Canvas,  Educational Technology,  Instructional Strategies,  Remote Teaching

Creating Discussions in Canvas to Support Student Learning

By Roberta Campbell-Chudoba

The technical creation of a discussion in Canvas is relatively straightforward and intuitive. What requires deeper initial consideration is how using the discussion tool will support student learning. Here, we look at the necessary planning for setting up purposeful discussions, then the post that follows, we’ll go through the technical aspects of discussion set-up. This is the first post of four in a series on using the Discussions tool in Canvas.

Why use discussions?

Substantial research over the past 20 years indicates discussion forums can be places where high quality discussions take place, to rival the quality of in-class discussions and include contributions from all students.

As online discussions are asynchronous, they allow time for thought and a variety of response types, and are archived for later reference. Other benefits include:

  • If the discussion seems relevant to students and they expect to learn and contribute, they are more likely to engage in substantive exchanges, providing opportunities for them to learn and to build knowledge together.
  • Forums give instructors opportunity to interact with students, model approaches and thinking, gather evidence of learning, and give feedback.
  • When designed as a part of formative assessment, discussions can increase involvement in learning, encourage metacognitive growth and increase the sense of community while providing feedback to improve teaching and learning (Hailu et al., 2017).
  • Students who may not be comfortable speaking up in synchronous discussions or in a face-to-face setting may contribute more readily in an asynchronous format. For those who like some time to think over the topic, asynchronous discussions afford them the opportunity to do so.

What is the discussion’s purpose?

Different purposes require different types of discussions, although many types of learning and experiences can happen across forum types.

  • Community building and social interaction – initial introductions, cyber-café forums where students can share resources, ask and answer questions, get feedback on drafts/ideas
  • Addressing learning outcome(s) through the activity and skills required, such as:
    • Improving comprehension
    • Building arguments
    • Constructing knowledge
    • Critical thinking – analysis, evaluation, reflection
  • For more on aligning learning outcomes, instructional approach, and assessments, see the blog series, All Aligned.

How do I organize discussions into groups?

Consider group size and make-up to provide the best situation for quality discussion, large enough to have ideas generated and small enough to allow everyone to contribute while not generating an overwhelming number of posts. With large classes, aim for smaller group sizes of 15 or less, with an instructor or TA responsible for each group if possible. In larger classes with only one instructor, it is more practical to allow for larger groups with the instructor moving between each group, perhaps with less participation in each discussion.

  • In Canvas, group creation is done in the People tab, explained succinctly in this short video
    • Options include manual group creation, randomized creation generated by the LMS, or self-selection of group membership.
    • If you or the LMS are assigning group leaders, what will be the leaders’ role or task(s)?

When naming groups: be specific about the group type and include your course name; specific names are quicker for students to recognize from their Groups tab, as illustrated below, with the second group name (credit to Ryan Banow of GMCTL for this tip).

To explore additional ideas about discussions, see Setting Up Discussions, Managing and Facilitating Discussions and Grading Discussions in Canvas.

Other resources

Boettcher, J. (2019 April). Four types of discussion forums in online courses. Designing for Learning. Retrieved from

Grogan, G. (2005). The design of online discussions to achieve good learning results. Retrieved from

Hailu, M., Pan, J., Mackey, J., & Arend, B. (2017). Turning good intentions into good teaching: Five common principles for culturally responsive pedagogy. In Garcia-Perez, G. M. & Roja-Primus, C. (Eds.) Promoting intercultural communication competencies in higher education. (p. 20-53). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

North Online Learning. (n.d.). How to prepare and moderate discussions for online learning. Retrieved from