Canvas Spotlight

Fostering Student Engagement Through Discussion

Last updated on July 8, 2024

Sitting alone in a quiet room can help improve your productivity and learning. It is easier to concentrate and compose your thoughts without distraction or interruption; a book or article is easier to comprehend when it’s the only stimulus available. However, this setting also means that you have only your prior knowledge at hand. Your perspective is the only lens you have to interpret your material. Without discussion with others, it may be more difficult to deeply evaluate and improve your own understanding.

Secluded, solitary learning is unfortunately all too common in online education. When separated by distance and connected only with wires and radio signals, students lose so much of the value that their classmates could potentially offer. Creating that natural interaction between the student, their peers, and their instructor becomes a challenge for the educator to solve. 

Unfortunately, when seeking solutions, it can be easy to implement the simplest options uncritically and produce interactions that only infrequently enhance student learning. To create meaningful discussions that are substantive rather than performative, online tools need to be implemented thoughtfully.

You can imagine a discussion in your class like a tennis match. As the ball travels back and forth across the court, the players change its direction, momentum, and destination, and over time create a full set and match. In the same way, your students are prompted to evaluate and adjust their own thinking when exposed to the input of others. Without this interaction, the student experience becomes more like hitting the ball against the wall; the singular focus and limited variables will help develop a narrower skill set. That concept may be appropriate for certain learning activities, but the feedback and interaction with their peers will produce better results with multiple interpretations and perspectives.

As an instructor, you play the role of the tennis coach. You train your students and through that training, they develop the skills they need to win games. However, if you never let the student play against any other, they won’t have the experience they need to be a full participant in a real match. 

In this spotlight, we’ll look at the value of discussion in an online course, some tips for creating effective discussions, and some tools available to you to facilitate them.

Best Practices

How do Discussions differ from Assignments?

  • Discussions and assignments are conceptually different experiences for the student and are separate systems in Canvas. An assignment should be thought of as work that a student or group of students produce for your evaluation. Discussions occur amongst students, as well as you the instructor, and you can make contributions to enhance the value of the discussion.
  • When evaluating whether an assignment or discussion is more appropriate, ask yourself “what is the purpose of the activity?”. If there is a specific end product that you will evaluate, like answers to a set of questions, that would be more appropriate as an assignment. On the other hand, if the activity is truly focused on fostering an exchange of ideas between students, and/or you, that would be a discussion. There is no predefined goal for a discussion beyond the participation in the activity.
  • As an example, if you were to ask your students to reflect on the week’s reading and answer several questions regarding it, that would be an assignment. You might use the Discussions tool in Canvas to allow for peer feedback, but that does not change the fundamental nature of the activity. For a true discussion, you should instead provide more open-ended prompts to start the conversation and then evaluate students based on their participation in the discussion rather than specific criteria set out beforehand.

What makes a discussion effective?

  • Discussions should most often be formative assessments of the students’ understanding, not summative. The most meaningful parts of a discussion are the feedback they receive from others and the reflection the learner makes on the different ideas they’ve encountered. If the students’ attainment of learning objectives is evaluated at this stage, the greatest value of the discussion may have been lost. Allow students to use the discussion to develop and expand on their understanding, test incorrect ideas and mistakes, and then assess that understanding in a proper assessment.
  • Discussions are different from writing prompts. For example, some discussions provide a specific set of questions or topics for students to respond to, often with criteria for grading. This rigid framework is a poor environment for a discussion, which should be allowed to flow naturally. A real discussion should provide a topic and some direction, but students should be empowered to engage with the discussion freely and influence its course. 
  • The instructor’s presence in a discussion is critical. You should be an active participant in any class discussion as your expertise and insight is vital to moderation. This means interjecting during the conversation when doing so would be beneficial to the course of the discussion. You can ask students to elaborate more completely on a particular idea, introduce a different perspective that might otherwise be missed, or gently redirect the discussion away from irrelevant or unproductive areas. The frequency you need to respond depends on the overall ability of the students to develop to discussion on there own.
  • Imagine yourself as the students’ coach as they practice. You can use your expertise and insight to deepen the conversation with probing questions, clarify misunderstandings, and summarize the contributions made by students. Your role is to keep the conversation moving in a productive direction, just as a coach focuses their players’ attention on improving their performance.

What tools can I use to create discussions?

  • The Discussions tool in Canvas is a great tool to use for certain kinds of discussion. Students can leave threaded replies, which allow them to build on each other’s ideas. The built-in Speedgrader tool can make grading student contributions quick and easy. At the same time, the discussion can fragment between many different posts. The top-down nature of the tool, with a large area for a prompt for the instructor and everything else a reply to that prompt, more easily enables rigid, prescribed responses.
  • Microsoft Teams is not only a virtual meetings platform. The chat function in Teams can be used to create discussions with the entire class or smaller groups. These discussions are more freeform since they function much like any messaging app. Very long or complex discussions may be difficult for a student to easily jump into if they have to read through many responses. Since Teams doesn’t interact with the Canvas Gradebook, you will need to review the entire discussion for evaluation. This makes it an option better suited for discussions that are graded only on participation, or not graded at all.
  • Hypothesis is a tool that enables collaborative annotation of a document, website, video, or JSTOR article. Students can see all the class’s or group’s annotations and respond to them in text. This tool is unique as it provides learner-to-learner and learner-to-content interaction in the same activity, with students receiving input from others as they learn. Hypothesis uses the SpeedGrader in Canvas just like the standard Discussions tool.

How can I choose the right format for my discussion?

  • Carefully consider your discussion goals. Do you want long, thought-out responses for students or a greater number of shorter responses? Long responses mean students might reflect more deeply on a specific idea, but shorter, more frequent responses mean the discussion can be nimble and flexible, allowing for a greater volume of interaction. 
  • Align your tools to the desired outcome. Canvas’ Discussions tool serves the long-response concept well as it gives students a versatile content editor and allows you to grade the responses more thoroughly. Microsoft Teams is better suited to quicker responses with the chat-like format. If the discussion is focused on a specific piece of content, Hypothesis would add more value in blending the experience.
  • Consider how students will be evaluated. Natural discussions, including those in classrooms, often feature disproportionate levels of engagement between individuals, but that doesn’t mean the learning experience is any less valuable to those who speak less. Additionally, grading student responses critically will discourage them from responding naturally, as they will be more concerned with meeting your expectations than with the actual content of the discussion.

Let’s walk through it together

Creating opportunities for discussion in an online environment is not a challenge that should be approached halfheartedly. Defaulting to basic tools and traditional methods might not be successful in leveraging the unique insights and perspectives of your students. Consider what experience you want to create for your students, not only what knowledge or skills you want them to demonstrate. Interaction between all members of a class is a deeply enriching and rewarding experience and you might want to think carefully about how to maximize those opportunities.