Critical Canvas Skills for Faculty

Do any of these sound like you?

  • I recently switched to the Canvas LMS from Sakai, Moodle, or another platform
  • I need to use more of Canvas’s features to support their course in new ways (e.g., moving to online learning)
  • I’m not sure where to start learning about Canvas

This article is for you!

How to organize Canvas courses

There are endless ways to configure a Canvas course, some better than others. Research and experience show that in general, courses should be arranged in chronological modules that contain all the materials and activities for a particular day, week, or topic. The Canvas Modules tool makes this easy. Here’s a simple module setup:

Canvas has tools for Pages, Quizzes, Discussions, and Assignments. Instead of asking students to navigate to all of those areas to find course content each week, it’s better to use the Modules tool to organize pages, quizzes, discussions, and assignments into easy-to-navigate chronological groups. You might choose to keep showing quizzes, discussions, and assignments as secondary navigation options, but most students will use modules to navigate the course.

Pick your working style

There are three ways you can approach building your course content:

  1. Create all your pages, quizzes, discussions, and assignments first, then add them to Modules.
  2. Start in Modules and create placeholders (see “Add item to module”) for all your content, then go back and flesh it out later.
  3. Import some content and tweak it as you go.

Most people starting a course from scratch use method #2. This lets you work on the high-level organization without having to think through all the fine details

Use Pages within your Modules

While it’s tempting to just drop links to PDFs, videos, and other resources directly into Modules, it’s much better to create Pages to hold those items. Pages let you add some context and instructions to the readings, and using Pages also keeps your Module List from getting too long and overwhelming.

The before-and-after illustration above shows how a long list of uncontextualized resources can be converted into a page that links to several resources and describes their importance and relationship to each other.

Create Assignments to collect student work

Canvas doesn’t have separate “dropbox” for student work. Just create an Assignment, write out the instructions (which can include links to supporting documents and web sites), and add details about how to submit. Then add the assignment to your module in the correct location.

All assignments appear as a column in the Gradebook unless you tell Canvas not to include the assignment in the grade calculation.

Students can submit assignments online in a variety of formats, including video. You can also make assignments for items that will be turned in on paper, or that won’t have a submission at all (e.g., an in-class presentation or a participation grade). One unique assignment type is the “student annotation,” which lets students write on an electronic document. This is great for labeling diagrams or simulating paper forms they would encounter in person!

Use Rubrics to convey expectations

Rubrics can be added to assignments and discussions (and, technically, quizzes, but that feature doesn’t work very well). These let you grade papers and presentations with a few clicks. Detailed comments can be added for each student!

Use SpeedGrader to make grading easier

SpeedGrader truly does make grading faster! You see the student’s submission on the left, and your grading rubric on the right. You can add comments in several ways:

Use Quizzes for a variety of purposes

In Canvas, all computer-based question-and-answer activities are called Quizzes. You can use them in several ways:

  • Your usual high-stakes written exams. Some exam security options are built-in; others may be added by your university that lock down students’ browsers during exams.
  • Low-stakes knowledge-check quizzes. You can let students retake them and keep the highest, most recent, or average score.
  • Surveys that collect data but don’t have right/wrong answers (though for serious data collection, an actual survey tool would likely be better).

Question types include the usual multiple choice (with one or multiple answers), essay, file upload, and matching types. The “new quizzes,” which will become standard in 2022, also include hotspot questions where students answer by clicking on an image. You can also draw questions at random from a question bank.

Building a quiz has two steps: creating the questions and then building the quiz from those questions.

You can automatically give detailed feedback on questions, which is especially great for the formative, low-stakes quizzes. This lets you explain why certain answers are wrong and turns the “quiz” into another learning opportunity.

Canvas Instructor Guide

I’m pretty picky about written instructions, and I think the instructions Canvas has created for their tools are great! Here’s my pick for the most useful sections of the guide:

Published by Emily

I'm an instructional designer and gardener based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Free moments find me in my garden or the forest, hugging trees and all that jazz.

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