Asynchronous Discussion Forums

In short

In online discussion forums instructors and students offer their ideas, pose questions and interact outside of class on a digital platform. Some forums require responses to a prompt while others operate as Q&A platforms. Interaction can take the form of video, audio, or text submission or collaborative annotation of text or video.

Goals: Why use Discussion Forums? 

  • To increase student motivation by encouraging active engagement beyond the classroom
  • To nurture connections and community amongst students
  • To provide a means for students to participate who may find face to face discussion challenging
  • To develop topics and questions before class meetings
  • To offer a space for quick and timely Q&As


Key Considerations

  • Consider your goals. Are you intending to increase engagement, create a sense of community or cultivate academic discourse? Are you hoping to have a place for students to respond to questions, or a Q&A platform for students to raise points of confusion? Clarifying your specific goals will help you to select a tool and a structure for discussions. 
  • Original posts or responses? Are you looking for original posts, uninfluenced by others’ views? Or are you hoping primarily for a conversation between students? In Canvas you can choose to have students submit a post before they see others’ posts.
  • Media-rich posting? Would it fit your goals for your students to post videos, images, or links, or to record audio or video clips to post rather than a written response? Often, this means linking to material beyond the purview of the course, or interpreting material in new or creative ways. Or is your goal to help them engage closely solely with the material under study? This will help you decide which platform might be a good fit.
  • Anonymous posting? Posting in groups or sections? Again, answering these questions will help you determine the best platform for your needs and establish guidelines for students.
  • Establish group norms. Research emphasizes the importance of creating safe and supportive environments for student discussions. Collaboratively establishing behavioral expectations with your students can lead to greater engagement.
  • Invite openness. Consider enabling anonymous posting in order to decrease student self-consciousness and promote discussion around sensitive topics. Anonymous posts might be especially useful in Q&A style discussions as they allow students to more freely ask questions.
  • What’s your role? It can be especially useful to model engagement early in the semester. Later you can intervene to keep posts on topic, or on drawing out comments and connecting posts. But, too much instructor engagement can be counterproductive.
  • Let students lead. Students might pose questions for one another, invite responses to provocative perspectives or ask for feedback on personal reflections.
  • Create clear prompts. Many students report feeling pressured by the public forum to craft their comments excessively. Clear structure and expectations are essential. If the discussion is low-stakes and primarily about engagement and inquiry, make sure to say this.
  • Stimulate debate and reflection. Use your forum to ask questions that you truly care about, and vary the discussion prompts to maintain student interest and motivation.
  • Give specific evaluation criteria. Learning goals can be formal (e.g. a rubric), or less formal (e.g. guidelines in your syllabus). We recommend that due dates match your discussion rationale.
  • Consider an annotation program. If your goal is to engage students closely with readings, consider using a collaborative annotation tool as an alternative discussion forum. 
  • Grading as participation. Assessing discussion posts as participation offers students a concrete way to contribute, and extends an opportunity for all students to be heard. However, there are also strong arguments against grading participation in courses.
  • Setting discussion as a major task. As posting in discussion forums can be time consuming and not proportionally rewarded by a participation grade, you might award a higher proportion of your class grade to discussions.
  • Ungraded discussions. To foster dynamic engagement remove the pressure of crafting posts by making the forum ungraded. Instead, establish the importance of participation in other ways, for instance by establishing it as a class norm and explaining its relevance to your learning goals.

Digital Tools:

A number of tools can be used for discussion in Canvas:

  • Canvas Discussions allows threaded replies in written, image, video, and audio form integrated with the Gradebook and Speedgrader.
  • Ed Discussion is often used as a Q&A platform, and includes anonymous posting and a wide range of media that can be shared (including image annotation and code)
  • VoiceThread allows students and instructors to create, share and comment on images, videos, and audio files.
  • Google docs a shared document can operate as a less structured discussion platform for offering suggestions or collaborating on a project.
  • Hypothesis is a collaborative, digital annotation tool, which allows students to add comments, notes, and highlights to the margins of a shared digital document.
  • Perusall allows instructors to gather reading materials for a course in one place students to read and annotate collectively.


Updated 8/22/21