Online Discussions

Brief Description:

The online discussion is a familiar form of online writing for most students and instructors. Often, the instructor posts a question or prompt, and students respond either to the initial prompt, or to the posts of their classmates. The technologies available today offer many options for encouraging, organizing, and moderating online discussions. 

Possible Instructional Uses:
  • Whole class or small group discussion of class materials
  • Reading responses
  • Online debates
  • Brainstorming and prioritzing ideas
  • Online Q&A about class material and/or course logistics
  • Engaging in discussion with the wider community
  • Enabling students to collect, share and discuss relevant resources with each other
Some Available Platforms:
  • Piazza
  • Canvas Discussions
  • Canvas Chat
  • CTools Forums
  • CTools Chat

Tips for Using Online Discussion Tools


  • Define clear goals and objectives for the online discussion.
  • Organize the online conference clearly by category and topic ahead of time.
  • Provide detailed instructions for students, including student roles and responsibilities.
  • Establish rules for appropriate and inappropriate behaviors before starting discussions.
  • Require students to log in for a certain number of times each week.
  • Establish clear expectations and standards for assessing student performance in the online discussion.
  • Distinguish between two types of conferences: a) formal and b) informal ones.
  • Create an outline of different types of activities for the online conferencing/discussion.
  • Make online discussion/conferencing an integral part of the course. (Do not separate what is happening in the conference from what is happening in the face-to-face class meetings.)
  • Establish a clear starting and ending time for each discussion topic.
  • Direct students to technology training classes, online tutorials, and any other assistance when necessary.


  • Create a comfortable atmosphere for the online conferencing/discussion, for example:
  • Be an active participant.
  • Challenge the students without threatening them.
  • Use personal anecdotes when appropriate.
  • Bring your own experiences to the discussion.
  • Do not dominate a discussion or let a few students dominate it.
  • Ask questions at different levels (e.g., knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation).
  • Paraphrase a message if it is not clear.
  • Encourage active student participation.
  • Energize the online discussion if needed (e.g., using role-plays, simulations, pros and cons).
  • Bring closure to an online discussion (e.g., summarizing learning points).

Piazza is a tool with an inviting and intuitive design for online Q&A that can be used for effective online discussions. Students can post questions and answers; in addition, they can edit the questions and answers of other students - like a wiki - to improve or expand upon the work of others. Piazza allows instructors to mark a question or answer as "good" to encourage participation and give students confidence in the answers others have posted. There is also a follow-up discussion option within Piazza. For more resources on Piazza, click here

Canvas Discussions is well integrated with the other components of Canvas. Discussion entries can be graded, and the grades are directly linked to the Canvas Gradebook. The instructor can prevent students from seeing other entries until they have posted their own response, if desired. Students and instructors report that Canvas Discussions is easier to navigate than CTools Forums.

CTools Forums is well integrated with the other components of CTools. Forum entries can be graded, and the grades are directly linked to the CTools Gradebook, if it is being used. The instructor can prevent students from seeing other entries until they have posted their own response, if desired. Forums offers many useful features, but some students and instructors report that it seems difficult of inconveneint to navigate.

Canvas Chat and CTools Chat are a simple tool that simply allows members of a Canvas or CTools site to post comments, which are displayed in chronological order. This makes it convenient for quick exchanges between a small number of people, with the added benefit that it leaves a record of the conversation for others to see later. For example, it works well for online office hours.  However, it can become disorganized and difficult to read if many people are simultaneously posting questions and answers. 

Amy Gottfried, a professor of Chemistry, uses Piazza for her large lectures. See this page for more details.