Increase Engagement and Critical Thinking with Canvas Discussion Boards

use of canvas discussion boards beyond the online setting

July 25, 2022
By: Patricia Baia, Ph.D., Touro University Law Center

I turn to Educational Psychology when thinking about technology adoption. This is the branch of psychology that deals with scientific study of human behavior in educational situations. It is with this lens that I write this blog and remind you that it is important to recognize that discussion boards are NOT just for online courses. They are valuable in a variety of classroom settings to:

•      Tap into the emotions of your students (cognitive resources become focused when our emotions are hooked)
•      Understand that a little bit of performance can go a long way (enthusiasm is contagious)
•      Embrace an atmosphere of community (help students feel welcome and valued)
•      Harness the power of storytelling/writing (helps learners understand and remember)

Discussion Boards create an opportunity and sets the stage for active learning. You can use them at the beginning and/or throughout a course to develop critical thinking skills relevant to the subject. It is important to give students various and repetitive opportunities to write/think/be social. Discussions can be created with your entire class or by groups, plus the format can be focused or threaded. Focused only allows for two levels of nesting, the original post and subsequent replies and are relatively short-lived interactions. Threaded posts are for multiple related or unrelated questions. A good discussion prompt is vital for meaningful discussions! Use action verbs to clary articulate response expectations such as “Locate…” “Describe…” or “Contrast…” These clearcut tasks encourage students to engage actively with the material and focus their answers. Use What-if prompts explore a hypothetical situation and lateral thinking for example, “What if the case was not tried in New York, but rather California? How would the law/rules change? Create role-play prompts so students can immerse themselves in the role, character, or debate from his/her perspective. This creates an active learning and speaks to gaming theory. Finally, consider using media prompts such as video and images so students can engage, react, or illustrate a point.

Video (in general) reduces a student’s feeling of isolation and increases social presence more than traditional text. Consider using video in discussion boards for first day/week introductions to create a unique connection and bond with the professor/class and increases student engagement. Additionally, video in discussion boards for introductions creates community presence and student commitment. Think of Community of Inquiry Theory.  Google THAT!!

Metacognitive discussions are my favorite and extremely valuable to promote critical thinking and long-term learning. Students need to think about their thinking and reflect on their own learning. Any professor and subject can do this and should be.  Start here first if you are just getting started with discussion boards.  For example, after reading, I did not realize…, What were the most important concepts to you? Explain why? and What are two possible exam questions?

In the spirit of being practical, here is a simple list of what you can use discussion boards for in Legal Education.
•      Introductions

•      Problem Sets/Cases

•      Reading quizzes

•      Accountability/individualize

•      Check understanding

•      Depth and Breadth

•      Peer Reviews

•      Group work

•      Metacognition/reflection*

•      Research

•      Promote Writing

•      Critical thinking/thought provoking responses

•      Q & A

•      Communication

Pay close attention to the graded or ungraded settings in discussion boards. When discussions are marked as graded, the Canvas SpeedGrader™ isolates each student’s comments from the thread and combines them into one easily readable view for grading. This is a very cool feature. Use zero points if you don’t want to give points, but still want to use the SpeedGrader feature. Settings also give faculty control on overdue and delay dates, subscriptions to be notified of replies, file embed options, adding course content directly from your canvas course (add a quiz from canvas to a discussion board post), discussion pinning, marking posts as read and unread, requiring students to reply to a discussion before viewing other replies, and closing threads to comments, to name a few.

I can go on and on. However, I will conclude this Blog giving you a taste of the workshop I offered to law faculty by providing you these final tips:
1.     Create clear and transparent discussion board directions for students and post them in your syllabus, then again in the discussion prompt.
2.     Use a canvas rubric to set student expectations and to grade in SpeedGrader.
3.     Focus on Faculty Presence!! You must be front and center! Check it daily and respond often.