Taking the Guesswork Out of Grades: Canvas Features for Grade Transparency

If you’ve been teaching for a while, “transparency” is probably a buzzword you’re accustomed to hearing by now. In several CATL resources, we’ve highlighted the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) framework, which is designed to help instructors clearly communicate the purpose, task, and criteria of a learning activity. In this article, however, we’ll be covering some other ways you can incorporate transparency in your course, as well as the features built into Canvas that will allow you to do so. In each section we will highlight how these features are beneficial to both you and your students. When students and instructors are on the same page regarding grades, it can alleviate a lot of potential problems and unnecessary stress.

Set Up a Grading Scheme

When you create your syllabus, one of the pieces that you need to include is a grading scale, or how you plan on correlating grade percentages with letter grades. Instructors can generally decide which percentage range to set for each letter grade as long as they use UWGB’s A-AB letter scale; however, some departments or programs may have a set grading scale.

Regardless of what scale you use, it is best practice to set up a grading scheme in Canvas that matches what you have in your syllabus. This will tell Canvas what overall letter grade to display in your Canvas gradebook when a student’s overall score falls within a certain percentage range (e.g., AB: < 92% to 89%).

The View/Edit Grading Scheme menu in Canvas; the sample grading scheme is broken down by percentage ranges and uses an A-AB pattern
An example of a potential grading scheme in Canvas

How it helps students: Setting a grading scheme will give students a better idea of what their overall letter grade in the course is at any point during the semester.

How it helps you: Establishing your grading scheme in Canvas will make it easier to see at a glance how your students are doing in your class, which is helpful for submitting Navigate progress reports. Using a Canvas grading scheme is also a necessary step if you plan on using the “sync to SIS” feature for sending final grades to SIS.

Regularly Enter Grades, Including Work Submitted Outside of Canvas

Most courses have some activities or metrics that factor into grading that don’t include an actual student submission in Canvas, such as participation points or in-class activities. To record these grades in Canvas, you will need to set up no-submission Canvas assignments, which are assignments that create a column in the Canvas gradebook where you can simply enter students’ scores. Though many instructors wait until the end of the semester to enter these scores, updating them on a weekly or biweekly basis will help keep you and your students on track. For recurring points like participation, you may wish to lump together points by week or unit (e.g., create an assignment for “Week 1 Participation,” “Week 2 Participation,” etc.).

Three weekly participation point gradebook columns in Canvas with various scores filled in
An example of how you might set up weekly participation grades in Canvas

How it helps students: Factoring these grades into your course as you go will help students get a more well-rounded picture of where they stand in your class. It also makes the importance of regular participation and attendance more evident to students.

How it helps you: Regularly entering or updating scores for things like participation will prevent the headache of entering them all at the end of the semester. It can also give you a sense if there are students that may need an intervention from a professional advisor due to poor attendance (in these cases, you can issue an hoc Navigate attendance alert for students of concern).

Enter Zeroes for Missing Work

One of the most deceptive parts about grades in Canvas is that, by default, missing work does not negatively impact a student’s overall grade in a Canvas course. When calculating the total grade of a student, Canvas ignores any assignment for which no grade has been entered, regardless of due date. The result of this is that students with missing work may see a grade in Canvas that is artificially inflated. To combat this, you can manually enter zeroes for missing work on a regular basis, but Canvas also has two features that can automate part of the process.

Set a Canvas Late Policy

You can set a late work policy in Canvas so that all missing submissions will be automatically set to “zero” after a due date has passed. If enabled during an active course, it will also retroactively apply “zeroes” to all missing work from past assignments. Note that the late policy only affects assignments in which students need to submit something in Canvas (Canvas quizzes, graded discussions, and assignments with the “online” submission type).

The Canvas gradebook settings with the "late policy" tab selected; a box is checked and the default grade for missing submissions is set to "0"
The Canvas gradebook settings menu where you can set a late policy

Set Default Score as “Zero”

For individual assignments, including “no submission” and “on paper” assignments, you can set the score of all students without a graded submission to “zero” with just two clicks by setting zero as the assignment’s default grade. This is especially important to do at the end of the semester, but you can do it throughout the semester whenever you have finished grading submissions for an assignment that is past due.

How it helps students: Students will be able to see how their missing work impacts their overall grade, preventing any “gotchas” at the end of the semester where a student finds out their actual grade is much worse than that what Canvas would have them believe.

How it helps you: Before exporting final grades to SIS at the end of the semester, it is crucial that all missing work is set to “zero” to ensure that grades are accurate. Both the “late work policy” feature and the “default grade” feature remove some of the labor of entering those zeroes manually. Using these features will also ensure more accurate midterm grades, should you choose to post them.

Other Considerations

While the suggestions above apply to nearly every instructor and course, regardless of pedagogical style or modality, the following features may or may not apply to your own courses.

If you have final grades broken down by weighted percentages in your syllabus, you can set up your gradebook to follow the same weighting scheme with a few extra steps of setup. Start by creating assignment groups and then setting those groups to be weighted based on percentage. By using weighted assignments groups, you can be confident that the way things are weighted in your syllabus matches what’s in your gradebook.

Using rubrics to assess student work is a great strategy for grading transparency because it allows students to see exactly what criteria you are assessing them with and what they are expected to do to receive a satisfactory grade. While you can add a rubric as a Word doc to an assignment or discussion description, you can also create your rubrics right in Canvas and use them for grading. You can fill out Canvas rubrics in SpeedGrader to optimize your grading workflow, plus if the rubric has points, Canvas will calculate the point total automatically.

Many online assessment tools like Canvas quizzes, PlayPosit bulbs, and textbook quizzing integrations have the option of including both auto-graded questions, like multiple-choice, and manually graded questions, like essay questions. The problem arises when a student completes an auto-graded quiz and then sees a score that is artificially lowered only because the instructor has not yet graded some questions. Besides regularly keeping up with grading these types of manually reviewed questions, it might also be helpful to include a note in the assessment description so students are aware that their quiz score will not be accurate until you have had a chance to review and update their scores. If the quiz is tied to a Canvas gradebook column, you can also choose to set the assignment's grades to be manually posted so that students do not see grades until you have had a chance to review them.


You can get 24/7 support from Canvas by live chat, phone, or email by clicking the “Help” button in the Canvas global navigation menu bar on the left side of any page in Canvas. They are the experts on all of these features in Canvas and can help walk you through the steps if you have questions.

As always, CATL is also here to help as well. If you want to discuss the features above or any other strategies for making your grading more transparent, fill out our consultation request form to schedule a meeting with a member of the CATL team.

What’s in a Name? Tips for Learning & Using Students’ Names in Class

Research tells us that learning and using students’ names in class has benefits for belonging and engagement, both of which are associated with positive educational outcomes. Instructors also know, however, that it can be quite a challenge to learn dozens and, in some cases, even hundreds, of student names in a semester. There is no one easy solution, but here are some different strategies you might consider, along with a healthy dose of reviewing and rehearsing. 

  • Use the classic standby table tent method. Provide card stock or thick paper and bold markers. Pass materials out and ask students to make a nameplate that they use for class each day. You can even collect them and pass them back to students each day for the first couple of weeks if having to return them helps you learn names. 
  • Call the roll and consider doing it on more than the first day. You can even explain to students that you are doing so because you genuinely want to work on learning and correctly pronouncing their names. Ask them to correct mistakes you make. Write phonetic pronunciations next to names on your roster. They may appreciate your efforts at getting to know them even if it takes a few minutes of class time.
  • Ask students to complete a course survey for you and submit it in Canvas as an assignment. Have them provide their preferred name, correct pronouns, and a typed-out phonetic pronunciation of their name as some of the items. Include other questions that help you learn a bit about them, so you can associate that with their name. You can invite them to include a photo if they feel comfortable doing so. 
  • Take pictures in class. Have students write their names in large letters on a full sheet of paper. Ask them to hold it up, and then take photos of groups of students in the classroom. Practice reviewing the images before class each day. You should offer students the choice to opt-out of this exercise because they may have legitimate cultural, safety, or other reasons for not wanting to participate. 
  • Remember that your class rosters in SIS include photos, and you can print rosters to take to class with you that include thumbnails of those images. You can also use the rosters to practice learning names. Do keep in mind, though, that the photos are typically first-year student ID pictures and may not be accurate representations of your students today 
  • Assign students to visit your office for just a couple of minutes to introduce themselves to you. It may help you learn names, assist them in finding your office and make them more likely to seek you out when they have questions.  
  • Spend time before class speaking individually with students. Try calling them by name or ask them to provide or remind you of their name as a part of the conversation.  
  • Be aware that UW-Green Bay does have a preferred name policy, and students can request to have their preferred name on class rosters, in Canvas, and in email. If you have a student in class who requests you use an entirely different name than is currently on your roster, let them know that there is a mechanism to ask for a name change in many of our systems.   
  • Teaching online? Ask students to share an image and description of their real or fictional dream vacation destination, favorite food, or a favorite book to a discussion board to introduce themselves. Although you may not have to memorize names in asynchronous online classes in the same way you do when teaching face to face, getting to know your students from the start of the semester and encouraging interaction among them is important.
  • Pair students and ask them to interview each other and introduce each other to the rest of the class in a virtual or interactive video class. It can help you and the students learn names and increase comfort with the breakout rooms and cameras before you engage in content-focused conversations.  


Enhance Course Videos with PlayPosit in Mere Minutes

If you’ve been tuned in to the CATL blog or Teach Tuesday newsletter at all over the past year, you’ve likely gained at least a passing understanding of what PlayPosit is. CATL staff have been eager to share our excitement about what this interactive video platform can do to boost learner engagement in courses at UW-Green Bay! PlayPosit is a very powerful and flexible tool, and that can make it seem intimidating to many instructors. While you can spend hours in the PlayPosit designer crafting your masterpiece video experience, in truth, some of the most impactful uses of PlayPosit can be implemented by instructors in 10 minutes or less! In this post, you will find a few examples of how you can leverage PlayPosit in simple ways that will give you immediate feedback from students, reinforce key concepts, and provide opportunities for your students to interact with you and collaborate with each other, all by using your pre-existing course videos.

Get Instant Feedback from Your Students

Screenshot of a PlayPosit bulb with an interaction which asks students for immediate feedback on the video

One of the most simple and effective uses of PlayPosit is adding a prompt at the end of a video where students can submit any questions or feedback on the content. Adding one “free response” interaction at the end of each course video can help you continuously monitor the “pulse” of the course and get immediate feedback from students on their understanding of the content. You can ask students to identify the muddiest point of the video for them and the resources and actions they need to better understand it. This type of metacognitive question can help students better identify the concepts which will require the most study to master. If you teach a large lecture class where the labor of parsing student responses would not be sustainable, you can instead add one or more “Poll” interactions to gain a quantitative insight of your students’ perception of their understanding of the content in each video. This poll data can help direct your planning of class time and additional resources for review.

Reinforce Key Concepts with Quiz Breaks

Another simple use of PlayPosit is to insert a “quiz” question at an important checkpoint of a video to help reinforce a key concept that has just been covered. Adding quiz breaks to your video can help students solidify their comprehension of the material and keep their active attention throughout the video (Szpunar et al., 2013). PlayPosit offers several interaction types suitable for this purpose: Multiple Choice, Check All, Free Response, and Fill in the Blank. Consider adding a question at the end, at a logical break near the midpoint of the video, or anytime the video shifts gears from one topic to another. You can give students multiple (or unlimited) attempts to answer correctly and (optionally) add a small point value to the assigned PlayPosit video to give your students extra incentive to engage with the content on-schedule.

Collaboratively Annotate a Video

Screenshot of the “Template Gallery” in the PlayPosit designer

PlayPosit’s “discussion” interaction type can be used to facilitate an exercise that asks students watch a video and post to a class-wide discussion board that is built-in to the video player. In addition to videos in your personal Kaltura My Media library, instructors can incorporate public YouTube and Vimeo videos into their PlayPosit activities, so consider this use case if you use any YouTube or Vimeo videos as required viewing in your course. Through PlayPosit’s Template Gallery, you can quickly add a single customizable discussion interaction that students can post to throughout the entire duration of the video.

Students can use the discussion interaction to collaboratively annotate the video to add their interpretations, cite criticism or link to pertinent online resources, and pose their own questions for class discussion. Each comment posted in the discussion is timestamped with the position of the video at which the student paused and submitted the comment. Students and instructors can select the timestamp on a post to immediately jump the video player to that moment of the video and make threaded replies to build off each other’s contributions. PlayPosit discussions are a great way to get a class to go on a deep exploration of a short video or clip that warrants repeated viewings.

Maximum Impact, Minimal Time

Each of the use cases described in this post involves using PlayPosit to add only one or two interactive elements to a course video. If you already use videos in your course, you can create any of these in under 10 minutes! Watch the video below to see the process from start-to-finish in under 3 minutes:

These PlayPosit enhancements to your course videos can give you big returns on just a little bit of time invested. Teaching with asynchronous videos doesn’t have to feel like lecturing into the void when you build formative exercises directly into the videos and give students ways to provide you with immediate feedback each time they watch a video. You’ll get a clear picture of which students are engaging with your video content, and, since you’ve turned the video watching experience into an active one, your students will be more likely to engage and stay engaged with course videos.

We hope these examples will spark you to take the first step to using PlayPosit in your courses. CATL is happy to provide consultations both to instructors who are looking to get started with PlayPosit as well as instructors who have already taken their first steps and are now inspired to build beyond the fundamentals and create interactive video masterpieces. Fill out our consultation request form to schedule a time to meet with a CATL team member or reach out to us at catl@uwgb.edu with your questions and ideas!

Follow-up to “What Will You Carry Forward?”

We will all carry literal and figurative things forward from the experience of teaching in the last year. Often, these two blend together. For example, perhaps an instructor re-worked an attendance policy to accommodate a student who had to return home to attend to a family member. The policy and the memory behind the policy will both linger. Or, perhaps an instructor created a series of virtual labs and now has videos, supporting data, and Canvas assignments which they can use to help students who are not able to attend a lab in-person. Last spring, the Center hosted a discussion and posted a blog article called “The Things We’ll Carry” which prompted a lot of reflection about the literal and figurative items that instructors will carry with them from teaching last year. At the end of the discussion, there was interest among instructors for a practical workshop in the fall where instructors could see how their colleagues had adapted the lessons of the pandemic to their preparations for the new school year.

With apologies to Tim O’Brien for the continued use of his metaphor, the Center responded by hosting another workshop called “What will you carry forward?”. This workshop featured four instructors who did a “show and tell” about how they incorporated lessons from the pandemic into their teaching. They then fielded questions from the audience.

Now, through the magic of video technology, we are extending that workshop to those who were not able to attend the live event.

Below you will find the “show and tell” portions and, importantly, you will be able to interact with the videos as well because they are streaming through a service called PlayPosit, which allows instructors to add interactive elements to videos.

Please interact with these videos on multiple levels. First, learn from what the presenters have to say. Second, use the interactions in PlayPosit to engage more deeply with the content and with other people who have watched the videos. Finally, if you would like to use PlayPosit in your own class, please contact CATL at dle@uwgb.edu to have it added to your courses.

First presentation

Breeyawn Lybbert, who teaches in Natural and Applied Sciences, discusses her four-point plan for increasing equity in her science classes.

Second presentation

Next, Praneet Tiwari, who teaches in the Cofrin School of Business, discusses multiple strategies for incorporating students who participate in-person, at home, and asynchronously.

Third presentation

Third, Nichole LaGrow, distance education coordinator in CATL and associate lecturer in English, discusses how she extends G.R.A.C.E. to herself and students (Guided autonomy, Resources, Authentic assessments, Community, Expectations).

Fourth presentation

Finally, Jillian Jacklin, who teaches in Democracy and Justice Studies, synthesizes the previous presentations and discusses how she balances all the tips within the realities of teaching a heavy course load.

Setting the Tone for a Welcoming Classroom with a Liquid Syllabus

At times, the syllabus can feel like a relic from a different age of academia: a formal, lengthy document that reads like a legal contract and lacks personality. In an attempt to make syllabi more engaging and student-friendly, some instructors have come up with clever ways of reimagining their syllabi. One example of this is the liquid syllabus.

What is a liquid syllabus?

Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s liquid syllabus from her Fall 2020 photography class.

As a part of her effort to humanize her teaching methods, Michelle Pacanksy-Brock—author, instructor, and faculty mentor for California Community Colleges—decided to redo her syllabi. She saw her syllabi as an opportunity to set the stage for an inclusive and positive learning environment, both in terms of language and format. Applying these concepts, she developed a new online syllabus for her photography class using Google Sites. Pacansky-Brock has branded this style of syllabus as a “liquid syllabus”, in which the word “liquid” refers to the fact that these syllabi are easy to access online and interact with, even on mobile devices.

As defined by Pacansky-Brock, a liquid syllabus is usually:

  • Public (accessible online without needing to log into a university account and often available to students before class starts)
  • Mobile-friendly (resizes responsively based on a user’s device)
  • Engaging (includes an instructor video and possibly other forms of media)
  • Student-centered (uses approachable, welcoming language)
  • Visually pleasing (clearly organized with stylistic touches)

The purpose of a liquid syllabus is to serve as a welcoming and encouraging introductory resource for students, while still fulfilling the requirements of a traditional syllabus.

Is creating a liquid syllabus worth the time and effort?

A liquid syllabus is no doubt a bit of extra work, but the research seems to support that creating a liquid syllabus is a great investment in terms of equitable teaching. Here are a few features of a liquid syllabus that you might consider implementing in your own syllabi.

Close equity gaps among your students.

A student checking her smartphone as she walks around campus.

By building your syllabus with a mobile-friendly, web-based tool, you are increasing access for your students. It’s no secret that students in higher education are more likely to have access to a smartphone than a personal computer. A mobile-friendly syllabus is easy to interact with on a smaller screen because it resizes automatically, unlike a PDF or Word doc, which are difficult to read on mobile devices due to sizing constraints.

Liquid syllabi also put a heavy emphasis on inclusive language. When writing a syllabus, it is best to avoid making assumptions about your students’ background knowledge. Transfer students, non-traditional students, international students, and first-generation college students may not be familiar with institution-specific terminology or higher education lingo in general. Try to avoid using abbreviations for your content area, your department, buildings on campus, etc., unless they are clearly defined in the syllabus. Also consider providing some student-centered contextual language before syllabus resources and policies.

Make a good first impression.

Students’ perceptions of their instructors can rely heavily on their first impressions (often more so than an instructor’s reputation and credentials) and studies show that syllabus tone can make a huge difference in these first impressions. Students perceive their instructor as more welcoming, friendly, and inclusive when the instructor’s syllabus uses such language.

As you rework your syllabus, think about ways you can make your language more encouraging. When it comes to classroom expectations, you might reframe your statements to focus on what students should do for success, rather than what they shouldn’t (e.g., instead of saying “academic dishonesty will be punished”, you could say “I encourage academic integrity”). By turning commands into invitations, the overall tone of your syllabus shifts from contractual to welcoming.

Welcoming Language: Examples of Commands vs. Invitations
Commands Invitations
“You must complete makeup work to receive credit.” “Feel free to complete makeup work to earn credit.”
“You are allowed to…” “You are welcome to…”
“I only accept…” “I encourage you to…”
“Late work receives a 40% reduction.” “Late work is eligible for up to 60% of original points.”

Show students who you are.

An example of an instructor welcome video that has been captioned and embedded with a transcript player on the Syllabus page.

Most liquid syllabi also include an introductory video made by the instructor. In an online environment, instructor presence is particularly crucial for student feelings of connectedness, and a welcome video can be a great way to help meet that need. Cheer on your students and let them know that you are there to help them succeed. You can also use this as an opportunity for your students to get to know you a little bit—for example, you could introduce your pet on camera or briefly share about one of your hobbies.

Visual impact makes a difference too. In another study, students expressed more interest in taking a course when the syllabus was graphic-rich as opposed to purely textual. A syllabus doesn’t have to look cold and boring—it can be colorful, welcoming, and even playful, so get creative with your design. After you’re done, check things over to make sure your syllabus still meets accessibility guidelines. Add alt text to your images and captions to your videos as needed.

How can I create a liquid syllabus?

There are a variety of tools you can harness to develop a liquid syllabus. Like Pacansky-Brock, you could use a free website builder like Google Sites to get started. Or, if you feel comfortable using WordPress, you could also build your own site with UWGB domains. You can even use the Syllabus page right in Canvas. If you’d like to try making a liquid syllabus but aren’t quite sure where to start, CATL has developed a template in Canvas which you can have imported into a course by emailing CATL your course URL(s). No matter which tool you choose, keep in mind accessibility and ease of access for students.

Do you have other ideas or suggestions for how to reinvent the syllabus? Share with us how you are transforming your syllabi by dropping a comment below or sending us an email at catl@uwgb.edu! We’d love to hear from you.