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The Discussions function in Canvas

Two-way communication with students and between students works well with Discussions. Discussion forums can be used for different purposes, everything from graded assignments to social interactions.

The text editor in Canvas (RCE)

Almost all functions in Canvas, except New Quizzes, use the same text editor. It is called Rich Content Editor, RCE for short. If you would like to know more about it you can read about the RCE on Canvas Community.  

Communal discussion forum

In Canvas, Discussions is the place where everyone in a course room, both students and teachers, can talk and discuss in an open forum. Everything that is written is visible for everyone. With discussion forums you can create a sense of community which can be hard to achieve in other parts of Canvas.

Restore course content

When changes in course content go wrong, courses accidently gets reset or course materials are deleted, there are ways to restore and undo changes in Canvas. You can do a lot yourself, but more complicated recoveries require the involvement of the IT support.

Read more about Restore and recover course content in Canvas .

Video tutorial on how to use Discussions

Canvas has a video that goes through how discussions are created and edited. Timestamps for the information are below the video, and there is a text version of the video (Google docs) .

Timestamps for information in the video

  • 00:10 - Find Discussions, search for or filter discussions
  • 00:30 - Manage settings for all discussions
  • 01:20 - Discussion overview, pinned, current and closed discussions
  • 02:05 - Manage settings for individual discussions
  • 02:20 - Icons on the overview
  • 02:55 - Create a new discussion, add content
  • 03:10 - Options for discussions
  • 03:35 - Group discussion, Graded discussion
  • 04:40 - The Details page for a discussion

Different purposes of discussion forums

In Canvas you can use Discussions in different ways depending on the purpose of the discussion. Below we explain a few of the most common purposes.

Structured discussions as graded assignments

Graded discussions can be used to let students discuss a topic according to the rules that you, as a teacher, has set for the discussion thread. You create a graded discussion by choosing the "Graded" option and then filling in the assignments settings that appear. The assignments settings are the number of points, type of assessment, assignment group, peer review and due date. Unlike a non-graded discussion, a graded discussion will appear in the students' To-do list.

When the students have finished the discussion, you can grade their contributions and they get points for the discussion as they would any other assignment.

To avoid students repeating the opinions of others instead of reflecting and thinking for themselves, you can check the box “Users must post before seeing replies” when creating a discussion. Students then have to state their own opinion before they can see what other students have written.

Increase communication and student collaboration in your course

Discussion forums are one of three tools to promote digital collaboration between students that is recommended by Stefan Hrastinski, professor at the division of digital learning at the Department of Learning, ITM. Read more about his research in social learning and how communication and collaboration  can be used as a pedagogical method.

Discussions to support learning

An effective and pedagogical way to work is to have the students learn from each other through discussions, even when the discussion is not a graded assignment.

There are many ways to build discussions to enable students to learn from other students. It is important to think about why you want your students to use the discussion forum: Is it to get other perspectives on certain assignments, or is it to ask questions regarding anything course related? We will go into detail on these two objectives below.

Assignment specific discussions

An easy way to motivate the students to start a discussion is by creating discussions on a specific assignment or question. This gives it a clear purpose, even though it is not a part of the grading. This however, requires more time from teachers than a student driven help forum does since assignments/questions need to be presented in a way that makes them easy to discuss. When the assignment has been submitted, the discussion’s comment section should be closed. 

An example of an assignment specific discussion could be that students are given an assignment where they shall read and analyse a text based on given questions, and they are encouraged to discuss the questions in the discussion forum. The students will then encounter different perspectives and opinions which can help them write a better analysis. 

You can let the students create their own discussion threads, but for assignment specific discussions it works well if you as a teacher create discussion threads for every assignment or question. This also signals to the students that you expect them to be active in the discussions. 

Student driven help forum

Students often ask their teacher when they have questions, many of which another student probably would be able to answer, but since they have your email, they ask you instead. If it is a common question this can lead to a lot of emails. If the question is asked in an open forum instead, it is enough to answer it only one time, which reduces your workload. If this forum is student driven, i.e. students answer each other's questions, it also increases interactivity between students.

In a student driven help forum you can let the students create their own discussion threads when they have questions they cannot answer. You can also create threads on specific topics (such as finding a study group, help with specific concepts, study tips, etc.) and ask the students to ask and answer questions in the comments.

Note! We strongly recommend that you are very clear with the students that admin questions, for example questions about when the exam is or how many points you need to pass, should only be answered by teachers. If they do not receive an answer, they should contact the responsible teacher via email. This is to avoid misinformation that could lead to students missing assignments etc.

Tips for better use of discussions

  • Skim through the threads once in a while, but only answer if it is a question that is directed to you or if the discussion does not seem to get any closer to an answer. Nothing stops a student discussion faster than a teacher with the correct answer. 
  • Make participation obligatory even for non-graded discussions but with very easy requirements, for example write a question and try to help someone else. The hardest part is to get the students to start using the discussion forum.
  • Add discussions to the To-do list by making them graded discussions worth 0 points or just grade them as "Complete/Incomplete".
  • Show that the discussions are a part of the course, for example by referring to answers in a discussion when someone asks you a question or by bringing up an interesting perspective from a discussion.
  • In bigger courses it can get cumbersome to have all students in one discussion. You can choose “This is a group discussion” to divide the students into smaller discussion groups. The groups will only be able to see their own discussion when they open up the discussion.
  • If you are combining the different types of discussions that have been named here, it is important to give them appropriate names and pin important discussions, as well as closing discussions when they are no longer used.

The teacher is always responsible for the discussion environment

Even if a discussion forum is not used as a graded assignment, you as a teacher still need to keep an eye on the discussion environment so that the discussion does not get “out of control” and to put a stop to any harassments etc. at an early stage, preferably even before they start. It can also be a good idea to remind students that the code of conduct applies to the discussion forum as well. 

Canvas gives you as a teacher tools to help moderate discussions, for example by locking the comment section of certain discussion threads. Watch the video below on how to use Discussions in Canvas.

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Last changed: Nov 19, 2021