Many instructors are familiar with the challenges of facilitating effective in-class discussion.  When discussion moves to an online arena such as a Canvas discussion board, many of the same challenges can crop up, along with new ones unique to the digital medium.  For example, an instructor may not be sure when and how he or she should intervene in order to guide the discussion in a productive direction. Students, meanwhile, may be unsure as to how to express themselves in an online forum; particularly if an online discussion is a component of the course grade, the risk exists that students may make brief, perfunctory comments simply to “be counted”, which in turn can cause the discussion to stall.

It need not be this way, however.  With thought and preparation, online discussions can be just as active, vibrant, and thoughtful as the best in-class discussions.  In this article you will find some helpful tips for crafting Canvas online discussions that will keep students engaged and help them make substantive, meaningful contributions to the ongoing flow of debate.

Craft Effective Discussion Prompts

A good discussion prompt is vital for sparking meaningful discussion. By providing a well-crafted prompt, you can excite students’ capacity for creative thinking and help them see the topic at hand in new and exciting ways.

Conversely, a prompt that is too limiting can cause discussion to be quickly squelched.  In this category fall prompts that have only one right answer, along with prompts whose sole purpose is to make students prove that they completed the assigned reading.  If checking for reading completion/comprehension is your goal, a discussion thread may not be the best way to go; instead consider another method, such as a Canvas Quiz, or have students turn in an annotated copy of their readings.

Ways to make discussion prompts more effective include:

  • Action verbs:  Enhance your prompt with action words such as “Find…” “Describe…” or “Compare…” These clear-cut tasks encourage your students to engage actively with the material and help to keep the discussion focused by discouraging digressions.
  • “What-if” prompts:  Ask your students to explore a hypothetical situation: for example, “What if the Great Depression had not occurred?” or “What if the Earth’s gravity were twice as great as it is now?”  Such prompts are an excellent way to promote lateral thinking.
  • Persona/role-play prompts:  Have your students step into the shoes of a historical character and debate from his/her perspective.  Thinking themselves into the life of another person will pose unique and exciting intellectual challenges for your students.
  • Multimedia prompts: An especially engaging technique is to include multimedia — still pictures, audio, or video — in the prompt for your discussion.  Canvas not only makes it easy to add multimedia to a prompt, but also allows students to include multimedia in their replies, all via the Rich Content Editor toolbar.  So, for example, you might upload a picture related to the topic at hand, then ask your students to upload pictures of their own and explain how they connect to or shed light on the topic.  You can also record yourself using either Canvas’ native recording tool or Panopto Video and embed the recording in a discussion prompt or comment, making it possible for you and your students to have a video or audio discussion thread.  


Use Discussion Groups and Roles

In a large class, holding a meaningful online discussion can be an unwieldy exercise.  As the number of comments grows and grows, both you and your students may find yourselves suffering from fatigue as you attempt to keep up.

To combat this issue, consider breaking your class up into groups with a separate discussion thread for each group.  Canvas makes this easy: simply create a group set, either manually or automatically divide your students into small groups (perhaps four or five members apiece), and then check the “This is a Group Discussion” checkbox when setting up your discussion to assign it to the groups you have created.  Within these small groups discussion can be more focused, and you will have an easier time reviewing the comments and keeping track of the flow of discussion.

Group Discussion options

Another effective practice, which can be used either jointly with group discussions or by itself, is to assign roles.  For example, one student will be the initial commenter; a second student will respond to this first comment; a third student will summarize the direction of the debate in his/her comment; and so on.  Having an assigned role helps students to move past their initial uncertainty about “what should I say?” and can help set the discussion on a productive path. If you use roles, rotate them periodically so that every student has a chance to fill all of the roles.  

This is similar to the “fishbowl” teaching strategy that can be employed in face-to-face discussions.  In this method, a small group arranged in a circle holds a discussion while the rest of the group observes, with participants on the inside and outside of the “fishbowl” periodically switching.  The fishbowl can be an effective means of focusing discussion, while giving student observers on the outside of the group a chance to gain a deeper understanding of what does and does not constitute a good discussion.

Elicit Substantive Comments

As noted above, in an online forum it can be particularly difficult to elicit substantive comments from your students.  Students may sometimes say little more than “I agree with X” in an attempt to participate in the discussion without expending too much effort.

As a first line of defense against this issue, you can check the “Users must post before seeing replies” checkbox when setting up a Canvas discussion.  This ensures that replies will be hidden for users who have not yet posted, so that they cannot simply echo other students’ opinions in their replies.

Options with Users must post first selected

There are, however, other, deeper methods to nudge your students in the direction of substantive feedback.  Some of these are discussed below.

  • Model good comments: Before online discussion begins in earnest, provide your students with an example of what a good (that is, substantive) comment looks like.  They can draw upon this example in their own comments going forward. 
  • Use a rubric: Rubrics are an excellent way to make clear to your students exactly what your expectations are for their contributions and how you will be assessing whether a comment is good or poor.  When you create a graded discussion in Canvas, you can attach either a new or an existing rubric to it. Within the rubric, you can specify multiple criteria, such as relevance to the topic at hand, originality of thought, etc., and assign point values to each if you wish.  See further: How do I add a rubric to a graded discussion?
  • Introduce the 3CQ model: One possible model you can provide to your students for substantive discussion feedback is the 3CQ model developed by Jenn Stewart-Mitchell. Under this model, each response should include a compliment to the previous person, a comment about the previous response, a connection to something external to the discussion (such as the responder’s own experience), and a question that will prompt further discussion.
  • Intervene strategically: As the moderator of an online discussion, you should strive to strike a healthy balance between non-intervention — that is to say, leaving the discussion wholly to its own devices — and excessive intervention — constantly interrupting students’ give-and-take.  Consider using periodic, judiciously worded comments, either to steer the discussion gently back on course when it shows signs of going astray, or to elicit deeper responses when you notice that your students have tapped a potentially rich vein of thought.


Conclusion: Connect to the Classroom

However you choose to set up and moderate your online discussion, it is vital that you find ways to tie the discussion back to activities in the classroom.  For example, you might pick a comment or two from the previous night’s discussion that you found especially salient and use it as a jumping-off point for your lecture.  Alternatively, if you use small-group discussions, you might ask one student from each group to report out on the course of their discussion and then solicit feedback from the larger class.  If students feel that what they say on the online discussion board truly matters, they will have much more incentive to contribute their best, most carefully considered thoughts, and the discussion will be more productive for all.

Further Reading and Getting Help

For more information on how to use online discussion boards effectively, see:

If you have any questions about how to use online discussions effectively, please contact Academic Technology Solutions for a consultation.