Effective Discussions and Directions in Online Spaces

By Tina Stavropoulos, Janelle Arafiles, and Stefanie Tate

As we enter our “new normal” with increasing online and hybrid offerings, many of us are rethinking how we interact with students and how we set up our courses. For many, pre-Covid teaching was exclusively done in the face-to-face format, but now all of us have experience with online courses and many more of us will have increasing experience in hybrid courses. This benefits our students who have always needed some level of flexibility, and now our focus as instructors needs to be on providing the best instruction possible in the online space. Being transparent and clear with students while setting clear deadlines (with a little wiggle room) and expectations is essential as we work with our students to support their success. While we can chat about peer reviews and other assignments during our meeting, our overview in this blog will focus primarily on the discussion board assignments and announcements. 

Two key questions will inform this blog post and our subsequent discussion later this month:  

  • How do you clarify your expectations and assess the work in discussion boards (and other online assignments)?   
  • What is your role in discussion board assignments and Canvas as a whole?  

Regular, effective, and substantive interaction 

For engagement to be regular, effective, and substantive, our backwards course design must be intentional. In Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments, Kevin Kelly and Todd Zakrajsek suggest having a consistent announcement schedule.  “On Mondays, send students a ‘What’s Due & What’s New’ message… On Wednesdays, send students a ‘Midweek Motivation’ note to share ideas from early student posts, to remind students to spread out online coursework, to provide encouragement, and to share real-world examples. On Fridays, send a ‘Weekend Update’ announcement” (138). Tina tends to send announcements randomly and organically during a given week, but the suggestions they make are very sound and can help with organizing instruction time. Tina also creates one or two lecture videos at the beginning of a weekly module and sends an announcement to remind students of missing posts and so on, but these suggestions are going into her checklist for next semester. Janelle pre-plans Monday announcements that remind students of upcoming readings, essays, threaded discussions, etc. and signs off with an encouraging note and humanizing meme. After receiving Dr. Sell’s weekly memo on Thursday, she sends a more real-time announcement to: inform students about upcoming events and opportunities regarding the college, praises or encouragements, and gentle reminders if an important due date is coming up.  (The occasional study music recommendation sneaks in there, too.)  

In addition to these foundational, initial weekly announcements, interactions with your students online through discussion boards in online and hybrid courses is essential. Just like you would not let one student monopolize in-person instruction, the same applies online. Making sure that you track who you respond to so that you are interacting with all students throughout the semester is vital and can help address any blind spots. In Tina’s English courses, for example, she replies to all students the first two weeks and then tries to reply to random posts. A suggestion that was made in various texts was to print the class roster and write a checkmark when interacting or highlighting a student response. For Tina’s courses, attendance is tracked through participation in discussion boards, and this is included in the weekly objectives page at the start of each weekly module. Janelle leads and actively responds to every post in the first week for introductions. After that point, she guides and intervenes in threaded discussions as issues or questions arise by checking in daily. Personal praises and encouragements are added to each graded post to motivate gradual changes and enhance the depth of future discussions with each thread. The suggestions offered by Kelly and Zakrajsek are great: “Create a list or spreadsheet to track how many times you reply to each student over the entire length of your class. Make sure that students have a similar number of replies by the end of the semester… This technique will also help you identify and reach out to students who are not engaging in discussions. In your syllabus, tell your students how you intend to be more equitable… and how often they can expect a direct reply from you” (144). Holding yourself responsible is a necessary pressure and will make Early Alert notifications even more effective. Additionally, consider adding a “How I Will Contact You” portion to your Instructor Page. By letting students know the mediums we use, how often, and why we will contact them creates mutual accountability and assures them that they are not alone in the online space.  

The weekly objectives page is another moment where one can announce and clarify expectations and directions for a weekly module. Using Bloom’s taxonomy for learning objectives, you can also ensure your weekly assignments are essential for meeting the SLOs and Course Objectives from the COR. By adding this page on the “to-do” list on Canvas on Mondays and hyperlinking (bold) all the pages and assignments, students can figure out when homework is due and set up their weekly schedule. Using the Design Tools can also elevate the look of your Canvas pages. 

Peer-to-Peer Engagement  

Discussion boards are an element of peer-to-peer interaction which we hope to examine and refine. We look forward to hearing how your courses are proceeding and what is and is not working. A few key considerations: the size of the group, how groups will hear from each other, and whether students can see posts from their peers before posting their own response.  

We usually break students up into small groups for discussion boards so that they can engage more effectively and not be inundated with 30 posts. Groups of five tend to be ideal, but you can also use your own observations of student work to create slightly larger groups. The flip side is when a group is not engaged, so keeping track of who does and does not post consistently is essential for mixing students up just like we would in face-to-face classes. More disciplined and organized students will be spread out amongst the groups. If a student has been inconsistent with posting, you obviously hope and encourage the best, but you can add one more student to that group, for example. This also applies if you know a student will be late with a post because of personal information they have conveyed to you. Without letting the others know, you can speak with the student and let them know if there will be a penalty on their post and so on. Tina happily reopens the discussion board if a necessity arises. Janelle, on the other hand, leaves the threaded discussions (and most assignments) unlocked so the deadline is listed, but it does not prevent them from submitting. This choice should reflect your late policy and the flexibility therein. In Janelle’s case, the late policy requests that students submit within one week after the due date, but late work is better than no work. The compassionate, weekly check-in Canvas messages hold them accountable and let them know she cares. In turn, students feel safe to reach out, catch up, and finish strong. In addition to providing a wrap-up and overview post or video, Tina sometimes asks students to complete their own group discussions early in the week and then post a group response in a shared class discussion board later in the week so that everyone can have a sense of what is being discussed just like one might do when students share out in a class discussion. The results vary, with hybrid courses having a better response than fully online courses. Another strategy Tina uses in hybrid courses is asking students to post the first part of the discussion board assignment before class, adding notes based on verbal discussion in class, and then continuing the discussion online through the week.  

Discussion boards also give less vocal students a low-pressure space to participate in online and hybrid courses and support one another in the learning process. Formulating clear reply guidelines and possibly providing sentence starters or questions for students to answer can help reduce any confusion about expectations around engagement.  An interesting suggestion comes from Aloni and Harrington. While many of us ask students to address the person they are responding to and provide some guidance about replies, “results of a study conducted by Eryilmaz et al. (2015) showed that when students were required to highlight, increase the font size, and select the levels of importance of key points made by their peers in an online discussion board, they spent more time negotiating the meaning of the information compared with an instructor-led or a control group who did not utilize these functions” (Aloni and Harrington 272). Including these guidelines in the “reply” requirements can help students think deeply about their interaction with their peers and can potentially motivate the receiver of the feedback since someone is engaging meaningfully with their response. 

In Janelle’s experience, some students feel too nervous to post without being able to see other student posts because they might doubt their comprehension of the material. To meet this need, she allows students to see other posts before posting. If you choose to click the “Users must post before seeing replies,” you can reinforce their confidence and connection with peers by creating a “Student Lounge” threaded discussion and pin it to the top of the discussion tab. Once you’ve established Discussion Guidelines, the Student Lounge can be a safe space for student interaction. They can informally check comprehension of material, form study groups, share ideas, post resources, share memes, etc. As the instructor, you can monitor from time to time (and specifically tell them so), but the beauty of this discussion is that online students come to see one another as reliable community members. 

Feedback from the Instructor 

Providing diverse activities with clear expectations motivates students. At the same time, being a warm demander means knowing your students and using that to support them. “Getting to know your students will take effort, but it will create an environment that fosters both academic rigor and real engagement” (142). In addition to setting up discussions for peer-to-peer engagement, another area to consider is instructor interaction with posts during a given week. It is a balancing act; “too much intervention by the instructor can interfere with students’ knowledge building” (Aloni and Harrington 274). Not responding at all can also make a student feel like the instructor is uninterested in their ideas and that makes them feel disconnected and devalued. As we attempt to integrate more cogenerative practices by letting students construct the learning journey, we need to balance the frequency of interaction and guidance in a manner that stokes growth but does not hinder or neglect.  

Creating interesting discussion board assignments is the first step and will yield diverse responses that will encourage other students and the instructor to read and engage with the material. If we have a rote assignment and do not see the value of a post, the same will apply to students. Thomas Keith’s article “Spark Effective Discussions with Canvas Discussion Boards” succinctly provides a list of ways we can make discussions and assignments more interesting by including action verbs, what-if prompts, role-play prompts, and multimedia prompts. This year, Janelle integrated Bloom’s Taxonomy (action verbs galore) by introducing objectives with explicit action verbs that clearly relay how learning will be expressed. During the next term, Janelle will be constructing more interesting prompts to provide meaningful engagement. What-if prompts could prove especially valuable when approaching social justice issues and readings. For example, when discussing “Letter from Birmingham Jail” we could make part of that prompt “What if Martin Luther King didn’t take a leadership role the Civil Rights Movement? What if the unheard had gone unseen?” Role-playing could prove more challenging, but instilling a new level of empathy is possible through argumentative prompts written from the perspective of those in need of change. Multimedia prompts are a work in progress for Janelle, but still pictures, avatars, and Canvas studio integrations have been a gradual success. Students love sharing what makes their heart happy. The more they feel connected to the community and confident in the atmosphere of compassion and safety, the more likely they are to share and challenge their skillsets with new tools. Starting with pictures and gently moving up to brief recordings reinforces active student roles in the online space where they feel seen and valued.  

Once we create those interesting assignments, we need to consider how we respond to the work. This also means figuring out your response to posts that are not quite on track in a way that does not stifle participation. “The instructor can regulate the conversation by pointing out themes, highlighting accurate and important posts, correcting inaccuracies and proving a meaningful summary of the conversation” (282). That attention to our own behavior is often overlooked, but it provides yet one more moment of interaction where our behavior can make a student feel either seen and valued or can reaffirm negative stereotypes and triggers from past experiences. Often, we rely on the deficits in the performance, but thinking with a positive approach would create a safer, more collaborative space. “Feedforward simply asks the learner to reflect on what he could do better the next time… For example, rather than saying ‘I liked the examples, but wish there had been more of them,’ the teacher might say, ‘I really think your use of examples brings the ideas to life. How could you include more?’” (Tokuhama-Espinosa 15). Another tool is using appreciative inquiry language and teaching students to use the same model with each other. “Appreciative inquiry is based upon the act of appreciation and the premise of inquiry… From a developmental viewpoint, appreciation refers to acknowledging the value that a person holds, and inquiry denotes a process of exploration as a means of enhancing the learning process… there is combined purpose of uniting the two processes as a means of creating a shared vision or images about the future” (Johnson 8). Using the 4D cycle of discovery, dream, design, and destiny creates a vision for success. “The goal of an appreciative andragogy 4D cycle is to enhance the development of the instructor’s relationship with their students,” but it can also be taught and used by students in discussion boards and peer reviews. Beginning with student hopes and prior experiences with a course in the discovery phase and then imagining what the future will look like sets up the dream stage. The dream phase might simply be finishing the course, but some students will have additional goals. In the design phase, resources and strategies are shared and the destiny phase involves using the resources.  

Another possible approach to extending the discussion prompt (and peer reviews) is Jennifer Stewart-Mitchell’s 3CQ model: compliment, connect, comment, and question.  

  • Compliment. To acknowledge the contributions of others, Stewart-Mitchell encourages learners to start by praising a specific aspect of the post. A template might direct learners to begin their post with the phrase, “I like that your post…” 
  • Connect. This step is also about building community and connection. It’s about relating, on a person level, with what the person said. For example, the learner might write, “I had the same thing happen to me when…” or “I read a similar story in X which…” 
  • Comment. The next step adds to what was said in the post by providing a response to it. It may be a statement of agreement or disagreement. The response may begin with, “What I would add to your post is that…” or “I might come to a different conclusion because…” 
  • Question. The last step is about keeping the conversation going by asking a specific question about the topic under discussion. Ways to state this is to write, “I wonder why…” or “What effect might X have on…” 

While this approach does not provide an initial post guide, it does work as an effective response template for those who are new to the online platform or need a little more direction on how to connect with their peers.  

Grading & Assessment  

Clear, consistent grading or rubrics are another essential element of online assignments, including discussion boards. Having clear and consistent due dates can help students organize their time. Tina asks students to post their response to an activity on Wednesday by 11:00 p.m. and reply to a certain number of peers in their small groups by Sunday at 11:00 p.m.. Janelle utilizes a similar timeline as it allows students plenty of time to read the material, formulate an initial response, and continue to contribute through the last half of the week. This set of due dates is followed most weeks except when a larger piece of text is due and there might be a switch to Friday/Sunday due dates; Tina also explains to students what the penalty will be (if any) for posting their response late and lets them know that a weekly discussion board closes by 11:59 p.m. Tina does not use a rubric (although she will), but she lets them know the number of points available for the response and replies. Janelle has adopted the @ONE course suggestion for points/grading clarity by providing a section below the instructions for information on grading and a 4-point rubric with specific terminology that details the expectations for each score.  

Screenshot of a rubric on Canvas, with criteria in left-most column (initial post, replies to peers) and Ratings and points breakdown in columns 2-4.
Janelle’s work-in-progress rubric for threaded discussions

In addition to point or grading rubrics, frontloading the purpose of the discussion can help students see the pedagogical purpose.  “Several studies have shown that students do not participate when they are confused about the instructor’s expectations of them or do not understand the purpose and value of the discussion. Using the TILT framework can help here. By outlining the purpose, task, and criteria, students have a clear, accessible goal. 

Utilizing DE Resources

Admittedly, incorporating these ideas into your Canvas courses in a practical way can feel challenging and time-consuming. Here’s some good news: you don’t have to do it alone! RCCD Distance Education has Course Developers who can assist you in building new course content, effective discussions, substantive announcements, descriptive rubrics, and much more. Following your directions, they can even build content in Canvas for you, freeing up your time to focus on instruction and feedback. To get Course Developer assistance, you can book a 1:1 appointment that works for your schedule or attend an Ask It! Drop-insession during College Hour, Monday-Thursday, from 12:50-1:50 pm.

What’s more: District DE has pre-built, visually appealing templates to kickstart your content building in Canvas. These DesignPLUS templates are structured to align with the OEI Course Design Rubric and feature many of the strong practices highlighted in the blog post—styled and ready for you to customize. Visit DE’s OEI Course Design Rubric Workshop Series to watch short, step-by-step “Build It!” tutorials for using each template in Canvas.

We look forward to hearing how you set up your online course and the successes and struggles you have on Friday, November 18. We hope we can go into Fall Break with a renewed sense of excitement as we start wrapping up Fall 2022!

Works Cited

Aloni, Maya, and Christine Harrington. “Research Based Practices for Improving the Effectiveness of Asynchronous Online Discussion Boards.” Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, vol. 4, no. 2, Dec. 2018, pp. 271- 289. EBSCOHost, http://dx.doi.org.rcc.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/stl0000121.  Accessed 28 Oct. 2022. 

John, Bruce. “Transformation of Online Teaching Practices through Implementation of Appreciative Inquiry.” Online Learning, vol. 18, no. 3, Oct. 2014, pp. 1- 21. ERIC, https://rcc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1043165&site=ehost-live. Accessed 1 Nov. 2022.

Keith, Thomas. “Spark Effective Discussions with Canvas Discussion Boards.” Courses at UChicago, https://courses.uchicago.edu/2019/11/22/spark-effective-discussions-with-canvas-discussion-boards/.   Accessed 1 Nov. 2022.

Kelly, Kevin and Todd Zakrajsek. Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments. Stylus, 2021.

Mcdaniel, Rhett. “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University, 10 June 1970, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/.   Accessed 1 Nov. 2022.

Prud’homme-Généreux, Annie. “21 Ways to Structure an Online Discussion, Part Three: Faculty Focus.” Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning, 26 Apr. 2021, https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-engagement/21-ways-to-structure-an-online-discussion-part-three/.  Accessed 1 Nov. 2022.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, Tracey. Bringing the Neuroscience of Learning to Online Teaching. Teachers College Press, 2021.

Additional Resources

Help With Canvas: A Thread

Questions about using Canvas? Post in the comments below! And if you’re reading can answer someone else’s question, please don’t hesitate to respond!

Handouts for Students

Articles About Teaching Online

Some Tools for Online Teaching

  • Screencast-o-matic – create short (15min or less) videos to help deliver content to your students. You can record yourself or your computer screen. Creating an account and storing videos is free.
  • Here’s is also a helpful tutorial video on the basics of Screencast-o-matic.
  • ConferZoom – conferencing tool that allows you to meet with students online or hold synchronous sessions online if needed. You can share your screen to host live sessions or do 1-1 meetings. Creating an account is free (with your district email address). Students can join via computers with video and audio or audio only with their phones.


If you’re doing tutorial videos and screen-casting they’ll need to be captioned! If you’re scanning PDF files, then the files will need to be optimized for screen-readers as well. Resources on both below.

Scanned PDF documents are not accessible until you convert them for optical character recognition.  This conversion can be done using Adobe Acrobat Pro, which all faculty have access to. Using Adobe Acrobat Pro for accessible documents