New to online discussions? The Canvas Discussion tool allows students to participate in an online discussion forum in which they can post questions and answers asynchronously for a given period of time.  For example, sociology students may be asked to research a social phenomenon and make real-world observations. Students can then discuss their findings and understanding of the phenomenon with their classmates. The online forum gives students a chance to engage with the course content and uncover any questions or misunderstandings they may have. Students can also reflect on their own ideas and consider how other students interpret the material. Below are some comments from students who participated in online discussions.

I found the beginning of the semester very difficult to write reflections on the topic of the week; by around midterm I felt more comfortable and when I think back I really enjoyed the discussions and I  think I learned more through reflecting on the topics than by only reading the book and in the class small group discussions.

If I were to modify anything to this course I would want to have weekly reflections as requirement, not only a minimum of six. I think that even if they were a big effort in the beginning, we learned from each other and had a place to continue our discussions after class, especially when we had more ideas of how to apply a concept.

I found it annoying in the beginning to post responses to other postings, but as the semester progressed more interesting reflections and examples were posted, so I found myself replying to many more postings from peers. (Szabo & Schwartz, 2011, p. 88)    


Research has found that online discussions have many benefits in face-to-face classes. Below are 5 compelling reasons to start using the Canvas Discussion feature.

1. Develops Content Knowledge

Online discussions give students the opportunity to explore and reflect on course content before engaging with in-class activities. Discussions can also be used to activate students’ prior knowledge about new content before it is introduced in class. For example, before history students engage in their unit about Civil Rights, they might be assigned to read and discuss a thought-provoking article about a 1960s civil rights issue. Or students might be presented a real life problem that requires them to determine causes. For example, students may be given the prompt, “What is happening in the world today that relates to the Civil Rights Movement? Why is it happening? Students will be better prepared for lecture and discussion after they have engaged in the topic.

2. Builds Community and Student Engagement

It is important for students to interact with the course between classes. A lot can happen in students’ lives from week to week, and Canvas Discussions can help students stay focused on course concepts throughout the week. For example, discussion forums can be used to continue a conversation that began in class. Perhaps health science students engaged in a lively discussion during class about the importance of vaccines; continue the dialog throughout the week by posting follow-up questions in the discussion forum to keep the conversation going.

3. Develops Critical Thinking Skills

Online discussions should include questions that require higher order thinking skills to answer. For example, students may be asked to analyze and make a claim about a visual in an Art History class. This will require students to make connections to key concepts and explain their reasoning to an audience in writing. Students can then interact with each other and provide comments and feedback about their classmates’ analysis. To ensure each student provides an original response, Canvas Discussion settings can be adjusted to require students to post their response before seeing other students’ responses.

4. Assesses Student Learning

Online discussions are an effective way to assess how well students understand course content and which concepts will require more focus. For example, literature students may be asked to interpret a text through the lens of various theories. A review of student responses can reveal which theories students are struggling with the most, and the instructor can then provide more instruction on the more challenging theories.

5. Prepares Students for In-class Active Learning

Students can begin processing and engaging with new content before class, making face-to-face discussions richer and more reflective. Because students have already been exposed to important ideas, they are better prepared to understand key concepts and engage in active learning experiences. To encourage consistent student participation in online discussions, consider assigning points to discussion questions.

Want to know more about integrating online discussions into a face-to-face course? Contact one of our consultants to explore the possibilities.



Buckley, F. (2011). Online discussion forums. European Political Science: EPS, 10(3), 402-415.

Seethamraju, R. (2014). Effectiveness of using online discussion forum for case study analysis.
      Education Research International,doi:

Szabo, Z. & Schartz, J. (2011). Learning methods for teacher education: The use of online
       discussions to improve critical thinking. Technology, Pedagogy and Education 20(1), 79-94.