Online discussion forums are a major collaboration component in most online and hybrid courses. Research illustrates the benefits of discussions for stimulating student engagement and critical thinking skills1. Creating, facilitating, and managing effective and engaging online discussions can be challenging for many online teachers. A successful online discussion board provides students with opportunities to reflect, interact, and exchange ideas2.

In order to facilitate active student learning, online discussions should be similar to classroom face-to-face discussions. Experienced faculty realize that student interaction, collaboration, and learning does not simply ‘just happen.’ Faculty must develop innovative and interesting discussion forums that will foster student participation and collaboration. Research shows that student discussions promote communication skills3 as well as improve learning4.

The Canvas Learning Management System (LMS) provides teachers with a variety of tools and features that will assist them to create innovative and productive discussions. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind as you design your online discussion forums.

1. Develop creative questions

Select a situation or question that you are interested in hearing about. Try to avoid using boring, easy to answer questions by using open-ended prompts. Another option would be to include two or three questions to choose from and have the student select the one they want to discuss. To ensure more critical thinking and analysis, ask students to ‘compare and contrast’ or ‘identify the strengths and weaknesses’ regarding a situation. Discussions can focus on a concept, article, video, or web resource. You may also have students submit a video or audio response to a prompt or situation.

For additional support with Canvas discussions, please visit the Canvas Guides.

2. Define clear expectations

Canvas’s text editor makes it very easy to create and reply to discussions prompts. For example, Canvas allows students to respond to discussion prompts by text entry, audio, or video responses. Let students know what is expected from the activity. Make sure to provide clear expectations regarding the required number of posts, replies, timelines, and associated deadlines. For example, it is recommended that students be required to make an initial post earlier in the week with follow-up responses due by Sunday evenings at 11:59 PM. These items should also be included in the activity rubric.

For additional support with using rubrics within discussions, please visit the Canvas Guides.

3. Provide feedback

In other words, get involved! Faculty are the facilitators of the weekly discussion and it is vital to establish a presence. A timely reply conveys faculty presence and reinforces the value of student contribution. Jo, Park, and Lee (2017) found that unfacilitated forums don’t foster effective discussion or knowledge construction among students5. Students anticipate formative feedback from teachers and this tends to increase student engagement. In addition to providing text feedback, Canvas allows faculty to provide audio or video feedback to students.

For additional assistance with feedback options for discussions, please visit the Canvas Guides.

4. Assign peer groups

Depending on the size of your online class, you may consider breaking up the weekly discussions into smaller work groups. This scenario offers students the opportunity to read fewer peer posts (rather than reading every student’s post) and allows them to focus their responses on a smaller group of posts. Likewise, this should make the monitoring process a bit more manageable for the teacher.

For additional assistance with group discussion, please visit the Canvas Guides.

5. Track student participation

Faculty should understand which students are actively engaged in the weekly discussions. Minimal student participation can be an early warning signal for low student engagement and achievement. Student participation can be viewed in either the discussion forum or through SpeedGrader. Course Analytics in Canvas allows teachers to closely monitor their students’ daily participation and engagement. This information would allow teachers to reach out directly to individual students (via email) if necessary.

For more information on working with Course Analytics, please visit the Canvas Guides.

For additional assistance with using discussion boards or support with Canvas, please contact an ATS team member at 302-831-4060 or email


1Hamann, K., Pollock, P. H., & Wilson, B. M. (2012). Assessing Student Perceptions of the Benefits of Discussions in Small-Group, Large-Class, and Online Learning Contexts, College Teaching, 60:2, 65-75. 

2Aragon, S. R. (2003). Creating social presence in online environments. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 100, 57-68

2Craig, G. P. (2013). Evaluating discussion forums for undergraduate and graduate students. Online Classroom, 13(12), 5.

3Dallimore, E. J., Hertenstein, J. H. and Platt, M. B. (2008). Using discussion pedagogy to enhance oral and written communication skills. College Teaching, 56(3): 163–172.

4Bender, T. (2003). Discussion-based online teaching to enhance student-learning, Sterling, VA: Stylus.

4Davis, T. M. and Murrell, P. H. (1993). Turning teaching into learning: The role of student responsibility in the collegiate experience, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 8. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development. 

4Huerta, J. C. (2007). Getting active in the large lecture. Journal of Political Science Education, 3(3): 237–249.

5Jo, I., Park, Y., & Lee, H. (2017). Three interaction patterns on asynchronous online discussion behaviors: A methodological comparison. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 33, 106–122.

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