Part 7: Spring 2018 Labs

115 Online Discussions, Grading Discussions, Group Tool with David Dwyer 04.04.2018

In the April 4, 2018 Active Teaching Lab, David Dwyer from School of Nursing shared how to effectively manage engaging online group discussions and grade them in way that is motivating and creates accountability using a rubric. See the session’s activity sheet to get started with your own Canvas Discussions.


  • David’s top tips for new online course development:
    1. Make sure all instructions are clear! (have colleagues go through and try to get confused; students will find anything that isn’t exceptionally clear!)
    2. Add a “Module Zero” explaining to students how to navigate and be successful in the course.
  • In online courses, Discussions can carry a heavy grading weight if they are a primary means of eliciting student participation and gauging understanding. In his class they’re worth 30% of the grade, but he’s raising it to 35 or 40% next time.
  • Consistency is key; keep days and times of discussion deadlines the same throughout the course, and consider limiting deadlines to weekdays to allow student to unplug on weekends if desired. 
  • Expectations for discussions, such as length and citation requirements, should be laid out beforehand. Use anonymous examples of full-point responses to help students understand the rubric and expectations and compare their own work to that of others.
  • When only a post and comment is required, most often the original poster never goes back to revisit her original post. Requiring a post, a comment, and a response to comments pushes the original author to revisit the thread.
  • Because the goal is to create a dialog, late discussion posts are not accepted. 
  • Referencing a supplemental source beyond the course text helps students to expand and deepen the discussion. For this reason and because students can take time to process, David finds online discussions to be much richer than realtime discussions were in the face-to-face version of his course.
  • David uses five kinds of discussion questions for different purposes.
    1. Content questions ask students to explain a concept and reveal understanding.
    2. “No duplicates please” questions require students to explore different topics. Have students post their topics early so that they don’t spend lots of time researching, only to find that their topic has already been examined.
    3. “Complete report” questions ask students to write an essay and upload that essay to the Discussion as a Word document. Peers then review the essay and post feedback to the Discussion. Doing peer review in discussion format encourages students to summarize and synthesize their feedback.
    4. “Reduce reading” questions break up a reading among group members jigsaw-style, with students summarizing their pieces for the group. Use this technique deep in the semester as a treat to help motivate stressed students.
    5. Prep questions, such as “tell us what you’ve learned so far by working on X project,” prevents students from putting off big projects.


Active Teaching Labs are held Fridays from 8:30-9:45am in room 120, Middleton Building (1305 Linden Dr.) as well as some Wednesdays from 12:30-1:30pm in room 302 Middleton Building. Check out upcoming Labs or read the recaps from past Labs.

Similar to the Active Teaching Labs, Active Teaching Exchanges feature instructors sharing their teaching experiences with tools and techniques, but provide more time for discussion without the hands-on investigation time. Exchanges are are held Thursdays from 1-2pm in room 120, Middleton Building. See the full calendar of both events. Stay informed about upcoming Labs and Exchanges by signing up for regular announcements by sending an email to


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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