Best Practices in Creating Canvas Discussions

Have you ever been a student in an online course in which discussion forums were used as a crucial component of the course?  Think about your learning experiences in those courses. I'm sure you can identify instances in which discussions were effective, but you are more likely to identify poor experiences with discussions. 

Likewise, as an instructor, if you have used discussion forums as an instructional tool, I'm sure you've seen varying degrees of success.

Let's take a look at a few recommendations for improving the effectiveness of using the discussion board as a teaching and learning tool, as well as improving the overall quality of the types of discussions that take place within them.

When Discussions Go Wrong!

  1. Pitfall 1: Too many discussion board assignments
    • Often, there are far too many discussion boards in online courses, particularly courses that use the discussion board as the heart of the course. This can lead to discussion board fatigue for both students and instructors.
      • Solution: Reduce the number of posts in your online course. If you are using one discussion board per week, that's probably too many. Instead, focus on a few key discussion topics and spread them out. One discussion board assignment every other week is usually a good practice to follow.
  2. Pitfall 2: Opinion-Based Prompts
    • Prompts that are purely opinion-based or too wide-open can often lead to meandering, unfocused responses from students that have little evidence or facts that support the response. They can even lead to one or two-word answer responses, which defeats the point of the discussion. 
      • Solution: Avoid opinion-based prompts. Unless you 1) are looking for an opinion to jumpstart a conversation, or 2) are requiring students to support their opinions with specific sources covered by course material, avoid opinion-based questions.
  3. Pitfall 3: Leading Prompts and Prompts that are Lower-Order Thinking
    • It's easy to write a leading prompt without realizing it. Such prompts are self-fulfilling --- the lead the student to give the predetermined answer that we want. Lower-order thinking prompts lead to students regurgitating content they read in the course without adding anything of much value to the conversation.
      • Solution: Remember that discussion prompts are intended to encourage students to think critically about content or concepts. Use discussion prompts that require students to analyze content and use content in new ways to further the discussion by contributing new ideas.
  4. Pitfall 4: Lack of Guidance or Expectations
    • Instructors that do not provide proper guidance for what is expected of students during a discussion board conversation are likely to receive discussion responses that fall short of the mark.
      • Solution: Provide a rubric that outlines very clearly what is expected of students during the discussion. Tell them what they are supposed to post, whether their responses should have any supporting resources, and expected content in the response. Let students know they should avoid posting responses that do not add something new to the conversation or move the conversation forward. 
  • Pitfall 5: Absent Instructor
    • Very often, instructors allow discussions to go on too long without knowing when to step in to re-direct or add further information to improve the discussion.
      • Solution: Be present in the discussion when it's necessary to be present. Monitor the discussion frequently to see what your students are posting and how the discussion is progressing. This doesn't mean that you need to constantly chime in. It DOES mean that you need to know what's happening in the discussion and be ready to step in when needed. Know the pulse of the conversation.
  1. Pitfall 6: Unenforced Due Dates
    • How many times have you seen a student post their response minutes before the due date? If you expect your students to take part in a true, constructive discussion, this is unacceptable. When this happens, it's clear that the student has not been a part of the discussion in a substantive, meaningful way.
      • Solution: Stagger due dates. Let's say that the discussion prompt opens on Monday, April 20, at 8 am, and closes on Sunday, April 26, at 11:59 pm. Further, students must also post responses to two of their peers' posts. Here's an example of how to schedule it: Original posts must be posted by Tuesday, April 21 at 11:59 pm. If the original post is not made, the student is no longer part of the discussion and any posts made are not counted. On Wednesday, April 22, the instructor will review all posts and provide feedback, encouragement, and redirect where needed. Then, the first peer post is due Friday, April 24, at 11:59 pm. The second and final peer post is then due on Sunday, April 26, at 11:59 pm.
  2. Pitfall 7: Assessing the Quantity of the Post, Rather than the Quality
    • It's not uncommon for faculty to include quantity expectations. For example, "students must write one complete paragraph in response to the prompt." Such guidelines are certainly acceptable, but if there are no expectations of quality, students can easily write a paragraph of fluff.
      • Solution: Include expectations of quality in the discussion response(s). Let students know that quality responses that add information to the discussion and further the conversation will be weighted more heavily than the quantity of the response. Include examples, or 'exemplars' of good student posts from previous classes or create an example of an exemplar for your students as a guide.

More Discussion Board Tips!

When setting up a discussion board assignment, there are several settings you should enable to encourage stronger discussions.

When you edit a discussion's settings you are greeted with the following options.

  • Allow threaded replies
  • Users must post before seeing replies
  • Graded
  • Allow Liking

Select them. Threaded replies allow students to respond directly to another student's post. The second setting means that a student must make an original post before posts of fellow classmates are viewable. Graded simply means that the discussion is graded. Allow liking gives students the ability to like another student's post. (You don't have to enable this one but it would give students an extra incentive to make good posts.

We should also recap our 'solutions' from the above section for concrete, pedagogical techniques you can employ to encourage worthwhile conversations in a discussion board assignment.

  • Reduce the number of posts in your online course
  • Avoid opinion-based prompts
  • Remember that discussion prompts are intended to encourage students to think critically about content or concepts
  • Provide a rubric that outlines very clearly what is expected of students during the discussion
  • Be present in the discussion when it's necessary to be present
  • Stagger due dates
  • Include expectations of quality in the discussion response(s)
  • Allow students to respond with short video recordings using the Canvas inline recorder
  • Incorporate the Peer Review feature with discussion board assignments so that students can assess the quality of the response
  • Use prompts that encourage students to solve a problem, analyze concepts, and evaluate information