) discussions among students as a whole class or in smaller groups. Two important things to note

  1. To create a graded discussion, you must check the “graded” checkbox during set up.
  2. To allow students to reply to each other, you must check the “allow threaded replies” checkbox during set up.

For instructions on setting up a basic discussion, see the Canvas Guides “How do I create a discussion as an instructor?” and “How do I create a group discussion in a course?” Also, see “How do I view and sort discussion replies as an instructor?” for more information about working with discussion replies.

Discussion Best Practices

This section focuses on best practices for discussions counting toward the students’ final grade in the class. You may also find it helpful to have one or two non-graded discussions where students can ask general questions about the class or discuss current events through the lens of the class content.

Use discussions only where there will be actual discussion

The first thing to consider is whether or not your activity is a good fit for a discussion. If you want students to answer questions where the goal is for everyone to have the same answers, do not use a discussion.  If each student is posting the same thing there is no opportunity for discussion. Given a question “What color is the sky?” students know the answer you are looking for is “blue” because that’s what it says in the book. Everyone says “blue,” so what is there to discuss? These sorts of questions are a much better fit for a quiz or worksheet-style assignment turned in to you directly.

If you have an idea that does involve multiple perspectives or application of concepts, then a discussion may be what you want.

Make sure the discussion has a clear educational purpose

When thinking about using online discussion forums, the most important thing to think about is your learning objective for the discussion. What is your goal? What are your students supposed to learn and practice in the process of discussing this particular thing? How are they to integrate the course readings, resources, and other reliable sources? While there can be benefits from any sort of interpersonal interaction, graded class interactions should be focused on learning. As the instructor, you are the one to provide that focus and structure.

It is important not only that you know what the purpose of the discussion is, but also that the students know as well. The Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TILT) format for assignment instructions is one way to easily provide students with the purpose, structure, and criteria for the discussion. Instructions in TILT format include the Purpose, the Task (what are they going to do), and the Criteria (how is their work going to be evaluated). Here is an example of a Purpose description.

Purpose (from Week 1 of the Online Course Design and Development Bootcamp)

How do you get to know your students in an online class? That’s a commonly asked question by potential online instructors and one that’s often glossed over. While the question is often asked in regard to developing good faculty-student relationships, it also leads to a follow-up question – who do you presume your students are in an online course with minimal visible markers of age, race, gender identity, ethnicity, ableness. economic status, nationality, sexuality, size, or religion? The purpose of this discussion is to get you thinking and talking together about ways to create a welcoming and supportive online learning environment that you may not have previously considered.

Help students want to participate in discussions

Ideally, the purpose of the discussion should explain why the student should care about this assignment beyond a single grade in a single course. How will they benefit from participating? Discussions where the purpose is to simply show the instructor that you read the book are much less likely to be inherently interesting to students and appear to be  another type of “busywork.”

Click on the headings below to learn more.

Do the discussions have complete and accurate instructions and criteria?

It is not uncommon for students to give up on discussions (and other assignments) because the instructions for the task are not clear or have not been updated for changes in other places. This includes clear instructions for both their initial participation and the following discussion.

Having someone else proof instructions before sharing them with your class can catch simple typos that can change the meaning of a sentence. If you are sending your students to look at a website or use a tool, always double-check those instructions every semester to make sure your links are still good and that other aspects such as menus, page names, or functionality have not changed. If students go to an external site expecting to click on a specific thing when they get there and that thing is missing it can stop them in their tracks. Don’t presume that they will search extensively for the missing thing – or that they even have enough information to know what they are searching for, depending on the detail of instructions provided.

The third part of the TILT framework is the criteria for the assignment. The criteria are not the same as the task. Unless you are grading complete/incomplete, there will be some level of quality included in the criteria. The criteria should let the student know what your expectations are for successful work beyond following the basic instructions. Here is an example of the task and criteria sections for the discussion introduced in the purpose statement example above.

Task (from Week 1 of the Online Course Design and Development Bootcamp)

Pick a friend, colleague, former student, or family member – preferably someone you know fairly well – who varies from your “standard student” in one or more meaningful ways, such as age, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, religion, nationality, socioeconomic status, etc. Thinking about what you read in Chapter 1, the other required reading, and the criteria from the Peralta Rubric, what specific things do you think you could do to help this person feel more welcome and comfortable in your online course?

Share your thoughts and ideas in a post by the due date.

After you post your thoughts, please read your peers’ posts and suggest additional ways they might support their chosen student or point out a potential challenge they might face and suggest a strategy to mitigate it. If you feel comfortable sharing a personal story, please feel free to do so. When someone shares something personal, please respect their experience of the event when asking questions or making comments (please don’t splain).

Criteria (from Week 1 of the Online Course Design and Development Bootcamp)

In this activity, we are looking for everyone to

  • thoughtfully consider the potential experiences of students who are different from the majority of your students in a meaningful way,
  • identify actual or potential barriers to community for these students,
  • identify ways that you can remove or mitigate these barriers, and
  • engage in thoughtful and respectful conversation with your peers.

Since the Bootcamp is for faculty only, there are no “academic” criteria for this assignment. If this were an assignment for graduate students in education, additional criteria could include

  • reference at least one of the articles for this week,
  • reference at least one additional scholarly article or reputable organization that discusses challenges faced by individuals similar to your chosen student; explain briefly how you determined the source was accurate and appropriate,
  • your initial post should be no more than 250 words with proper spelling and grammar
  • your contributions to the conversation should include at least 3 substantive comments, either to multiple peers or within one single conversation thread.

Show students that you value participation

Actively participating in the course contributes a reasonable amount toward the course grade. Supporting online presence through active learning and collaboration won’t happen by itself. Instructors modeling active participation in a welcoming and supportive manner will certainly help, but students are just as likely to look at what is included in the final grade to determine what is important. If you are encouraging weekly substantive participation but all of those activities together only count for 5% of the course grade, students will get the impression that their participation is not valued and therefore optional or superfluous. Putting your money (grades) where your mouth is, reinforces to students the value of active learning and collaboration for their academic success.

Encourage students to reflect on learning

It’s not uncommon for students to dislike discussions because they feel that they do not learn anything from them. Often students expressing these feelings have experienced the “say something and respond to 2 people” sort of discussions. By sharing your desired learning outcome with your students, you can then ask them to consider the extent to which they reached that learning outcome and what part of the activity helped them. (This is something that you can do for all assignments and activities, not just discussions.) Using an anonymous survey, you can get feedback to improve any following discussions and address misconceptions about learning by means other than reading and lecture. Keep in mind that the rejection of learning from and with peers can be a cultural issue. Some educational systems focus on learning only from the teacher and interaction with peers is not highly valued so it helps to be prepared to explain why you value discussion and student-student interaction in both online and in-person classes.


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