Online Teaching and Learning

30 Asynchronous Discussions

Jennifer Smith

The best teaching practices are generally those that help students to grapple with concepts to develop their own understanding. Discussion between students has an added social benefit. Participating in a learning community can spark greater interest and enthusiasm for course topics and activities.

Online Discussions | Preparation | What is a Good Prompt? | Good Practices | Logistics | Challenges | References

Online Discussions

student group discussionOnline discussions provide a different type of discussion-style experience than a face-to-face classroom.

  • Students have time to think about the topic before responding
  • In order to receive credit, all students must contribute
  • A student who thinks of another idea after posting can share the new thought
  • Participation can occur on the student’s own schedule

The Revamping Discussions for Online workshop (1:17:16) covers the features of a good discussion prompt, how to get your students to write thoughtful responses, and how to provide feedback in a time-efficient manner. This article from EducauseReview shares “10 Tips for Effective Online Discussions.”

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Students may be new to online discussions as a means to promote learning. They may even be anxious and afraid of looking foolish or stupid. It is a good idea to lay some groundwork before discussion assignments.

  • How will this discussion help students to learn the material?
  • Why do students need to learn this?
  • How will you help them?
  • Providing credit for the activity demonstrates that you believe it has value

Ground Rules

Provide netiquette guidelines and expectations for discussion participation.

  • Identify the rules you think are needed
    • Polite and friendly
    • No profanity or shouting (all caps)
    • No personal or grade issues should be addressed in online discussions
  • Remind students that the goal is to build a learning community that cares and helps each other
  • Invite students to contribute to the ground rules
    • Groups generate lists of good/bad practices
    • Synthesize to reach their top 5 (use the “like” feature for rough voting)
    • Groups put their top 5 into a full class discussion and vote
  • Remind students of the ground rules periodically

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What is a Good Prompt?

The more intriguing and interesting your discussion prompt is, the better your engagement and responses will be. Aloni and Harrington (2018) describe the following features of a good prompt:

  • Promotes critical thinking skills
  • Has more than one answer
    • Open-ended
    • Higher cognitive level (Bloom’s Taxonomy)
    • Requires students to apply previous knowledge
  • Invites exploration
  • Expectations for participation are clear
  • Promotes divergent thinking
  • Interesting or thought-provoking
  • Provides a task
  • Forges a personal connection with the material
  • Does not “waste students’ time”

Things to avoid:

  • Too vague (especially at the beginning of the semester)
  • Questions with a definitive answer
  • Asking for opinions, unless substantiated with evidence

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Good Practices

  • Divide students into groups.
    • 5 – 10 students per group generally works best.
    • Canvas will do this automatically.
    • You must manually add students who add the course afterwards.
  • .Create an assignment asking them to set their notifications
    • They should subscribe to an FAQ or course questions DB.
  • Use the “likes” for rudimentary voting.
  • Suggest that students use keywords to facilitate search.
  • Provide a worksheet to guide understanding of readings.
  • Provide a model of a good post and explain the elements.
  • Use the “require post before view” setting.
  • Let students do the talking if possible.
  • Show that you are “listening.”
    • Refer to discussion comments in announcements and/or lectures.
    • Share out insightful comments via FAQ or course questions DB.
    • Provide a “well done!” affirmation (compliment the post, not the person as per Carol Dweck’s grown mindset research.)


  • Ask everyone to post a photo (including you and your TA!)
    • Does this disadvantage some students?
    • Suggest that students be “true to themselves.”
    • If students are uncomfortable posting a picture of themselves, ask them to create an avatar or choose a picture that represents them (such as a pet or hobby).
  • Keep posts conversational and informal.
    • Formal academic writing can kill energy.
    • Encourage good grammar and effective communication.
  • Guide students to keep their posts short and to the point.
  • Recommend that students include media and/or links to pertinent resources.


Assign students to take the roles of different stakeholders involved in an issue. This can help students engage more deeply with the topic as well as to gain a different perspective. Roles that mirror those in your discipline can be useful as well. Typical roles include:

  • Fact checker
  • Explorer
  • Facilitator
  • Scribe or reporter
  • Can students “act out” a scenario?
    • Provide a “rehearsal room” discussion board for them to plan.
    • Provide the “performance” discussion board for the scenario.
    • A third discussion board can be the after performance “talk-back.”

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  • Create 2 deadlines (for a typical initial post + follow-up).
  • Create the first deadline as a 0 points assignment in the Assignments tool.
    • Be sure to let students know that the grading and points for the initial post will be included in the discussion.
    • Be clear as to the deadline for the initial post.
  • The second deadline should be set in the actual discussion forum within the Discussions tool.
    • Don’t be afraid to remind students of the upcoming deadlines.
    • Use the Multi-Tool to set multiple announcements as well as deadlines.
    • You can also set deadlines in the assignments tool within Canvas.
    • See details on the Multi-Tool in the Canvas – Advanced section of this guide
  • You can flip the location of the deadlines for the initial post + follow-up (with the first deadline being in the discussion rather than the assignments tool).


  • Rubric or checklist
    • Try to reuse the same one or two rubrics for all of the discussions
    • This helps students understand your expectations
  • In large enrollment classes, assign a rotating “summarizer” role
    • This student will synthesize the discussion and submit it to a Canvas Assignment
    • Then you can grade the work of each group
  • Peer review and self-review can contribute to grades as well as develop evaluation skills
    • The Peer Review tool in Canvas can be a bit tricky to set up
    • Request help from an Instructional Designer

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  •  Inflammatory comments  – can this be a teachable moment?
    • Talk with students individually
    • Remind students of the ground rules they identified in the discussion instructions
  • Academic Integrity
    • Provide clear guidelines on plagiarism
    • Explain how sources should be cited
    • Recommend students link to references rather than copy them
    • Demonstrate good citation practices in your own work
  • Quiet Students
    • Online discussions are usually good for these students
    • Students may be hesitant to comment if English is their second language or if they don’t feel confident in their writing
  • Be mindful of how writing “sounds”
    • Short messages might seem terse and unfriendly
    • Use humor with caution (avoid sarcasm)
  • Be aware of pronouns
    • Avoid using phrases like “Hey guys”
    • At the beginning of the semester, take the time to ask students for preferred pronouns

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UF Instructor Guide Copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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