Online tools like the Discussion tool in Canvas allow you and your students to engage in rich conversations even when you are unable to meet at the same time. This guide recommends practices for facilitating asynchronous discussion forums and activities online. 

Types of Discussions

You’ll want to decide whether your discussion will be focused or threaded. Focused discussions are relatively short-lived interactions, while threaded discussions allow for more complex conversations over a longer period of time.

Focused Discussion Users:

  • answer a single question
  • share resources amongst peers
  • collect results form a simple research survey
  • share solutions to a single problem
  • correct misconceptions
  • clarify course policies
  • get feedback on a work in progress
  • share insights about a single reading

Threaded Discussion Uses:

  • post and answer multiple related or unrelated questions
  • organize results from a complex research activity
  • share and iterate upon ideas shared by each student in the course
  • debate the pros and cons of a single issue or multiple issues
  • ask multiple questions of a single discussion leader
  • refine ideas between multiple discussion leaders and multiple learners
  • facilitate group discussions around multiple topics
  • facilitate discussions around a discussion (fishbowl conversations)
  • explore at length the feasibility of different solutions to a complex problem

Tips for Successful Online Discussions

Asynchronous discussion participation doesn’t happen naturally, but with some planning you can design discussion-based activities that are effective and valuable learning experiences.

1) Identify Your Goals for the Activity

The first step in planning your discussion-based activity is to identify what purpose it plays in your overall instructional strategy. How can a discussion-based activity be used to measure specific course- and lesson-level learning outcomes in your course?

Example Goals

  • Expose student misconceptions and questions
  • Situate abstract tasks into authentic context
  • Identify key-concepts in a reading or practice close reading
  • Extend or apply issues developed in the course

2) Clarify Expectations

Once you have an idea of what you want students to get out of the activity, take a few minutes to outline more detailed expectations for students participating in the activity. For example:

  • How many posts/replies should students make?
  • What style of writing should students demonstrate?
  • How long would you like students’ responses to be?*
  • How frequently should students post during the discussion period?*
  • What kinds of content should students be posting?
    • Should sources be cited?
    • Should the student focus on answering specific questions?
    • Should the student connect their responses to prior knowledge?
    • Should the student post only original content? (i.e. “I agree with x” won’t cut it).
  • Will this activity be graded?

Once you have these ideas in mind, you should convey them to students to help ensure they will understand how to meet your expectations when presented with a discussion activity.

3) Craft an Effective Starter Post

Now that you have a goal for the discussion activity and clear expectations for student responses, you can begin crafting an effective starter post that will serve as a jumping-off point for the conversation. 

Starter Post Tips

  • Pose open-ended questions to leave room for the conversation to grow.
  • Design questions that provoke critical thinking and challenge students to connect their responses to prior knowledge.
  • Reiterate your expectations for student contributions.

Example Starter Posts

After reading Chapters 1 and 2 in “Product Design and Development” and Video 7 (New Product Development (NPD) Stage Gate Processes) indicate why NPD Stage Gate Processes are important for most companies.

In Fawn Qiu’s video that we watched this week, she demonstrated a hands-on version of the app “Flappy Bird” that she created. Take a moment to consider any game or activity that you’ve used with children before (or a game you remember using when you were a child). Imagine it as both a digital/virtual experience, and as a non-digital/physical experience (for example, a game of TETRIS played on a computer versus with colorful wooden blocks; a physical game of Flappy Bird versus an app, etc.). What would be a learning benefit of using the digital medium? Are there elements that are better suited to a non-digital versus digital format? How can parents/teachers decide whether  to use a “high tech” or “low tech” option when both are designed to address the same learning or social/entertainment goals? Post your thoughts on one or more of these topics in this Discussion, and don’t forget to respond to at least two of your classmates’ posts.

 4) Manage the Discussion

You can play an important role in facilitating and sustaining discussion activities. Don’t let the scope of a discussion activity overwhelm you. There’s usually no need to respond to every student post. Instead, you can post strategically to keep the conversation moving.

Facilitation Strategies

  • Avoid the temptation to post ‘ the right answer,’ which can quickly shut down the conversation.
  • Allow students room for peer-interaction; wait and contribute your thoughts strategically when needed to keep the conversation moving.
  • Use probing responses rather than authoritative statements to maintain the conversation.
  • Craft your responses so that they move the discussion in productive directions.
  • Ask students to clarify or elaborate on their ideas.
  • Connect ideas discussed with concepts from the rest of the course.

5) Assess Student Performance

If you set clear expectations for the activity, assessing student performance should be a manageable activity.

Rubrics are one of the most valuable tools you can use to evaluate student performance. Most discussion tools feature workflow features that allow them to be used for formal evaluation and grading. Links to instructions on using these features is included in the Additional Resources below.

Example Discussion Participation Rubric

CRITERIA:ExcellentGoodNeeds Work
Assignment RequirementsResponse addresses all requirements of the assignmentResponse addresses most requirements of the assignmentResponse addresses few requirements of the assignment
Contribution to DiscussionPosts build on the responses found in previous posts and advance the conversation beyond the obviousPosts build on the responses found in previous posts and attempt to advance the conversationPosts are superficial and/or do not demonstrate engagement with other participants; posts largely summarize others’ contributions
Clarity and MechanicsParticipant’s thoughts are clearly articulated; posts feature a minimum of stylistic or grammatical errorsParticipant’s thoughts are clearly articulated; posts feature several stylistic or grammatical errorsParticipants’ thoughts are understandable; posts feature several stylistic or grammatical errors

Additional Resources

Canvas Discussions



Group & Section Discussions

Media in Discussions

Other Discussion Tools