Canvas @ Yale

Implementing Online Discussions

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Contemporary discussions of education increasingly emphasize the social nature of learning (Palincsar and Herrenkohl 2002), which focuses on interactions or discussions among students, or among students and instructors. A discussion provides a means for students to exchange opinions, share multiple perspectives, and clarify various thoughts (Dunlap, 2005). Some scholars have identified student discussion as being one of the activities that students find most beneficial to their learning (Ertmer et al 2007; Richardson and Swan 2003).

Effective online discussion questions promote the course purpose while demonstrating achievement of learning objectives (Caulfield, 2011). Questions that concentrate on concepts, principles and skill development, can maintain student interest and create a sense of community in the course (Berge, 2008). Effective online discussion questions ideally are content based, open ended, and designed to reveal student understanding as they provoke critical analysis (Baker, 2011). For example, critical analytical skills may be honed through student scrutiny and critique of demonstrations (Lynam, 2009) and posted case studies. Observation reveals that engaging questions permit discussants to weave in their own experiences. This often transitions discussions into “communities of practice” where knowledge among discussants is shared and enlarged (Rau, 2009).

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Discussion Tools Available to Yale Faculty

Below are discussion tools which are available to the Yale community and help guides to assist with the use of these tools. 


CoursePress is a WordPress platform offered by the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning that is integrated into Canvas. It is for students and faculty who need a flexible, online platform to help them with their academic work. Instructors can use CoursePress to create a blog-like discussion space where there can be one site for the entire course to develop blog posts or each student can receive their own site to design and create individual blogs which other students can then respond to.

To request a CoursePress site for your course please fill out this form.


VoiceThread is a collaborative, multimedia slide show that holds images, documents, and videos, which allows people to navigate slides and leave asynchronous media comments on the slides in a number of formats:

  1. Voice Only Comment (recorded with a computer microphone in VoiceThread, with a telephone, or as a file upload).
  2. Video Comment (recorded with a webcam in VoiceThread or as a file upload).
  3. Text Only Comment (written directly in VoiceThread).

This tool can be used for back and forth discussion rather than just adding comments for the instructor to view.

Discussion Examples and Recommendations

  • Design a threaded discussion to share and iterate upon ideas shared by each student in the course.
    • Debate pros and cons of a single issue or multiple issues.
    • Ask multiple questions of a single discussion leader.
    • Facilitate group discussions around multiple topics.
    • Facilitate discussions around a single discussion.
    • Explore at length the feasibility of different solutions to a complex problem.
    • Organize results from a complex research activity where the students can reflect on the results.
  • Create a focused discussion question to answer a single question.
    • Share resources among peers.
    • Collect results from a simple research activity.
    • Correct misconceptions.
    • Share insights about a single reading.
  • Ask leading questions prior to class time in order to enhance the in-class discussion by allowing students to begin discussing the topic. 
  • Provide students with a "Water Cooler" discussion forum which would be a student-led forum where students would be able to use to ask each other questions and build a sense of community. 
  • Utilize threaded discussions for students to provide peer feedback on assignments prior to submission.


Berge, Z. L. (2008). Changing instructor’s roles in virtual worlds. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 9(4), 407-414.

Caulfield, J. (2011). How to Design and Teach a Hybrid Course. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Dunlap, J. C. (2005). Workload reduction in online courses: Getting some shuteye. Performance and Improvement, 44(5), pp 18-25.

Ertmer, P., A., Richardson, J. C., Belland, B., Camin, D., Connolly, P., Coulthard, G., Lei, K. and Mong, C (2007). Using peer feedback to enhance the quality of student online postings: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 12(2).

Lynam, L. (2009). Course-specific online demonstrations add layer of richness to instruction. Business Education Innovation Journal, 3(1), 16-21.

Palincsar, A. S. and Herrenkohl, L. R. (2002). Designing collaborative learning contexts. Theory into Practice, 41(1), 26-32.

Rau, H. E. (2009). Online discussion and communities of practice. Business Education Innovation Journal, 1(2), 92-96.

Richardson, J. C. and Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(1), 68-88.

For more help, please contact [email protected].

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