The Canvas Groups tool has a variety of applications (some better than others). One of the most useful enables you to transform a single Canvas Discussion into a small group discussion experience. Small groups can help with student engagement in online discussions. If you have joined or merged course shells and you use Canvas Discussions, this is an essential component in ensuring that your course complies with FERPA by restricting students from interacting with peers in other sections.

Using Groups for Canvas Discussions involves three steps:

  1. Creating a group set
  2. Creating groups within the set
  3. Setting discussions as group discussions

Step three applies to every discussion you create, but you only have to do steps one and two once per Canvas course.

This article streamlines several tutorials about Groups in the Canvas User Guides. The official guides include additional information about some features. However, they include other uses of Groups and may be confusing.

Creating a Group Set

Note: you can create group sets in advance of the semester, but wait until students have been added to your course (the Friday before classes start) to create and add students to the groups.

When you create a group set, you are telling Canvas that you want to put students in your class into small groups. The group set defines those groups. You can have multiple group sets per course. For example, if you wanted to have project groups that are separate from your discussion groups, you’d simply create two group sets.

To create a group set, go to the People item in the course menu to see your roster, and then choose the “+ Group Set” button in the upper right.

Canvas window showing the contents of the People tab, including the roster. Near the top right, a blue button reading "+ Group Set" is circled in red.

In the popup, name your group set something logical (like “Discussion Sections”) and choose the settings you want. Here’s what they mean:

  • “Allow self sign-up”: students sign up for groups. You have the option to restrict their sign-ups by section, which you must use for joined courses.
  • “Split students into [x] groups”: Canvas will randomly create [x] groups with approximately the same number of students in each
  • “Split students into groups with [x] students per group”: the total number of groups will be determined by how many groups it takes to get the group sizes you want
  • “I’ll create groups later”: you will create groups entirely manually; use this setting for joined courses where you want students to interact only with their section in discussions

Note that the automatic/random group tools will not work until students have been added to your course. You can create the group set and follow the steps below to use it with discussions, but you will have to come back and add students.

If your course is not joined, students have already been enrolled, and you simply wanted randomized groups, stop here. Canvas has created your groups! You can access them and manually make changes by going to the People area and selecting the tab with your group set name. Make sure to revisit your groups several times during drop/add to manually add new students to existing groups.

If you have joined two or more sections into a single Canvas course, or you want manual groups, follow the steps below to manually create groups within your group set.

Manually Creating Groups within a Group Set

Within a group set, you’ll create groups (at least two). To create a group, click the “+ Group” button, name your group, and repeat until you have the number of groups you want. You will then drag and drop students into the groups. In the example below, an instructor has created two groups and begun to move students into them.

View of a group set showing two groups, each with one student in them, and one unassigned student on the left. The gray "+Group" button is circled in red near the upper right.

If you are using groups to ensure that students in a joined Canvas course only interact with peers in their section, your groups will match your section rosters. It is helpful to name the groups according to section (as in this example).

Note: during the first two weeks of class, check your groups periodically. If students add your course, they will not be placed in a group automatically. They will appear in the “Unassigned Students” column, and you will need to manually move them to a group.

Setting Up Discussions as Group Discussions

The final step in this process is to tell Canvas to use your groups with discussions. You can do this after setting up the group sets and before putting students in them — for example, if you want to get all discussion settings right before students have been added to the course.

You can set a discussion as a group discussion using a simple option that tells Canvas to reference your existing group set. Go to a discussion you have created, or create a discussion as you normally would. In the options area of the editor, you will see a checkbox labeled “This is a group discussion.”

A portion of the Canvas options menu within the Discussion editor, showing various settings. In the center of the image is a checkbox labeled "this is a group discussion" surrounded by an emphasis outline.

Check that box. Additional options will appear, including a menu to select the group set Canvas should use for this discussion. Choose the set you want. Don’t forget to save your changes at the bottom of the page!

When students view the discussion, they will only interact with the students in their discussion group. When you view a group discussion, you can select the conversation you wish to view.

Instructor view of a group discussion. At the top of the discussion, a blue emphasis area indicates that this is a graded discussion, and provides links to each of the group conversations within the discussion (here labeled "Section 01" and "Section 02").

Repeat this process for each desired group discussion. For joined Canvas courses, that is every discussion.

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