1. Align with the Course Outcomes/Objective(s)

First, verify that the discussion will help students achieve the course outcomes/objective (s). For example, if a weekly objective involves writing a paper: the discussion might provide opportunities for students to share their writing and obtain feedback. Aligning discussions to the outcomes/objective(s) is consistent with Quality Matters Alignment Standards 3.1 and 5.1.

2. Encourage Critical Thinking

Interaction and collaboration with others and with the course content through discussions can promote higher levels of thinking and engagement. The Community of Inquiry model illustrates the goal of education as helping students develop critical thinking (cognitive presence) which is necessary for success. Critical thinking allows students to make sense of a large amount of information available to them and use it to generate knowledge. Strategies to encourage critical thinking are using Socratic Questioning / Socratic Teaching through Critical Thinking Standards and use verbs from the higher cognitive levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Encouraging students to analyze, evaluate and create (synthesize and apply content) helps them develop critical thinking skills.

Ask questions that allow for more than one correct answer to avoid repetitive student responses and to provide opportunities for discussion. Some student-centered discussion ideas are to have students contribute the content, including a student-led Q&A,  use "chain-linked" discussions and allow students to facilitate a discussion.

There is an option within most learning management systems that prevent students from viewing what others post until after they post their own response. However, there's also a way for students to get around that feature: students can post, see what others are posting, then delete their own post and revise/repost. So, instructors may want to change course settings so that students cannot delete their own posts.

3. Provide Example Discussion Responses or Response Choices

At the beginning of a course, provide students with examples of good and bad discussion responses, or provide students with a choice of response options to select from, such as:

  • asking a question
  • elaborating on one of the points
  • providing a different perspective
  • suggesting an improvement  
  • providing examples of the topic from their personal lives or from work or volunteer positions

If using case study scenarios, requiring students to post an initial response to one study but reply to another helps to ensure that they discuss both scenarios.

4. Add Rubric Criteria

Attach an online rubric to provide discussion criteria that encourages critical thinking and focuses the students on the weekly objective(s). Focus on the content of the initial post and content of the responses rather than quantitative measures, such as a number of posts or word count to keep the focus on the learning objective(s). Some rubric ideas to focus student responses on the weekly objectives. Rubrics are not visible to students, so be sure to provide them with information about locating discussion rubrics. Some instructors also choose to place a screenshot of the online rubric within the discussion text.

5. Ask Students to Reflect on their Learning 

The Discussions tool in LMS can also be used for students to post reflections rather than submit them as individual assignments. Using the Discussions tool for reflections allows students to view and learn from the reflections of others and encourages them to respond to each other, even though they are not required to respond.

6. Provide Nongraded Discussions

Allow students to work together, share work before and after it is assessed, and provide feedback to each other without worrying about a grade: brainstorming, ideas, goals, drafts, research, critiques, final projects, papers or presentations.

Instead of jumping directly from learning to assessment with no opportunities to practice: nongraded discussions provide students with practice and feedback before submitting work for a grade.

7. Include Small Group Discussions

Break up student discussions into small groups using groups. In a class of 20 students, for example, 4 groups of 5 students will promote deeper thought and reflection about just 4 posts from peers. It also encourages a sense of community when students get to know each other within smaller groups.

8. Ask Students to Share their Research, Final Assignments, and Presentations

Ask students to share research about the weekly course topic(s) by posting and discussing internet or library resources, descriptions, comparisons, and current events. Students sharing academic research located within the online school library encourages the use of the school's library and use of academic references. Also, have students share their final assignments and presentations to allow students to learn from each other. 

9. Provide Synchronous Discussion Opportunities

Use synchronous discussions to allow students to learn from each other. Example: Students sharing their presentations within a live discussion. 

  • The web conferencing services such as Zoom allow sharing documents, presentations, and desktops.

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Comer, Debra & A. Lenaghan, Janet. (2013). Enhancing Discussions in the Asynchronous Online Classroom The Lack of Face-to-Face Interaction Does Not Lessen the Lesson. Journal of Management Education. 37. 261-294. 10.1177/1052562912442384.

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (April 1997). Foundation For Critical Thinking, Retrieved from

Penny, L. and Murphy, E. (2009), Rubrics for designing and evaluating online asynchronous discussions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40: 804–820. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2008.00895.x

Standards from the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, 5th Edition. Quality Matters. Retrieved from

Yang, Y.C., Newby, T.J., & Bill, R.L. (2005). Using Socratic questioning to promote critical thinking skills through asynchronous discussion forums in distance learning environments. American Journal Of Distance Education, 19(3), 163-181. doi:10.1207/s15389286ajde1903_4

Additional Online Discussion Resources

Deep Discussions in Canvas Course Groups - Arlington ISD

Online Discussions - Cornell University

Rethinking Canvas Online Discussions - Keene State College

Student-Centered Discussion Ideas - Public Domain Canvas Course, Alamo Colleges

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