Digital Learning & Design

Students working together‌Discussions are a key component of online courses. They help build community, encourage reflection, reinforce respectful communication, and develop critical thinking skills. In order to realize their potential, discussions must be intentionally and carefully designed, configured, and facilitated.

Carefully craft prompts and set requirements. An online discussion as an effective learning activity is only realized when it’s carefully crafted and configured for a specific outcome, keeping in mind its context in the course and the module. A poorly designed discussion may become a facilitation headache.

  1. Write open-ended, thought-provoking prompts that invite varied responses. Clearly set response expectations for students, thus minimizing the chances their responses drift into unintended and undesirable directions that necessitate clarifying announcements later.
  2. If a discussion requires extensive background or content, include this material on a separate, preceding page so the prompt itself (what you want students to respond to) doesn’t get lost.
  3. Include a word limit to keep the discussion from becoming a waterfall of text, too imposing for some students to read through (especially in classwide discussions).
  4. Ask students to return to the discussion within a day or two and reply to one or two other posts, particularly ones that don’t already have replies.
  5. Include grading rubrics to break down expectations for students and make grading more straightforward (or standardized if more than one person is grading). 
  6. In fast-paced courses, assign significant value to on-time submission to motivate students to keep up.
  7. Explore options to prevent discussions from becoming formulaic and tedious for students. For example, assign specific roles to play (which might require splitting the class up into smaller groups of five or so using Groups in Canvas).
  8. For a more visually appealing multimedia approach to discussions that allows students to better express their creativity, consider Harmonize, a discussion tool that works within Canvas and integrates with the gradebook and calendar. 
  9. Balance your and students’ workload. Provide students with options that allow them flexibility to manage a heavy workload while also allowing them to follow their interests. Allow students to drop one discussion in a series or more in the course overall.
  10. Break complex topics down into separate discussions, thus allowing for greater focus, and possibly let students choose which ones to engage in (e.g., two of three).
  11. Alternate discussions with other assignments in modules to head off back-to-back discussion fatigue and offer a reprise from their tight post-and-reply cycle.
  12. Vary reply requirements
    1. Instead of having students write replies to other student posts for every discussion, have them vote up, or “like,” other student posts. If you sort posts by likes, then you could explore the top one or two posts further in a subsequent discussion or assignment based on student appeal.
    2. Have students use the “like” feature to award karma-like points, or inspiration points, to posts that they found most helpful to their learning and feed these into a bonus points scheme tallied at the end of the course. (You can define inspiration in other ways.)

Establish discussion guidelines early (in orientation material) and include examples of posts and replies that model collaborative learning and respectful dialogue. (See Discussion Guidelines for Students, below.)

  1. Design for the ideal discussion size. If your enrollment is high, consider using sections or group discussions to make the conversation more intimate and reading all posts more manageable (and likely) for students. Create several discussion group sets to vary group discussion composition or vary group size. (See the guide on Managing Groups and Group Work.)
  2. Assign alternating discussion leaders, especially with smaller group discussions. 
  3. Have each group from a group discussion post to a classwide discussion their main takeaways. (This is essentially two discussions, one for small groups and one for the whole class. They can be set up back-to-back in Canvas.)
  4. Use a dedicated discussion throughout the course for Q&A. This might be better accommodated in Ed Discussions than Canvas, depending on how active it’s expected to be. (Note that Ed Discussions does not integrate with Canvas grades or calendar.)
  5. If you use low-stakes quizzes and do not show the correct answer after submission (an option in Canvas quizzes), use a dedicated discussion for students to determine the correct answers. Instructors/TAs can intervene only if no one has the answer to a particular question. 

TIP: See the Canvas  “What are Discussions?” page to understand discussion mechanics and configuration options.


Ensure your students know they are engaging in a collaborative learning experience. Encourage them to maintain a respectful tone in communications with others in the class (in discussions, group work, peer reviews), for it is essential to a productive learning environment. Tell them they don't have to agree with others, but they should know how to engage the difference in their peers’ ideas without being disrespectful or adversarial. 

You may also want to share the following guidelines:

  1. Participate early. Do not wait for deadlines. Late posts are unlikely to be widely read and therefore part of a discussion.
  2. Listen carefully to what others are saying.
  3. Respect different perspectives. They enrich the discussion.
  4. Address the idea, not the person expressing it.
  5. Be specific about what you’re referring to rather than generalizing someone’s intentions or meaning.
  6. Refrain from being sarcastic or facetious. A comment in a text discussion is much more likely to be misinterpreted than the same comment in a face-to-face discussion.
  7. Frame your criticism in the form of a question
  8. Make meaningful contributions. It’s not sufficient to merely agree or disagree with someone. (That is, this isn’t like social media.) Instead, advance the discussion with questions, connections, or evidence. Look beyond the obvious.
  9. Challenge your fellow students to take their thinking a step further; introduce a new element to the discussion or pose a provocative question.
  10. Share knowledge: Refer to your experience as well as strategies, tools, resources to help others learn more.

Dunlap, J. Down-and-dirty Guidelines for Effective Discussions in Online Courses. Retrieved from