Because I Can't Help Myself: Using Canvas Discussion to Practice Style and Grammar


Aubri Plourde

When I began teaching E316K, I was disappointed but not particularly surprised to find that by and large, my students couldn’t write well. Sure, there were a few outliers who turned in clear, dynamic prose; overall, though, I could be administered a vaccine for redundant sentences and clunky syntax. Often, I’d catch myself wondering, “Who let you get this far without teaching you how to write?”

I realize this is an unfair question. Even in the moment, I knew enough about the teaching requirements of basic writing courses to know that there is just not enough time. By the time they even get to higher education, they’ve forgotten subjects and verbs, let alone participial phrases and nominal clauses or, more ambitiously, style.

If I had world enough and time, if there were room on my syllabus, I would teach them grammar along with the skills of argument. I wish with painful naiveté to teach them how to build and rearrange syntax, instead of “just” ethos, logos, and pathos. The truth is that more often than note, I’m working triage. If I can get my students to write a solid thesis, I will consider myself successful.

And perhaps that’s okay. I spent most of September in turmoil over the wealth of things I wanted to teach them. I realize this is a very immature mentality, one isolated from the long-term realities of only being able to teach a single syllabus at a time. Still, I’m going with it, because, for now, I still care when I read redundancies.

So, although I did finally give up on teaching the basics of infinitives, I have also worked in what seems, so far, to be a reasonable compromise. First, I did provide a series of links and PowerPoints to basic grammatical concepts, and I administered a take-home pretest (ungraded) to help students diagnose themselves. So much for one weekend. 

The results were predictably dismal, but not quite as depressing as I’d feared. At least now I know what must be explained (subject-verb agreement, introductory subordinate clauses, comma rules) and what is better left to English majors (verbals, sentence modifiers). Since then, I’ve found a better way to take attendance. While I’ve used “bell work” or basic activities before, I’ve had a hard time integrating them as useful concepts rather than as busywork. It took some adjusting, but I’ve got my students accustomed to the new routine. It goes like this:

Instead of heading right to the center of the classroom upon arrival, they choose their individual computers, logging into Canvas immediately. Nothing fancy—just a discussion board. At the beginning of every class, I’ve posted some kind of prompt, generally related to an overarching stylistic goal. So, for example, this week, we focused on weak construction and redundancy. (I’m pushing for clarity.) The prompt asked students to spot the redundancies in three statements and to revise a fourth for clarity and rhythm:


The submarine fired at the cruiser at a distance of ten thousand meters.

He falsely misrepresented the situation.

The troops advanced forward on the outer Falklands today.


His brother, who is a student at law school, loves to bring up controversial topics that everyone has a different opinion about.


Sometimes, I simply ask the students to point out the weak construction or redundancy, such as with these statements:

“The reason is because…”

“Due to the fact that…”

“a number of”

“in regard to”

“despite the fact that”

“in the very near future”

“cancel out”

“disappear from sight”


Other times, I ask them to syntactically copy a sentence to get practice recognizing the different parts of speech and how they function.

The routine is that they sign onto Canvas, fill out the discussion post (I require them to post before they can see others’ replies), and do a tiny bit of thinking about style or cosmetics before we begin the agenda for the day. It enables me to count attendance later as I look through responses, and I think they like the feedback.

I’m still working out some knots with this practice, and yes, sometimes it takes longer than I would like it to—although I do think it helps students who get paralyzed when writing to loosen up and get something out. For now, though, I’ve set up mini bites of grammatical, syntactical, or stylistic information to introduce through exercises. Using Canvas’s discussion board is nothing revolutionary, of course, but since we don’t have automatic attendance enabled anyway, and since revising at the sentence level is something they seem not to have considered, I’ll keep doing this for a while—even just to make myself feel like we’re collectively making their writing clearer.


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