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:

Media Samples

Plant Family Identification

  • Sample module from the finished lesson
  • Storyboard for the lesson – working in PowerPoint makes planning faster and allows for easier collaboration


  • Asks students to make and test hypotheses to stimulate prior knowledge
  • Quiz with feedback
  • Light animation and customized graphics

My Role: 

  • Outlined the learning experience
  • Wrote all text
  • Customized all graphics
  • Developed ILO with quiz and interactions in Storyline

ILOs for University of Michigan School of Nursing: Nursing Anatomy and Basic Skills Modules


  • Self-test modules for graduate nursing students to review and refresh skills before beginning an advanced course
  • Feedback directed students to digital and print sources to selectively study material they needed to work on

My Role: 

  • Worked with instructor to create application-level quiz questions that would truly discern student readiness
  • All development on 11 total pretests (Flash)


  • Students were better prepared for class, in less time, than in previous iterations of the course
  • Instructor stopped using class time for review
  • Class covered more advanced material in the same amount of time

Dental Clinical Curriculum Badging Path

Created in As students pass assignments in Canvas, they are awarded badges within the path. Collections of lower-level badges “roll up” into badges indicating the completion of semester- and curriculum-level requirements.

Statistics Interactive Learning Objects (ILOs) and Videos: University of Michigan Ross School of Business


  • Question/answer interactivity replaces voice-over-PowePoint
  • Animation of equations matched to instructor voice increases student understanding of vocabulary, symbols, and concepts
  • Problems are scaffolded in difficulty. First, students are asked to answer each step of simple math problems. By the end of the ILO, they must remember the steps and provide one final answer to multi-part application problems.

My Role: 

  • Interpreted instructor’s 46 static PowerPoints into 22 standalone ILOs and 24 animated videos
  • Drafted storyboards in Google Slides
  • Iterated with Storyline developers and animators to create the final ILOs and videos


  • Student pass rates in this version of the course are nearly 20% higher than in previous versions of the course

African Americans, Health, and the Health Care System: ILO for University of Michigan MESA Center for Health Disparities


  • ILO interwove dense content, reflective questions, and personal stories to explain the origins of African American health disparities in the US
  • Micro-roleplay asks students to imagine themselves in the position of an enslaved worker suffering an illness; backend logic determines the outcome

My Role: 

  • Compressed 40,000 word faculty script to about 4,000 words
  • Designed rollovers and engagement activities
  • Did all design and development work (Flash)

Health and Safety Videos: University of Michigan School of Dentistry Clinics


  • Voice-over-slide style videos covering various training and medical emergency procedures within dental clinics
  • Embedded videos to show proper sanitation, personal protective equipment use, etc.

My Role: 

  • Worked with clinic directors to determine content
  • Built out over a dozen videos using Captivate or Camtasia
  • Gathered, and in some cases, created photos and videos of clinics and procedures
  • Edited narration scripts
  • Used school-provided templates as basis for graphical design

Clinical Competency Assessment Redesign Project


From 2015-2018, I co-chaired the University of Michigan School of Dentistry’s Competency Assessment Team (CAT). The charge of this team was to redesign the method for assessing clinical competencies in the DDS program. Formerly, each discipline (such as endodontics, prosthodontics, orthodontics, etc.) set its own assessment guidelines, schedule, and grading scale. This led to two issues: 

  • Students reported being more stressed about navigating their requirements than about treating patients.
  • Students were treating patients as simple discipline-specific cases – “an orthodontics case” or “a root canal” or “an upper denture” – rather than as whole humans with complex needs. 

The first step to move the school closer to its vision of true “whole-patient” care as to bring together all the discipline-specific courses together into one Comprehensive Care course in the early 2000s. This created one massive 32 credit course, delivered over six semesters, called Comprehensive Care. During this course, students provide oral health care to patients in a school clinic under the supervision of faculty members in each of the eleven disciplines within the school.

By 2015, it was clear that the next step of integration was needed to reduce student stress and confusion around requirements. The next phase of the program, where I began my involvment, aimed to standardize assessment across disciplines. This had three steps:

  • Using a common grading scale across all disciplines
  • Using a common grading process across all disciplines
  • Posting all requirements, instructions, and grades in one electronic system

My role

As co-chair of the Competency Assessment Team, my purview was to map the entire clinical curriculum (no single document at the school existed to describe all the requirements), propose a model for an integrated electronic grading system, select and customize software, train faculty and students in its use, and oversee the rollout and initial revisions to the system. Simply mapping the existing curriculum and processes took nearly six months. Standardizing rubrics and developing a new basic workflow took another six months, and software selection and development took approximately two years. Nearly 20 systems were investigated, and in the end, a combination of existing technologies was used to grade the clinical competencies.


In the spring of 2018, we rolled out the new system to the DDS and DH programs. In the first semester, more than 5000 grades were entered into the system. The number of electronic systems students needed to consult was reduced from 8 to 2 seamlessly integrated systems, and eliminated the need for a paper record to check their grades. Faculty and students rapidly developed new ways of working with grade data, and in the first semester, additional tools were built to facilitate grading and reporting. 

 Sample materials I developed

Online MBA Program Development – 2019

Video floating an image of instructor Brian Flannagan over an interior scene in the University of Michigan Ross Business School as his main points scroll into the distance.
This video floatis an image of instructor Brian Flannagan over an interior scene in the University of Michigan Ross Business School as his main points scroll into the distance.

The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business set out to create the most engaging and visually stunning online MBA program in the world – and succeeded.

This program mirrors the on-campus MBA experiential opportunities such as intensive residency weekends and the challenging Multidisciplinary Action Projects with real companies. In addition, faculty wanted to replicate their engaging class sessions online – and they didn’t want to look like a talking head on a webcam while they did it. So, this project engaged a truly astonishing crew of designers, developers, and filmographers to create instructional videos and synchronous class experiences of a quality rarely seen in education. Videos were shot in studios, on-site within the business school, and on location in a variety of businesses to bring students into the workplace.

My roles in this project were varied. I provided instructional design on four courses, helping faculty decide how to convey their content in a meaningful way. I developed a number of tracking tools and workflows to help us organize the astonishing number of pieces to each course. The simplest course I managed had 21 videos and 21 Storyline interactives, all of which I proofed 3-6 times. My most complex task was to help set expectations and facilitate communication among our team of 30+ education and creative professionals comprising internal staff, university personnel, and staff from three separate contracting firms.

Dental Hygiene eLearning Program Development – 2007-2010

DH master's students_ClassOf2016_Web
MS Dental Hygiene Class of 2016, with their computers

In 2006, department chair Laurie McCauley charged Wendy Kerschbaum and Anne Gwozdek with developing an online dental hygiene degree completion program to better equip dental hygienists for the next decades of the profession and to increase sagging program enrollment.

Wendy and Anne contacted me to help them shape every aspect of the program, from the highest-level planning through the creation of 11 individual courses. I also helped them develop a curriculum-wide portfolio that keeps students engaged with and oriented to program competencies throughout the 2-year program. When the degree completion (BS) program was complete, we then developed a 2-year online master’s degree program based on the same model.

Importance and Impact of Project or Work

Active learning, online

A major goal of this curriculum redesign was to “raise the bar” of student learning. Results from the first 10 years of the program show that students are, indeed, learning more material at a deeper level than students in traditional face-to-face classes. We achieved this by:

  • increasing student responsibility for reading and understanding course texts,
  • creating assignments that ask students to apply what they’ve learned in realistic scenarios and in the field with community partners, and
  • developing challenging grading rubrics to guide student performance.

A portfolio to keep an eye on

The portfolio asks students to critically analyze what they’ve learned at the end of each course. This metacognition gives students a chance to place each course’s content into he context of the program as a whole and to orient themselves before beginning the next course. The DH portfolio has been held up at the campus and national level as an exemplar of this much-touted teaching technique.

Program successes

  • Students and faculty report that students learn more and do more active learning in the online vs. face-to-face bachelor’s degree program.
  • Success of the BS program led to the development of the MS program, especially after multiple BS graduates complained to faculty that the master’s programs they entered were not as rigorous as the bachelor’s program they had just left.
  • Of the first six cohorts of the BS program (first group graduating in 2009):
    • 25% are enrolled in grad school or professional school/or have graduated
    • 23% are working at community-based clinics and/or involved with PA 161 Programs
    • 33% have received awards/publications
    • 28% hold leadership positions in professional associations


My role was primarily that of consultant and facilitator. I asked my colleagues to describe their goals and make their implicit assumptions explicit. I reviewed drafts of syllabi and assignments, offering suggestions for changes to increase student learning or decrease faculty workload. Faculty always had control over course content and the final say in the content and format of assignments.

Working closely with administrators and faculty, I helped shape the development of:

  • High-level program goals – specifically, explaining how to achieve academically rigorous online education
  • The overall structure of the program – including the Portfolio
  • Eleven individual courses – from course outline through the writing of individual rubrics
  • Co-taught final portfolio course – leading students through developing a final presentation portfolio
  • Faculty development – in online teaching techniques, giving feedback, and inter-rater reliability in grading portfolio entries

Publications related to the program


See a selection of articles about Emily’s efforts.


Research and Publications

I design every major curricular project with a comprehensive evaluation plan, which allows for program assessment and dissemination of best practices. Here are a number of publications based upon that research.

The Transformation Rubric for Engaged Learning

As we started doing focus groups with our graduating cohorts and two-years-out alumnae in the Dental Hygiene Online Degree Completion Program, we kept hearing students say “this program changed my life.” All the faculty and directors of the program had taught in traditional dental hygiene programs for years, and no one had ever heard students us these terms to describe their education. We had already documented the academic rigor of the program, but we felt it was important to capture the transformative nature of the program.

Quantifying transformation

In the dental world, if it can’t be measured, it can’t be reported. So we set out to design a reproducible method for coding any type of student-generated text (written reflections, exit interview transcripts, etc.) for type of change (e.g., leadership, professional skills, clinical skills) and depth of change (i.e., transformative or not transformative). This would not only let us explain the degree to which our program transformed students’ lives, but could also be used by other programs to evaluate their impact.

Over time, programs could potentially compare the impact of one intervention to another and weigh the relative benefits and costs.  For example, by analyzing student exit interviews over several years, a department might be able to decide eight-week internships are nearly as beneficial as twelve-week internships, or they might realize a reflective portfolio is worth every minute faculty and students spend reviewing the reflections together.

Related Link

Transformation Rubric for Engaged Learning: a Tool and Method for Measuring Life-Changing Experiences.

Help Yourself Garden

Why a garden for a School of Dentistry?

There was a beautiful space for a garden directly across our patient parking area from the main doors of building. It had great soil, southern exposure, ADA compliant garden bed, and sprinklers. Why not build a vegetable garden there? So in 2013, I secured permission from various university entities and began the Help Yourself garden.

Each year, the garden has a theme, with various sections of the long, narrow bed marked with explanatory signs. Themes so far have included:

  • continents, displaying plants in the continents of origin
  • recipes from around the world, with a blog of recipes
  • colors, with rainbow-hued vegetables
  • “Garden of Science,” with signs explaining plant families, fractals, Gregor Mendel’s pea plant-based genetic experiments, and a Three Sisters Garden
  • “Five Senses” garden, with plants to touch, taste, smell, see, and even hear

Staff, students, faculty, patients, and passersby visit the garden at a rate of about 50 people a day to enjoy:

  • the stress-busting joy of interacting with nature right outside the door
  • bites of fresh produce
  • education about how to garden
  • collegial interactions across traditional group boundaries
  • rest, play, and creativity, not bounded by the usual millimeter-specific strictures of dental education

Garden links

Pathways Program

Map of original Pathways program curriculum, showing differences between the three tracks

The University of Michigan School of Dentistry Pathways Project is a co-curricular program that allows students to explore areas of interest within dentistry. Unlike the four-year core curriculum, in which all students take the same courses at the same time, Pathways allows for student-directed experiences within three distinct “paths”: research, leadership, and healthcare delivery. The program includes faculty mentoring and culminates in an individual or group project one to seven semesters in duration. At inception, all 400+ DDS student participate in Pathways across their four years of dental school.

Importance and Impact of Project or Work

There is no set curriculum or work plan for a dentist once she’s running her own practice. However, due to the intensive nature of the dentistry curriculum, traditionally, the first two years of the program are rigorously scheduled with no time for exploration and no room for student self-direction. Not only is this a disservice to students who will have to self-direct during their careers, it’s stifling to students to want to excel and begin making a difference in people’s lives.

Projects in the first few years of the program have made huge impacts, including:

  • Providing oral health care to veterans without insurance
  • Providing oral health care, clean water, and computers to students at rural schools in Kenya
  • Developing expertise in the latest digital dentistry techniques
  • Research on brain and motor behavior adaptations in congenital orafacial anomalies
  • Studies of gender in patient-dentist relationships
  • Explorations of the efficacy of various techniques for teaching oral health care to children

Students do significant good in the world through their Pathways projects!

Roles and Tasks Accomplished

I served several roles in the Pathways program: project manager, curriculum designer, and program evaluator. The most challenging part of my involvement with the program was the timing: the core group of faculty planners had had six months to take the project from concept to enrollment. I was brought in over a year after the first students began the program. Therefore, this was a difficult case of “building the bridge as we walked on it” for an exceptionally complex program. Specific accomplishments with which I assisted the group include:

  • Compiling and refining existing goals for the three paths into a cohesive set of Pathways Program Goals
  • Finalizing activities and policies for all four years of the program for each of the three paths – including consensus-building among six co-directors and two administrative staff in less than an hour per week
  • Writing the policy manual for students, faculty, and administrators
  • Needs analysis and software selection, customization, and implementation of software to track students’ progress through the program
  • Student and faculty training sessions in person, in print, and via online videos
  • Developing the program evaluation plan
  • Collecting and analyzing program data and writing initial program evaluation reports

Related Presentation

Pathways ADEA 2014