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Canvas - Designing for Student Comprehension

Why focus on course design?

Checking in with your students to ensure your course content and materials are easy to navigate and benefit students in their learning. Students have limited cognitive load, particularly as they balance a full course load each semester while potentially juggling jobs, family or personal commitments. You want them to spend their mental energy on learning the subject matter and skills of your discipline, not on impediments like tricky navigation, unclear instructions, or incomplete content.

The Academic Technology Initiative team tested Canvas with students to understand how course design choices impact their learning. The following are suggestions meant to help your students focus more on content and less on finding things as they take on several courses each semester. Implement any suggestions that make sense for your course material and teaching style.

Issue: Students can’t find key readings, assignments or quizzes in Canvas courses

Create week-by-week modules

  • Students generally request and prefer this structure, with all readings and homework linked under the appropriate week of the semester. This may be because a week-by-week structure mimics a syllabus, and aligns with their task-oriented mindset when navigating Canvas courses.
  • Using Files in lieu of Modules is not recommended, but if desired, the week-by-week structure can be replicated by creating folders labeled by week, and organizing content accordingly.
  • If organizing content by topic rather than by week, consider labeling files and links with the associated week.

Record a welcome video

  • This can be a resource to tell students where they can expect to find content throughout the semester. Otherwise, spend some class time once your course roster has settled to give students a tour of your Canvas course.

Use hyperlinks

  • Whenever possible, directly link to a required reading or viewing, rather than using plain text and requiring the student to hunt for it. 
  • Our testing shows that if students can’t find the content in the first few attempts, they will give up so they can move onto their next assignment in order of urgency. This includes students who are highly engaged and motivated in the course.

Issue: Students are often anxious or unsure that they’ve completed all their requirements for the week

Use Assignments and Due Dates thoroughly

  • For every course deliverable, create an Assignment and use the Due Date feature. This will populate every assignment both on the student’s Canvas Calendar and the To-Do List that reminds students of upcoming homework.
  • If you use external textbooks or other tools that have limited integration with Canvas, remind students where they need to look. 

Include all course materials

  • Students tend to assume they can find content and assignments in Canvas, and will check it first when sitting down to do homework. Including as much content in Canvas as possible can reduce student confusion and last-minute questions.

Issue: Students don’t necessarily intuit an instructor’s organizational logic, especially if it differs significantly from the design of previous courses they’ve taken.

Ask students for feedback on your Canvas course

  • You can survey or informally poll them, or take some class time to discuss.
  • Do they understand where to find things? Do they understand assignment descriptions, instructions and requirements? Do they know when to expect new homework, or when to get their returned grades? Are there easy adjustments you could make that would clear up student confusion?

Don't assume no news is good news

  • If students have questions, they may be asking their classmates, friends, TAs, or advisors, and you might not be aware of it.
  • Students may be experiencing a lot of confusion, but by the time they finish their task, they’ve moved onto their next assignment, and don’t bother asking anyone.

Interested in more Canvas support? OIT's Academic Technology Consultants offer trainings and individual consultations, as well as asynchronous resources for designing your course in Canvas.