Utilizing the Canvas Discussion Tool

Utilizing the Canvas Discussion Tool

By Karen Swanson, Director of Faculty Learning Groups and Scholarship

Several years ago, I co-taught large classes of 65 to 100 students. The program was hybrid and designed for students to both come to class and work asynchronously to meet the course requirements. We chose to implement Canvas discussions in the online portion. Students were divided into groups of five and asked to post once a week (30 minutes) and respond to their peers once each week (30 minutes). This activity was assigned for eight-week sessions.

The number of posts to grade was staggering. Let me do the math, 65 students x 1 post + 1 responsive post x 8 weeks, that equals 1,040 posts to grade! As you can imagine we quickly sought out ways to support the assessment of discussion threads.

Discussions as Class Time Rather than Homework

Discussions happen spontaneously in a face-to-face (F2F) class session. When discussions are moved to an asynchronous, offline space, it is important to remember that it can continue to count this work as class time. A discussion post generally consists of 250 words that are constructed around a faculty-designed prompt. This should take students approximately 30 minutes to write, edit and post.

When students are assigned to respond to their peers, this requires time for students to read through the thread, construct a response, and upload. This should be considered 60 minutes of class time. If students are asked to respond twice to their peers, this increases the time investment to 120 minutes. For more on what counts as class time, see this earlier blog: Ways to Meet the Instructional Time in an Online Format. ​

In my own experience as a faculty member, we chose not to participate in the Canvas discussions. My voice is imbued with power and if we participated, students might be less likely to freely explore a topic with their peers. However, you will need to find what works best for your own style, discipline, and teaching goals. Being involved with discussions is a way that you can cultivate the faculty and student interaction that sets online learning apart from correspondence. For more about student-faculty interactions, see our previous blog, Structuring Your Time in an Online Course.

Discussion Criteria

To tackle the complicated issue of assessing discussion responses, we started by creating a set of criteria to increase the quality of the posts and to be explicit in our expectation. We also implemented a reflective, self-assessment and group-assessment activity to support students’ awareness of their performance early in the assignment (week 3) and allowed time for them to meet the assignment criteria.

To raise the quality of those posts we developed six criteria:

  1. As noted, students were divided into small groups of five so that discussions could be more manageable and personal. We required that student posts included engaging questions which lead to continued dialogue among the five participants.
  2. We required that student posts demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of assigned readings.
  3. Responses needed to be supported with examples from personal and professional experiences (praxis) and not limited to “I agree” or “great idea”.
  4. Students were advised that their posts should offer different perspectives for the group to consider and encouraged dialogue within the discussion group.
  5. Participation was timely and on a weekly schedule.
  6. We required that posts be well-written, incorporating proper grammar, spelling, and sentence structure.

When I look back, these six criteria seem obvious, but it took several iterations to articulate exactly what we wanted from students.


Once we identified the posting criteria, we needed to tackle the how to grade over 1,000 posts. The purpose of self-assessment was for students to review their posts to see holistically if they met each of the six criteria. The process of self-assessment required students to download or copy all of their posts and responses into a document which listed the six criteria. This was done as asynchronous class time. The students received points for doing the self-assessment, but it was designed to be formative.

Group Assessment

It was also important for the group of five students to reflect on how the discussion was going as a whole. In your current courses you could provide 30 minutes during a Zoom class and use breakout rooms for students to talk F2F. This provides students an opportunity to create some discussion norms. Here are some that I have encountered in the past are posts that:

    • ramble and are too long.
    • do not add to the conversation.
    • are done too late in the week for others to have time to comment on them.

Students summarized the group discussion norms at the bottom of the self-assessment sheet. Pedagogically this would signal to the faculty member if a group was having difficulty and needs an intervention.

Final Assessment

The final assessment happened in week nine after the discussions were complete. The same process would be followed, asking students to provide evidence of meeting the six criteria and a group assessment of their work as a group. This is a summative assessment and would determine how many points each of the six categories was worth. You could also use the rubric feature in Canvas. You can find detailed instructions in the Canvas guide “How do I add a rubric to a graded discussion?”

Discussion and reflection are valuable tools for both undergraduates and graduates. It is important for students to see their contributions and articulate their new understandings. Through the use of self and group-assessments, you will be able to determine if the Canvas discussion assignment was the appropriate tool to meet the learning objectives you intended.

Points for Posts and Assessments 

Discussions are a pedagogically sound use of asynchronous class time. Discussions invite multiple perspectives and self-assessment gives reflective practice a purposeful structure. 

Discussion assignments count for 60 to 120 minutes of class time and student are producing written work. Therefore, points commensurate to this level of work should be assigned. This would include the readings, the original post, reading the other group members’ posts, and a response post.


Canvas Guide: What are discussions?

Canvas Guide: How do I grade a discussion in Speedgrader?

Canvas Guide: What are rubrics?

Kayler, M., & Weller, K. (2007). Pedagogy, Self-Assessment, and Online Discussion Groups. Educational Technology & Society, 10 (1), 136-147.