Learn about an alternative way of using Canvas discussion boards to create resources students can refer back to and use.

In this post, I outline one of my early struggles with discussion boards and how that struggle led to me wondering how else I could use a discussion board to get the biggest pedagogical bang for my buck.

My Struggle With Discussion Boards 

By now, three years after the pandemic pivot to online, many of us have become more familiar with the uses, benefits, and pitfalls of online discussion boards in our courses. For myself, one of my early frustrations was the difference between my intention behind a discussion board and the actual way it would be used by my learners.

When I was still new to teaching, I often struggled with discussion boards and the sense that I was getting the full pedagogical benefit of them. It always felt like I created them with the best intentions at heart, excited at the anticipated responses from my students, but those responses and their conversations often fell short of my expectations.

The proposed value of a discussion board is that students, in responding to one another, get more benefit out of the virtual “conversation” than they would a typical short-answer assignment. Providing students with clear instructions or a structured discussion board model can help guide our learners to engage in meaningful dialogue, and, looking back, I can see where these teaching approaches could have improved the brief, lackluster discussion board posts from my students.

Simply asking students to “respond to two or more of your classmates” wasn’t enough to elicit the kind of value that a discussion board should have. Often, I’d be left wondering why I didn’t just make the assignment a simple “write a response and submit it to me” assignment. Essentially, I wanted my students to be, as Sarah Ransdell, Jia Borror, and Hui Fang Su put it, “active users, not passive watchers” (emphasis in original). This led me to considering the question of other, alternative ways to use discussion boards. question of other, alternative ways to use discussion boards.

Enter the Visual Design Glossary

When I teach rhetoric and composition, one of the more challenging units is the visual rhetorical analysis unit. In this unit, students analyze the visual rhetoric of an advertisement to determine how that particular ad uses visual elements to persuade. This assignment is often challenging for students because they don’t necessarily have the language for some of the techniques used in visual rhetoric.

So, to help fill this gap, we spend a day or two covering visual design techniques (e.g., perspective, the rule of thirds, pyramidal composition, text, color, etc.), and we do this by using a discussion board to create a Visual Elements Glossary that they can refer to and use as they complete their own, individual analyses.

The Set-Up

The first thing I do for this assignment is create the discussion board and start seven threads (one fully completed example thread and six other threads for individual groups). In the posts used for creating each of these seven threads, I include two common visual design elements. You can see how this looks in the screenshot below.

Screen capture of the discussion board set up with individual threads.

The Assignment 

For the assignment, students are divided into six groups, and each group is given two visual design elements. Once they have their elements, the groups have two tasks to accomplish:

  • Using the internet as your primary research tool, develop a 1-2 sentence description of each design element.
  • Using a OneDrive folder of example advertisement images, select and include 1-2 images that demonstrate the terms in action.

The groups have about half of the class period to complete these tasks, and, as they do so, I move through the room so they can use me as a resource as well. In the second half of the class, each group presents their design elements to their classmates.

Why a Discussion Board? 

This assignment has two primary goals: 1) introduce students to visual design elements and 2) create a resource that students can refer back to. Neither of these goals are discussion board-specific, so why use a discussion board? Why not use, say, a Google Doc? Or a Word Doc saved in and shared with OneDrive?

When we think of discussion boards, we primarily think of them in terms of their collaborative qualities (e.g., the typical post-and-respond-to-your-peers assignments). However, they aren’t just collaborative spaces. They are collaborative spaces that are both relatively permanent (within the lifespan of the course) and easily linkable within a Canvas course.

Additionally, this has the added benefit of helping to shift students’ perspectives of discussion boards and give them experience working within them. For many fields and disciplines, discussion boards are important collaborative spaces for community building and research. In my own life, I’ve used them often for research related to my professional life as well as research connected to my own interests and hobbies.

For my students, the Visual Design Glossary assignment can become something more than just a single-use, small group in-class assignment. It’s able to be a resource they can easily locate and refer back to in Canvas as they conduct their analysis and a resource I can easily link to within my course website by using Canvas’ internal linking function.


Discussion boards have been a part of the learning management system landscape (and broader online landscape) for a while, and the onset of the pandemic found many of us using them more than we had in the past. While they have limits and disadvantages, they also have a lot of potential that often goes untapped when we think of them only in terms of single-use assignments.

How have you used discussion boards in your classes? Are there ways you could adapt or change those uses to get more bang for your pedagogical buck? 


Ransdell, Sarah, Jia Borror, and Hui Fang Su. “Users Not Watchers: Motivation and the use of Discussion Boards in Online Learning.” Distance Learning (Greenwich, Conn.) 15, no. 2 (2018): 35.

  • John Carter

    John Carter joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in August 2022. With a background in composition and creative writing pedagogy, he has a particular enthusiasm for the role of communication in pedagogical processes, whether that be oral communication via class discussions, written communication via course documents, or visual/electronic communication via document design and instructional technologies. His graduate work focused on poetry, the environment, and sustainable agriculture, and, because of that, he has a keen interest in and awareness of the value of interdisciplinary work. When he isn’t thinking or talking about pedagogy, he can be found at the edge of a cornfield, writing about this strange, in-between region that is the Midwest.