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Discussions are threaded conversations on a single topic. They are asynchronous, which means participants do not have to be online at the same time, making them an especially flexible communication tool. You can use Discussions for communication and for assessment.

This video provides a basic overview:

Using Discussions in Your Teaching

  • Have students introduce themselves to the class at the beginning of a semester.
  • Create a Q&A thread for the class and ask students to post questions instead of contacting you by email. You can even encourage students to respond to each other in this thread rather than waiting for you to reply.
  • Create a “water cooler” thread for students to chat about topics unrelated to the class. While this is not teaching per se, it allows students to connect with each other and helps build social presence in the course.
  • Ask students to use the media tools in the Rich Content Editor to post their responses. For learners who are more comfortable speaking than writing, this provides a means for them to respond more fluently. In a language course, this allows you to assess students’ pronunciation, grammar, etc.
  • Have students work through a case or problem.
  • Embed a media prompt (a diagram, video, etc.) for students to respond to.
  • Students can create their own discussions within Canvas Groups.

Setting Discussion Guidelines and/or Expectations

In your syllabus or on an introductory page in the Modules area, be sure to define exactly what you expect from students when posting to discussions. This can include general netiquette information, use of full sentences, citing sources, and specific information on how you will assess discussions (include quantity and quality of posts).

Considerations for Using Canvas Discussions

The “threaded discussion” option will make conversations easier for everyone to follow. Remember to select it when creating a discussion. (It’s not selected by default.)

You can use the Rich Content Editor in Canvas to format the text of your discussion prompt, add links (to other parts of the Canvas site or to other webpages), and embed videos.

For a graded discussion, you can review student responses in SpeedGrader. When you select a student in SpeedGrader, you will find all of that student’s posts to the discussion — which is helpful if you require students to reply to their classmates in addition to posting their own responses to the prompt.

You can attach a rubric to a graded discussion or require peer review for discussion responses.

Using Discussions with Groups

In a large class, consider breaking students into smaller groups and then having each group respond to discussion prompts.

Discussions in Groups allow for collaboration on projects.

Writing Good Discussion Questions

Asking the right question(s) is vital to creating a good discussion in your course. Consider the following discussion prompt:

After reading textbook chapter 5, please describe challenges that social workers face due to the social climate, economic changes, and political environment.

Once a few students have responded to the question, it’s likely they will have covered all potential answers. The rest will have little to add without being repetitive. Additionally, fact-based questions like the one above don’t help students identify their own knowledge gaps, explore multiple perspectives, or negotiate content meaning.

Instead, ask open-ended questions or questions that have more than just one or a few correct answers. These can offer additional discussion opportunities. For example:

How do you perceive that plan as adequate to the problem? What makes you think so? Where might that plan derail? What other plans are possible?

Questions that invite students to share their own point of view from their personal and/or work life can generate multiple perspectives.

Important Takeaways

Make sure responses are not “right” or “wrong” and cannot be answered with “yes” or “no.” The best discussion prompts ask students to reflect and to demonstrate higher order thinking (analysis, synthesis, comparison, evaluation). Otherwise, discussions risk becoming “homework out loud.” Students perceive them as busy work, and you won’t enjoy reading and assessing the responses.

Discussions are meant to be interactions among learners. You may want to ask students not only to post comments to the discussion questions but also to respond to one or two other students. If so, give different due dates for initial posts to discussion and for peer-to-peer interactions. This will help you avoid a situation where learners post the discussions and interactions on the last day of the discussion, giving learners no time to interact with each other.

Adapted from “Discussions in Canvas” in Start Here 102: Best Practices in Online instruction, licensed CC BY 4.0 by Grace Seo, University of Missouri.