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Community Participant

Need: Robust discussion with multiple threads/topics per week with grading across topics, not per topic

I am converting courses to Canvas and cannot seem to figure out how to make things happen the way that I need them to happen in the discussion. My sense it that it will require substantial workarounds for tasks like grading (things that take 2 clicks in Blackboard), but perhaps someone else has figured this out already.

My classes (to help explain what I'm trying to do): I teach online graduate level classes. They are highly interactive. In a typical week, I propose 4-7 discussion topics (each as a thread in the forum), and my students will often add a few more of their own. They do not have to answer each of my prompts, which are merely discussion starters, nor do they have to participate in each thread. I encourage my adult learners to self-regulate and participate in the discussion in the ways that are most meaningful and relevant to their own learning processes. I have minimum discussion posting requirements, but my students tend to far exceed these requirements. Our robust learning discussions may get threaded 10 levels deep at points, with students changing the message subject lines to provide meaningful cues to the direction the discussion is taking. I grade my students via the Blackboard grading tool, which allows me to see all of a student's contributions for the week at a glance.

I understand that forums are not possible in Canvas, that each thread must become its own separate discussion. This makes grading overall participation in a given week a potentially cumbersome process (I do not want to engage in point-per-post grading and my students are not required to participate in each topic). I also understand that we cannot modify the subject lines within a discussion. It appears to me that the Canvas discussion tool is really designed for courses that use discussion tools to support instructor-centered message posting (e.g., all students must write a mini-essay in response to my discussion question) over truly discursive, social constructivist learning experiences such as one would expect in a graduate-level seminar. I feel like I'm trying to do something the tool just isn't set up to do.

The only workarounds to achieve my goals that I can see right now involve:

  • Give up altogether on the ability to have subject lines changed to reflect the direction the discussion is taking
  • Set up a discussion for each topic I would like to propose each week, using titles like "Week 1: Exploration of epistemological orientations" and "Week 1: Debunking the learning styles myth" to cue my students to the correct week and give a sense of the topic to be found within.
  • Link these discussions in to the weekly module so they can be found easily.
  • Set the discussions to be ungraded.
  • Give up on having students start their own discussion topics (if not linked in to the weekly module how would they be found by anyone?)
  • Create a new assignment with no submission so I have a space to enter the grades for discussion participation. Hide that assignment from the assignment list to avoid student confusion. 
  • For grading: Use a spreadsheet (so, do it the old school/offline method) to track participation across the 4-7 topics each week to ensure that each student has participated at the minimum required level and in the manner that meets my basic parameters (across the body of messages for the week, I expect them to be responsive to the readings, responsive to peers, posting across multiple days in a discursive manner, etc.)
  • Enter the grades and feedback into the dummy assignment so students can access them.

Beyond this, all I can think of is to seek a third party discussion tool. That said, if anyone has dealt with this issue and solved this problem, I would truly love and appreciate your input! Locally I've just been told that what I want to do cannot be done.

74 Replies
Community Champion

If you made each discussion worth a certain number of points and they had to get a total of x points over the semester, couldn't you grade each one separately?  If they didn't post in that one, they wouldn't get points for that one.   Creating an assignment category for your discussions would group them together and they could see the total points they have earned in discussions.  You could also Pin the current discussions to the top area of discussions and then un-pin or close them as you are done.  

Also make sure you check Allow Threaded Replies.  

Community Coach
Community Coach

vanessa, Welcome to the Canvas Community! Unfortunately I don't have a solution for you, but I've shared your post with the Instructional Designers‌, Higher Education‌, and Canvas Admins‌ groups in the Community so maybe they can help with ideas or recommended workarounds.

In addition, I did a search and found a few resources related to this topic:

I'm not sure if these will help or not, but I thought it I'd go ahead and provide them just in case!

Community Team
Community Team

Hi Vanessa,

I noticed that you created your community user profile today.  Welcome!  We are glad to have you here and will try to help you in any way that we can.  

My first thought was to do as Kona already has and share your question with the group.  I think I will also make a post in the group about your question on the theory that many people who have made the switch from #blackboard‌ to Canvas may have worked through similar issues or helped professors faced with the same issue.  Hopefully someone in one or both of those groups will have good advice for you about using discussion forums in Canvas.

Community Champion

Hi vanessa!  Your courses sound like a lot of fun, so I wanted to comment here with an idea that might be kind of out of left field but which might suit your self-regulating /constructivist approach: in my classes, students are blogging and commenting on each other's blogs, so I don't actually use the Canvas discussion boards and of course there is no integration with the grading tools (you can see our blog hubs here if you are curious: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics)... so, what I have done as a result is to let the students enter their own points in the Gradebook using "Declarations" which are actually just true-false quizzes that provide a simple checklist for each assignment. When the student answers "true" to the checklist, the points go automatically into the Gradebook. I've been using this Declarations-based approach for over 10 years (in Blackboard, in D2L and now in Canvas!), and it has lots of advantages, including some advantages that the students appreciate like being in control of their grade and never having to wait to see where they stand in the course overall. Here's a post where I explain about how that works:

Points-Based Grading: Student Gradebook Declarations 

I don't know just what you are looking at as you grade, but if there's any way for you to turn that process over to the students, that might be a good fit with the rest of your course as you've described it. All the grading in my class works this way which means I can spend all my time on FEEDBACK, while letting the students be in charge of their grades.

And if you are interested in third-party tools, I cannot say enough good things about blogging! So, for example, you could have each student do a reflective post each week where they report on their favorite takeaways from the discussion for example, and that could give each student a sense of personal continuity from week to week and a culminating collection of posts at the end of the semester to look back on. That's one of the things I like best about blogging: discussions can be fun and powerful while they last, but they belong to everybody/nobody and they don't really enjoy the re-use that a blog can offer. A blog post would be such a nice way to a discussion board recap / reflection by each student, and I am guessing you would learn a lot by seeing what they choose to focus on in such posts.

Anyway, it's just a thought, and I am glad you are participating in the Community here. It sounds like you are doing some great stuff in your classes that we could all learn from! 🙂

Community Participant

Thank you for your reply, Teri.

Unfortunately, this doesn't quite fit what I'm trying to do. I do not want to grade discussion topics separately. I do not engage in point-for-post style teaching, nor do I require my students to participate in every discussion topic.  I will not allow a underdeveloped tool to change my approach to teaching and learning.

Community Participant

Thank you for your reply and all of these resources, Kona. Looks like others have the same needs I do, but that Canvas is not up to providing a solution for us. It seems such a pity to me that I (and all of you) need to invest all of this time and effort investigating third party apps and workarounds and discussing these items here when our institutions are paying so much for a tool/service -- especially when the desired feature(s) are standard in other systems and have been for years. 

Community Participant

Thank you so much for your reply, Scott. I sincerely hope someone has a solution.

All I've heard so far is "can't be done" and -- from Canvas people no less -- that wanting these features is poor pedagogy and not learner-centered. Given that I've spent the last 20 years of my life teaching and researching online pedagogy from a social constructivist perspective, hearing that people who represent the tool itself don't want to help but rather believe that what I want to do is poor pedagogy and not learner-centered doesn't exactly leave me with a million warm fuzzy feelings about converting to Canvas. All I can do is laugh at the ignorance, try not to cry too hard at the thought that my institution has adopted this LMS, and do my best to try to find a way to continue to support positive learning experiences for my students even when the available tools make my job harder.

Community Champion

laurakgibbs‌, does anyone ever rank themselves poorly on your declaration quizzes? Do you talk with students who rate themselves way too highly in your estimation? Just curious! Smiley Happy 

vanessa‌, there are a few good ways to proceed here.

 As you suggested, you can make a separate discussion for each topic in a week. The next step is to link all of the discussions /topics for that week into a Canvas page. Place the page into the appropriate module. This way, you create an index of the week's topics within the module.

As you say, you can have students create their own discussions, and this is an excellent strategy for your audience. Ask the students to turn on notifications via text or email for discussions, and the students will receive a notification each time one of their peers starts a discussion. Additionally, if you do not hide the discussion item from the course menu, then a discussion notification icon occurs on the course card when a new discussion gets created. The students will find the discussions without issue.

In your situation, I would likely allow students to start discussions and set up a volunteer rotation to have a few students sign up each week to start discussions by writing prompts and moderating the discussion topics for that week.

For grading, I would create one assignment for discussions with no submission. When you are ready to count up the posts for students, use the instructions from  @James ‌ that show How to Count Student Discussion Posts and grade based on the number of posts while also reading and responding in the various discussion topics to spot anyone who is struggling. If it were me, I would run a discussion post count periodically to see anyone who was not participating or participating substantially less than other students.

It will also help us help you if we know your subject area. What are your students discussing? For instance, if you are discussing readings or documents, you might try some social annotation assignments using an external tool like Perusal or If you are interested, try taking a look at my post on using Perusall:‌.

Is any of that useful? Please let me know, Vanessa. Smiley Happy 

Community Participant

Thank you for your reply, Laura. Looks like some fun stuff that you're doing with your classes -- myth-folklore must be such an interesting area to teach. What field are you approaching it from? My husband is a historian (intellectual/cultural) who studies myth and religious thought.

Yes, blogging is a great tool for certain kinds of pedagogy, and a tool that I've made extensive use of in some of my classes over the last 10 years. It's not quite what I want in this instance. I'll still have students blogging in some classes, just as I always have. I use blogs when I want students to have a platform for developing their own voices and publishing on a topic and then leading discussions on that topic. However, in some of my online classes what I'm trying to do is engage my students in an actual discussion with great depth -- think of the kind of discussion you might have with 10-12 people sitting around a seminar table, then put it online with 20-24 students split into 2 different discussion groups to keep things manageable for them.

I'm not comfortable turning the grading process over to my students for the discussion. I can see how it would work in some contexts, but it's not a great match for my classes. I spend most of my grading time providing feedback rather than proving a numerical score. While my students can check off the mechanical components -- they wrote x posts, posted on 3+ days, etc. -- they cannot sufficiently assess the quality of their contributions, the degree to which they've engaged with the readings (for some that is initially a difficult concept to grasp). I don't want to award full points for meeting the mechanical requirements, and (having used self-reports in another participation grading context -- still do use them, in fact, with my own correction on top of the student self-assessments) I've found that students who do poorly tend to over-estimate their contributions whereas my super-performers are often overly critical and likely to downgrade themselves. Fortunately, it's not so difficult for me to do the grading within a day or two of the discussion week ending given the size of my classes.