Best Practices for Discussions 

Community Champion

Information from this blog post was updated based on comments and is now a resource on OER Commons for anyone to use and Remix for their own institution: There is an LTI for OER Commons that integrates with Canvas that I've been trying out and hope blog about soon!

This list of 7 best practices for discussions is based on supporting faculty at our college and my experience as an online instructor at a university. Please let me know your thoughts and ideas!

1. Alignment with the Objective(s) 

First verify that the discussion will help students achieve the weekly learning objective(s). For example, if the weekly objective involves writing a paper: the discussion might provide opportunities for students to share their writing and obtain feedback. Aligning the discussion to the weekly learning objectives is consistent with Quality Matters Standard 3.1 The assessments measure the stated learning objectives or competencies.

2. Open-Ended Questions and Critical Thinking

Open-ended questions promote critical thinking and spur discussions that are more interesting and engaging for all. Strategies to encourage critical thinking are using Socratic Questioning / Socratic Teaching through Critical Thinking Standards and Bloom's Taxonomy.

A question that contains only one correct answer usually results in repetitive student responses. After one student answers correctly, his or her response may be paraphrased by the remaining students resulting in little opportunity for discussion. There is an option within Canvas Discussions that prevents students from viewing what others post until after.... However, there's also a way for students to get around that feature: students can post, see what others are posting, then delete their own post and revise/repost. So, instructors may want to change course settings so that students cannot delete their own posts.

3. Rubric Criteria

Attach an online rubric within Canvas to provide discussion criteria that encourages critical thinking and focuses the students on the weekly objective(s). Focus on the content of the initial post and content of the responses rather than quantitative measures, such as number of posts or word count to keep the focus on the learning objective(s). Some rubric ideas to focus student responses on the weekly objectives.

4. Reflections 

The Discussions tool in Canvas can also be used for students to post reflections rather than submit them as individual assignments. Students are able to view and learn from the reflections of others and are encouraged to respond to each other, but are not required to respond.

5. Nongraded Discussions

Allow students to work together, share work before and after it is assessed, and provide feedback to each other without worrying about a grade: brainstorming, ideas, drafts, research, critiques, final projects, papers or presentations.

Instead of jumping directly from learning to assessment with no opportunities to practice, nongraded discussions provide students with practice and feedback before submitting work for a grade.

6. Small Group Discussions

Break up student discussions into small groups using Canvas Groups. In a class of 20 students, for example, 4 groups of 5 students will promote deeper thought and reflection about just 4 posts from peers. It also encourages a sense of community when students get to know each other within smaller groups.

7. Sharing Research

Ask students to share research about the weekly course topic(s) by posting and discussing internet or library resources, descriptions, comparisons, and current events. Students sharing academic research located within the online school library encourages use of the school's library and use of academic references.

Current Goals 

1. Promoting Student-Centered Discussions

One goal is to locate student-centered discussion ideas to show instructors how students may assume the role of teachers/facilitators in an online classroom. Instructors of lecture-based courses that are redesigning for the online learning environment benefit from viewing examples that demonstrate the difference between facilitating on-ground vs face-to-face. Some great student-centered discussion ideas that were demonstrated in a CanvasLIVE event.

2. Including Synchronous Discussions

Another goal is to locate examples that show how instructors might use synchronous discussions to allow students to learn from each other. Example: Students sharing their presentations within a live discussion. Some synchronous features in Canvas:

  • The live Chat is very user-friendly, but can only contain text (no hyperlinks or multimedia). Unfortunately, the Chat only works within a course rather than across all courses. So, the Canvas Chat feature is not useful to instructors who would like to keep the Chat open while online but are teaching multiple courses. 
  • The Conferences feature works fine, but is a little clunky. For example, demonstrating something that is within a course requires opening the course in another browser window. Also, recordings are deleted after 14 days. 
  • Our college now provides instructors with access to Zoom, which we find much more user-friendly than Conferences. We are currently using it separate from Canvas, although I notice that there is an LTI that integrates Zoom with the Canvas calendar and course navigation menu. We have not yet tested out the Zoom LTI  to see if the issues mentioned by community members are resolved.


Comer, Debra & A. Lenaghan, Janet. (2013). Enhancing Discussions in the Asynchronous Online Classroom The Lack of Face-to-Face Interaction Does Not Lessen the Lesson. Journal of Management Education. 37. 261-294. 10.1177/1052562912442384.

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (April 1997). Foundation For Critical Thinking,

Retrieved from

Penny, L. and Murphy, E. (2009), Rubrics for designing and evaluating online asynchronous discussions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40: 804–820. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2008.00895.x

Standards from the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, 5th Edition. Quality Matters. Retrieved from

Yang, Y.C., Newby, T.J., & Bill, R.L. (2005). Using Socratic questioning to promote critical thinking skills through asynchronous discussion forums in distance learning environments. American Journal Of Distance Education, 19(3), 163-181. doi:10.1207/s15389286ajde1903_4