Part 5: Spring 2017 Labs

71 Canvas Group Discussions with John Zumbrunnen — 04.21.2017

The April 21, 2017 Active Teaching Lab explored small group discussions in Canvas. John Zumbrunnen shared his experience and lessons learned from using these tools.


  • John shared how to let students know that he’s monitoring the online discussions, without it being too much work for him.
  • Learning Objectives are about skill-building (e.g. students learn to articulate and defend views) rather than content transfer.
  • Discussions are low stakes (15 weeks @3pts each; 45 pts of 200 total).
  • 10 groups of 5-6, randomly assigned at beginning of semester, in Group Set “Discussion Groups”.
  • First week introduction (and favorite historical figure or actor — easy, light, fun) gets students used to responding to each other.
  • He does “Structured discussions” — important to give them good prompts!! Earn up to 3 points. Most students get 3 points.
  • Uses a rubric, which makes Speedgrading very easy. He responds to one person per group per week at the end of the week (10 total) that pull together threads. He generally stays low-key in the discussions both to keep himself sane, and also to not dominate the discussions. He writes general rubrics that he reuses for all the discussions.
  • He allows students to see each other’s posts so they can learn from each other (more appropriate for thought out responses than for fact-based responses.
  • Discussion prompts with posted videos are great because students can continuously go back to videos as they respond.
  • In class he sometimes breaks them into their online groups to further build community/connections.
  • Used online discussion to have students crowdsource and refine a prompt for the final essay.
  • For some discussions he will assign roles in the Discussion (e.g. Plato, Machiavelli, Rousseau, etc.) and has each group collectively summarize on Padlet (to minimize grading and have them work on summarizing and synthesizing). Students sort out who will play which role.
  • View the session’s activity sheet for additional support materials

Active Teaching Labs are held every Friday from 8:45-9:45am (and every other Monday from 12:30pm-1:30pm, see events calendar for dates) in room 120, Middleton Building. Check out upcoming labs or read recaps from past labs — or see them all ( To stay informed about upcoming Labs, check back to this website or sign up for regular announcements by sending an email to

Watch John’s Story:

Watch the discussion that followed:

Get Started with discussions in Canvas:


Active Teaching Lab eJournal Copyright © 2016 by DoIT Academic Technology and the UW-Madison Teaching Academy; Jennifer Hornbaker; John Martin; Julie Johnson; Karin Spader; Margaret Merrill; Margaret Murphy; and Jeffrey Thomas. All Rights Reserved.

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