How to use asynchronous discussion forums in your course

Asynchronous Discussion Forums enhance learning as students share their ideas, perspectives, and experiences with the class. Students develop and refine their thoughts through the writing process, and broaden their classmates’ understanding of the course content. Students can participate in a conversation with an entire class or in groups. Discussions can also be created as an assignment for grading purposes (it is seamlessly integrated with the Canvas Gradebook), or simply serve as a forum for topical events.

Why is this important? 

Online discussions are a great way to establish social interaction amongst peers, instructors, and TAs in an online course. It allows for an ongoing dialogue while allowing the flexibility of not having to respond right away (although it may be good to include a due date depending on your activity). Online discussions also offer an opportunity for students to engage more deeply with the content in a (usually) low-stakes way.

There are a variety of ways that online discussions can help in a fully online, blended or traditional face-to-face course. A large amount of online learning can be accomplished through the Discussion Forums. Discussion Forums offer opportunities in creating meaningful interactions between students and instructors or among students while allowing flexibility as to when students post and reply.

Discussion Activities – Broad Uses

Community-building boards

Online discussions can be a great way to help build a learning community or communities among your students. Social learning is key for many students to learn and excel in a course. You can encourage social learning and building learning communities by giving the students space to interact, even if it is not directly related to the course.

Tip: Allow students to take some ownership or autonomy in a discussion space. It is a good way to encourage them to take responsibilities over their educational experience while building meaningful relationships with instructors and students.

Group discussion forums 

Setting up individual discussion spaces based on groups is an effective way to build learning communities and spark interaction whether in a blended or fully online course. Breaking students into smaller groups encourages student interactions as smaller groups. You can use group discussion boards either as supplementary discussion or as the main venue for discussion and engagement in your course.

Tip: Set clear guidelines and expectations about student participation within the group discussion boards. You can allow each group to decide their own way of interaction within the group online discussion or you can assign different roles to the members of each group (e.g., facilitator, note-taker, reporter, etc.) so that all the group participants can make contributions to their own group work in a meaningful way.

Visible assignments 

Online discussion forums are a great way to have students contribute and view more formal writing or thinking assignments. Having students post their assignments to a discussion forum allows other students to see, interact with others students’ assignments, and provide feedback.

Tip: Be clear about your goals of using the discussion forums. Give students clear expectations about requirements, deadlines, and grading procedures.

Supplementary forums 

You can use online discussions to supplement in-class discussions. For students who are reluctant to speak in class or want to focus the content outside of classroom hours, the supplementary board provides another venue to engage with the instructor and other students about course content. Unlike class discussions, online discussions allow time for in-depth reflection and research. Integrating online discussions with face-to-face class time allows the instructor to reinforce key points and encourage engagement with a topic beyond the classroom.

Tip: Make sure to incorporate insight from the online discussion back into the classroom either by bringing up questions/or issues students raised or by incorporating materials from the discussion into your lecture. If you make connections between the online discussions and your in-class activities, students will see the value of the online discussions in enriching their learning.

Discussion Activities – Specific Examples

Question and Answer Discussions: Asking questions of your students, or having them ask questions in an online discussion forum where the whole class can view and respond to them is the most common use of online discussion forums. Students can ask questions about certain topics for the instructor and/or their peers to respond to. Instructors can also ask questions for students to respond directly. This works best for questions that do not have a single answer and can have many viewpoints. Note: it is also possible to set a discussion forum up such that students cannot see each other’s responses until they first post their own response. This helps encourage original thought in initial responses.

Debates: Engage the students in a debate. Debates stimulate critical thinking and can be a highly effective way to actively engage students in research in the online discussions. In this scenario, selecting challenging and debatable topics is important. Suitably developed debates support students’ interaction, critical thinking, and reflection skills, and help students to develop their own points of view regarding a topic or course of study. Here are tips for creating debate moots and teams:

  • Tip 1: Avoid hot-button topics that could prejudice gender, race, religion or ethnicity. You can assign students to pre-read interesting articles that are relevant to the course content.
  • Tip 2: Word the topic as an interesting affirmative statement that is related to the course content (e.g., The government of Canada should abandon the Transmountain Pipeline).
  • Tip 3: Pre-select debate teams by including different student types (e.g., introverts/extroverts or high-performing/low-performing students) as much as possible. Students are assigned to particular viewpoints of a topic and then do some research to form and support their arguments.
  • Tip 4: Discussion Forums allow students to have their own private group discussions. This can be used for debate preparation.

Case study: Students can collaboratively work on a case or other common problem to come up with a solution. You can assign students a case dealing with concepts, tools, and techniques that are addressed throughout the course. Cases are used to learn how to analyze real-world information and make decisions as a manager. Students are supposed to assume the role of the decision maker in the case, apply the course concepts to analyze the information provided, make a decision, and explain why their decisions are the best course of action. Here are the tips to conduct a case using the Discussion Forums:

  • Tip 1: Share a case with your students and ask them some questions about the background of the case in the open discussion forum. Students can get a chance to be familiar with the case and learn from one another through the open discussions before conducting in-depth analysis and making decisions.
  • Tip 2: Students can conduct their case study in their own private group discussions and report their case study to all classmates in the open discussion forum.

Polling: For group projects or peer-reviewed activities, students reply to and like others’ posts. This can be used to fuel student engagement. This idea is useful for large enrollment courses and courses using case study as it is easy to fuel student engagement.

Interview: There are some challenges in scheduling a common time and place to carry out an individual interview. The asynchronous nature of Discussion Forums allows participants to take part in interviews anytime and anywhere.

Simulation: For group and individual activity, you can post problems or exercises that require students to respond to the questions. If you want to assess the individual or group answers but everyone can learn from one another, it will be useful to use the“Post First” feature that requires students to post first before seeing other peers’ posts.

Facilitating Effective Online Discussions

It is important for instructors to know how to facilitate meaningful discussion that engages students actively and promotes a healthy online community. When you consider using the Discussion Forums in your course, there are three key considerations (plans for management, engagement, assessment).

First, do you have a discussion board management plan? Establish ground rules for participation in a discussion (e.g., post quality vs quantity, guidelines for constructive conversation, instructor’s presence, etc.).

Second, what are your strategies that will encourage/motivate students to actively engage in the discussions. There are various ways to motivate and engage students to participate in the discussion forums. Common questions or prompts are grounded in the course content and course materials (e.g., textbook, reading, etc.). The most important thing to consider when creating discussion questions and prompts is to use the questions and prompts as a means of encouraging students to explore course topics at a deeper level. The goal of increasing participation is not to have every student participate in the same way or at the same rate. Instead, it is to create an environment in which all participants have opportunities to learn and in which the class explores issues and ideas in depth from different viewpoints.

Third, are you going to assess student participation done in the Discussion Forums? Grading student participation in the Discussion Forums can be an effective way to promote and encourage meaningful discussion. Deciding whether or not to grade online discussions will depend on the desired learning outcomes of your course.

More information on conducting effective online discussions can be found here:

Assessing Online Discussions

Online discussions can have no association with grade. But if you consider assessing student participation in the discussion forums, here are the options (you can choose one or combine the options).

  • Instructor assessment: Instructor assessment is probably the most commonly used assessment. Assess the quality as well as the quantity of the students’ online posts. Using rubrics will allow students to have a clear guideline of your expectations for the quality of their posts. Also rubrics will help you to be more consistent in your grading. Rubrics can also be used for self or peer-evaluation of discussions.
  • Self assessment: Encourage students to think about their own learning and participation, and to reflect on areas of strengths and weaknesses.
  • Peer assessment: Students should feel encouraged by the constructive nature of their peers’ reviews and feedback. Encourage students to be actively involved in providing feedback to their peers.


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