10 Tips for Reworking Online Discussions

Tips collected by Luke Konkol

We often hear that asynchronous online discussions “just don’t seem to work.” The reasons why run the gambit from feeling like busy-work for students to simply being too much to read. This post shares ten quick ideas (in no particular order) instructors might consider to tweak their online discussions and make them a better experience for instructors and students alike.

1. Make reflection and drawing connections central

We often drop a prompt in a course assuming students know why it’s important—sometimes the prompt itself is even “why is this important?” But if the purpose of discussions is to serve as the mortar between the bricks of your course content, feel free to say so. Add a sentence or two at the start of your prompt saying, “In the last unit, we discussed concept X. In our readings for this week, so-and-so builds on that idea in the context of Y.”

2. What are the objectives?

How is this discussion tied to particular course objectives? Make this explicit, too. This may even influence the depth and breadth of the discussion. Are you having students discuss because one of your objectives is to engage in a certain type of scholarly discourse? Or are the prompts content-based?

3. Use rubrics

Rubrics make your job easier if you grade discussions. More importantly, they make what you expect students to do more transparent. How much weight do you put on conventions? Where do you want students to look? Do you expect references to course materials? Outside materials? How important is the community-building aspect of these discussions? Or are they more like open essays?

Click on the headings below for some samples of discussion rubrics and reach out to CATL if you’d like a file you can import into your Canvas course.

Relevance: The overall relevance and development of discussion in your posts. 

  • 4.0 pts: Excellent
    • Posts are clearly related to the discussion prompts
    • Posts are detailed and on topic
    • Prompts further discussion
    • Clearly develops new ideas or builds on them
  • 3.0 pts: Good
    • Posts are clearly related to the discussion prompts
    • Posts are detailed and on topic
    • Prompts further discussion
  • 2.0 pts: Satisfactory
    • Posts are clearly related to the discussion prompts and mostly on topic
  • 1.0 pts: Needs Improvement
    • Off topic or not clearly related to the prompt
    • Remarks lack depth
  • 0.0 pts: No Post
    • No posts made or posts are disrespectful

Quality: The overall quality of the posts made

  • 3.0 pts: Strong
    • Comments are appropriate, thoughtful, reflective, and respectful
    • A good argument is made and supported
    • References course materials appropriately
  • 2.0 pts: Satisfactory
    • Comments are appropriate, thoughtful, reflective, and respectful
    • An argument is made
    • Has an understanding of course materials
  • 1.0 pts: Needs Improvement
    • Comments are respectful
    • Post shows minimal effort (e.g. "I agree…")
    • Missing an understanding of course materials
  • 0.0 pts: No Post
    • No posts made or posts are disrespectful

Community Contribution: Contribution of posts to the learning community / overall discussion.

  • 3.0 pts: Strong
    • Represents a developing class culture
    • Motivates further discussion and encouraging of classmates
    • Creative approach to the topic / presents new ideas
    • Responses are frequent and thoughtful
  • 2.0 pts: Satisfactory
    • Represents a developing class culture
    • Attempts to motivate further discussion and encourage classmates
    • Creative approach to the topic Responses are thoughtful
  • 1.0 pts: Needs Improvement
    • Posts are essay-like or do not go far beyond recounting course materials
    • Responses are minimal
  • 0.0 pts: No Post
    • No posts made or posts are disrespectful

 

Adapted from Dr. M. Rowbotham (SIUE) 

Subject knowledge and integration of material

  • Excellent (2.0): Discussions reflect integration of required readings and supporting the key issues and topics of material. Discusses your reaction to the content; cited appropriately in post if needed.
  • Proficient (1.5): Sound grasp of material. Some discussion of your reaction to content: appropriately cited.
  • Sufficient (1.0): Familiarity with most material and principles in the discussion. Lacks substantive use of readings. Minimal discussion of your reaction to content. Absent citations.
  • Needs Improvement (0.5): Poor grasp of material and principles in discussion. No discussion of your reaction to the content.
  • No Post (0): No post made or replies are disrespectful.

Critical analysis of topic

  • Excellent (2.0): High level analysis; Provides useful feedback appropriately. Adds new ideas and/or relevant questions to discussion.
  • Proficient (1.5): Sound analysis of discussion. Provides feedback to group. Adds some new ideas.
  • Sufficient (1.0): Missed some of the main issues. Analysis is simplistic or sketchy. Little substantive feedback provided to colleagues.
  • Needs Improvement (0.5): Lacks analysis of topic. Provides unsubstantiated opinion and anecdotes. No feedback to group members.
  • No Post (0): No post made or replies are disrespectful.

Timely and complete participation

  • Excellent (1.0): Posts on time. Responds to questions and others with clear understanding of content.
  • Satisfactory (0.75): Posts on time. Responses show some understanding.
  • Partial (0.5): Post is late, or adds little to the discussion.
  • Minimal (0.25): Posts are too late to enable others to respond.
  • No Post (0): No post made or replies are disrespectful.

 

Adapted from Purdue University 

4 Points: 

  • 3-4 or more postings; well distributed throughout the week
  • Readings were understood and incorporated into discussion as it relates to topic.
  • Two or more responses add significantly to the discussions (e.g. identifying important relationships, offering a fresh perspective or critique of a point; offers supporting evidence).

3 Points:

  • 2-3 postings distributed throughout the week.
  • Readings were understood and incorporated into discussion as it relates to topic.
  • At least one posting adds significantly to the discussion.

2 Points:

  • 2-3 postings; postings not distributed throughout the week
  • Little use made of readings.
  • At least two postings supplement or add moderately to the discussion

1 Point:

  • 1-2 postings; postings not distributed throughout the week
  • Little or no use made of readings.
  • Postings have questionable relationships to discussion questions and/or readings; they are non-substantive.
  • Postings do little to move discussion forward.

0 Points:

  • No post made or replies are disrespectful 

4. Emphasize and recognize student labor

Depending on whether your discussions are high- or low-stakes and the frequency with which they’re required, it’s worth noting how much work students put into them to make sure it maps onto what you expect them to be doing. It’s worth doing an informal poll of your students to get a better sense for how much work they’re putting into discussions and what could be done to make them more valuable.

5. Divide that labor to achieve quality over quantity

Along with #4, you might also consider requiring fewer posts over the course of the semester, breaking students into groups, or assigning sets of ‘leaders’/‘original posters’ and ‘researchers’/‘respondents.’ One common problem in online fora is redundancy. This usually happens when the topics of discussion are limited to a few possible tracks coupled with a class size of any more than a dozen students. In cases like this, many “first posts” look the same and many “responses” fall in the “I agree” category. Dividing labor up in this way opens you up to set higher expectations with regard to what initial and responding posts should look like. One example is to have initial posters provide a précis or summary and one engaging, open-ended question to which their classmates respond.

6. Everyone gets feedback

While many situations make it virtually impossible for you to respond to everyone, discussions where everyone gets some feedback are ultimately more engaging. You might consider integrating this into the assignment by suggesting that students only reply to posts that do not have a response yet.

Another strategy is to respond less directly to multiple students at once. Consider checking in mid-week and posting a separate response addressing common themes or recurring ideas. Maintain the feel of an engaged community by ‘citing’ the posts you’re replying to in lieu of blanket statements. E.g., say “Verna and Cary raise a critical issue with regards to X” or “Randall, Leona, and Austin all note Graves’s concept of Y” as the lead into a posed question rather than simply “a number of you have asked…”.

7. Provide clear guidelines

It’s easy to assume online discussions are all the same because there are limits to the tools available to us, but a new version of an old joke applies: ask 10 instructors about online discussions and you’ll get 11 different opinions. It’s worth providing a stand-alone document explaining your vision for discussions in your course. What is the goal of your course’s discussions—developing ideas? Sharing progress? Providing critique? How do you want discussions to “feel”? Is this an informal community? A scholarly dialogue? A debate? What is the format—can (or should) students use emoji? Do you require citations? Course or outside readings? In short: What does an effective, constructive, discussion look like in this course?

This is also a good place to articulate your expectations for discussion leaders, share your rubrics, and guide students in budgeting their time based on what you expect.

8. Disagree—or encourage others to do so

Many asynchronous online discussions infamously turn into “I-agree”-fests. Injecting a little pushback or instances of “how would the author respond to X critique” can help prevent this. Consider encouraging this on the part of students as well through a rubric or expectations guide (above).

9. Mix it up

Even the best-laid discussion plan can devolve into a quote hunt as the semester goes on. While it’s not the worst thing for students to learn what to look for when engaging with course materials, it’s worth mixing it up so students develop a wider set of these skills. Mixing up discussion leaders (above) can help, but, if you prefer to write your own prompts, consider a using a variety. Here are few types of prompts to consider:

Depart from what the key thinkers say and ask students for their own opinions. Invite them to support those opinions with evidence or articulate how they’ve arrived where they’re at.

  • How might you respond if …
  • How would you suggest …
  • What might happen if …
  • To what extent do you agree with …

Provide a prompt which zeroes in on a key concept or responds to particular passage or other source. Give students free reign to respond however they like within the subject matter rather than providing them an anticipatory suite of possible responses.

  • What was the contribution of …
  • How would … respond to the critique …
  • What does … mean when she says …
  • How is the notion of … related to …

Treat the discussion forum as a poll or conduct a poll of the class prior to opening the discussion and share the results asking students to respond.

  • Identify commonality or explain sources of difference
  • Compare poll results to those of another group
  • Describe whether the results map onto expectations given course topics
  • Use the results to drive opinion questions
Assign students précis or summaries of particular reading sections, materials, or current events they find on their own. Invite them to pose open-ended questions of their own in response.
Consider working with a colleague to add them as a TA in your Canvas course. Invite them to lead a discussion related to a topic about which they are passionate. This can be especially effective if it presents an interdisciplinary approach.

There are a number of ways to creatively integrate this type of discussion.

  • Working on a two-sided topic or ongoing academic debate? Integrate this into discussion by assigning sides or allowing students to pick one.
  • Rotate students in roles as respondents of a particular stance.
  • Have students take on the point-of-view of key thinkers or theorists and respond not as themselves but as those figures.
  • Have students create “character sheets” (think Dungeons & Dragons) for particular figures or generalized schools of thought and use those to simulate a debate.

10. Bring it back around

Discussions are most effective (and more engaging) when treated as means rather than an end in themselves. Much as you might provide feedback (above), consider ways you can draw from what students draw out as key points or issues in discussion during “class time”—be this synchronous sessions or asynchronous materials. Drawing connections between the course materials and student contributions helps to reinforce the relevance of their work and underscore the community-building piece which is so central to good discussion.

We’d love to hear from you!

Let us know how you do discussions. What strategies have you employed? What works? What do students like and what are some areas to avoid? Feel free to share sample prompts and success stories. Also let us know if you’ve done interesting things with online discussions that we haven’t had the space to cover here (like video-posts, word clouds, or wiki-building). Comment below or drop us a line at catl@uwbg.edu.

Organizing Canvas to Improve the Student Experience

Article by Sam Mahoney

We’ve all been there: someone told you to finish that thing, and you remember seeing the file somewhere a few weeks ago, but you just can’t remember where you saved it. Or when it’s due. Or maybe even what it was called. Maybe it was this file titled “download_040521”? No wait… maybe download_064053?

Now imagine yourself in that same situation, but you’re a student. Between unclear file names, multiple methods of communication, and so many places information can be posted, it can be frustrating to keep track of all the details in an online class. That’s where organization and consistency in how you use Canvas can save your students a lot of headache and you from the burden of answering a dozen emails a day from confused students. In fact, in a recent survey conducted by UW-La Crosse, students cited clear organization in Canvas as one of the most important things their instructors did that helped them during their Fall 2020 classes. Read on for some suggestions on getting more organized in Canvas so you can help your students be more successful in your classes.

Organizing Course Content

When teaching online, an important consideration is how to arrange and present your content. For maximum clarity and visibility, we recommend organizing your content in modules on the home page. Students are generally used to working through online content sequentially, so arranging modules chronologically with the first week/unit at the top is ideal. You could also arrange your course’s modules in reverse chronological order, publishing the most recent one at the start of each unit/week, so the current module is always at the top of the page. If arranging your content chronologically doesn’t seem like a good fit for your class, you could also try grouping content in modules by project instead.

GIF of reordering modules on the course home page
Modules can be rearranged by clicking and dragging the stacked dots in the top left corner.

Once you have decided how you would like to set up your modules, consider the order in which the content within the modules appears. The first item in a module is nearly always a page. This page should provide students with the context they need to successfully read/watch the necessary materials and complete the necessary activities for the week or unit. You can also use this page to provide an introductory paragraph with other necessary contextual information, as well as the learning objectives or goals for the unit/week. Depending on the depth of the material, you may also consider breaking this information down into multiple pages.

For example, your overview page in each module might include:

Briefly introduce the materials and concepts covered in the module.

Provide any necessary background information students may need to know before engaging with the "meat" of the content. 

You can also link to relevant, optional "pre-reading" materials that might be useful for some students to review before diving into the new content. 

Concretely describe what you would like students to know or be able to do by the end of the week/unit's activities.

For more on crafting objectives, see this guide.

Link to online articles or documents uploaded in the files area in Canvas.

Make sure all readings are accessible—PDF scans of physical textbooks, for example, are not usually readable by e-readers unless they have been OCR-scanned.

A quick way to check: can you copy and paste the text? 

Embed your pre-recorded lectures for the module in sequential order. 

Try to break down lectures into shorter, more digestible videos. Studies have shown that 6—9 minutes may be the sweet spot, and a conversational tone is equally important (Brame, 2016).

Link directly to Canvas activities that students are to complete for the week/unit (assignments, discussions, etc.). 

Include both graded and non-graded activities. 

After the overview page, add any relevant Canvas activities to the module, such as discussions, assignments, and quizzes, all with appropriate, descriptive and consistent namesIf you are using a weekly or unit-based module system, only add the activities that will be due that week/unit. In general, all Canvas assignments, discussions, and quizzes should also have due dates assigned to them in Canvas, as this will add the item to students’ to-do list and calendar in Canvas. These due dates, combined with adding those activities to the appropriate module, will let students see at a glance what is due by the end of the week or unit. Keep the content in the modules simple and high-level in terms of information—save the specifics for the assignment, discussion, or quiz details. 

Linking Related Materials 

It may be tempting to link all your readings, resources or other materials for a unit in the modules on the home page, but the more content students see in the module, the more overwhelmed they will feel. Instead, it is a good idea to keep materials related to each project, assignment, or other activity in the activity description itself. 

With Canvas’s Rich Content Editor, which is what you use to edit the descriptions of assignments, quizzes, and discussions, you can add links to files (documents that you have uploaded to the files area), content within Canvas (published pages, discussions, assignments, etc.) and external URLs (online articles or other websites that have content or activities you would like students to engage with). You can also embed videos that you have created (Kaltura/My Media videos) or videos from other sources that support embed codes (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.). Use this to your advantage by linking all relevant materials needed for completing an activity in the description for said activity. After you’re finished, it’s a good idea to check over the links in your course with Canvas’s link validator tool to make sure you don’t have any broken links.

How to link a file with the New RCE menu bar
Demonstration of how to link a file with the Rich Content Editor.

It’s not enough to just add links, however. Any materials that you would like students to engage with also require clear, concise instructions for what you would like students to do with the content that you’ve linked. 

Here are some questions to consider when you are adding materials to your assignments, discussions, and other areas of Canvas: 

Use the exact name of the article or video, or a clear, concise description for the inline text when you create a link.

For an article, for example, is your intention for students to skim it? Do a close read? Annotate it? Take detailed notes?

Include page numbers for readings and timestamps for videos, when applicable.

This information also allows students to better gauge the amount of time they will need to complete an activity.

Provide instructions on how you would like students to apply what they have learned/accomplished from the linked material to the activity.

Decide if you want students' use of the material to be open-ended or specific (e.g. for a discussion, do you want students to submit a free-form reflection on the reading, or answer specific discussion questions?).

Consistency is Key

However you decide to organize your course, it’s important to keep things as consistent as possible from week to week or unit to unit. This includes:

  • File naming conventions
  • Assignment/discussion/quiz naming conventions
  • Layouts on pages
  • Layouts in modules
  • When, where, and how students can find the instructions for an assignment/discussion/quiz
  • When, where, and how students are to submit an assignment/discussion post/quiz

You’ll find that students will become quickly habituated to doing things a certain way, so if you change up, for example, the location in which students can find the weekly PowerPoint slides, it will likely disrupt students’ learning and cause unnecessary confusion and frustration. Studies have shown that consistency in course design is one of the keys to student success in an online environment (Swan, et al, 2000).

Other Ideas

Have you found other creative and effective ways to organize your course content in Canvas? Let us know by dropping a comment below! Or perhaps there’s something you read about here that you’d like some help implementing in your own course—consider emailing us at catl@uwgb.edu or filling out our consultation request form to chat with a CATL member.


The content of this post has been adapted from CATL’s Pandemic to Online Teaching course from January 2020.


 

Steps Towards Assuring Academic Integrity

Article by Nathan Kraftcheck.

A common initial concern I often hear when meeting with new distance education instructors is how to prevent cheating and plagiarism. How can they ensure the rigor of their assessments? Although there is not a 100% successful strategy that one can adopt, neither is there a 100% successful strategy for eliminating cheating during in-person assessments (Watson & Sottile, 2010). However, we still strive to limit academic dishonesty to the best of our abilities. I’ve provided some practices below that you may find useful in both reducing the opportunity for students to commit academic misconduct, and their motivation to do so in your class.

Quiz and exam building strategies to save time and reduce cheating

One way in which online instructors reduce time spent grading is through online quizzes and exams. Systems like Canvas have allowed for automatic grading of certain question types for many years (open-ended manually graded questions are also available). Depending on an instructor’s goals, course objectives, and discipline, automatically scored online quizzes and exams can be a useful tool.

  • As a formative learning activity in itself—a way for students to check their own learning in low-stakes assessment.
  • As a replacement for other low-stakes work. This can be useful in offloading discussion board fatigue that many students cited over the Fall of 2020.
  • As a method to assess foundational knowledge that is necessary for future work in the major or program.
  • As a manageable way to assess a large number of students.

Decorative icon of a stopwatchWhen including online quizzes and exams in a course, the ability for students to look up the answer is always a concern. Instructors may be tempted to direct students to not use external materials when taking their assessment. Unfortunately, just asking students not to use such material is unlikely to find much success. A more common, practical approach is to design the quiz or exam around the fact that many students will use external resources when possible.

  • Allow multiple attempts.
  • Consider drawing questions from a pool of possible questions. This can allow the students to engage with the same concept, framed differently, helping them work on the underlying concept instead of mastering a specific question’s language.
  • Let students see the correct answer after the quiz or exam is no longer available. This can help if you'd like to allow your students to use their quiz or exam as a study guide.
  • Draw questions from a pool of possible questions—each student will have a randomized experience this way and depending on how large the pool is, some students may not see the exact same version of the questions (assuming different wording across questions that measure the same concept).
  • Shuffle the order of possible answers.
  • Limit how long the quiz or exam is open if you want to mimic a closed-book assessment—don't allow students time to look up all the answers.
  • Let students see the correct answer after the quiz or exam is no longer available. This can help if you'd like to allow your students to use their quiz or exam as a study guide.
  • Only show one question at a time—this can limit a student's ability to look up multiple questions at once and also limit their ability to share the questions with a friend.
  • Set availability and due dates for your quizzes or exams.
  • Modify your questions slightly from semester to semester. Do this for 100% of your publisher-provided questions—assume copies of publisher questions and their answers are available online for students to look up.

For more detailed information on these items, please look at this page for guidance.

Less high-stakes assessment and more low-stakes assessment

It’s fairly common for teaching and learning centers to promote an increase in the use of lower-stakes assessments and a decrease in the higher-stakes assessments. This might seem counterintuitive because more assessments could mean a greater opportunity to cheat, right? It may also seem like additional work since students would be required to take assessments more frequently. However, there is good reason to advocate for more frequent, smaller assessments.

  • Students have a better understanding of how well they grasp discrete topics.
  • Students will know earlier if they’re not doing well, instead of at the first midterm.
  • Students learn from recalling information—a quiz can be more effective than just studying.
  • Students learn more through repeated assessment in comparison to one assessment (Brame & Biel, 2015; Roediger & Butler, 2011).

“Done” / “not done” grading

For low-stakes formative student assignments, consider adopting a done/not done approach. This could take the form of any assignment you could quickly assess for completion, for instance, a brief reflective or open-ended written assignment submission or discussion post. By keeping the activity brief and focused, you’ll be able to quickly assess whether it was done correctly while allowing students to re-engage with class topics by making meaning from what they’ve learned.

From the University of Waterloo:

  • What new insights did I develop as a result of doing this work?
  • How has my perspective changed after doing this assignment?
  • What challenges to my current thinking did this work present?
  • How does work in this course connect with work in another course?
  • What concepts do I still need to study more? Where are the disconnects in my learning?

Working up to larger projects and papers

Decorative icon of an increasing chart.For larger, summative projects that by their nature dictate a large influence on final course grades, consider breaking up the project into smaller steps (Ahmad & Sheikh, 2016).

For a written paper assignment, an instructor could:

  • Start by asking students to select a topic based on a parameter you provide and find source material to support their topic.
  • Students submit their topic description and source material as an assignment. Grade as complete/incomplete and provide guidance if necessary on topic and/or sources.
  • Ask students to create an annotated bibliography.
  • Students submit an annotated bibliography to an assignment. Grade as complete/incomplete.
  • Create a discussion in Canvas where students can talk about their topics (assuming they're all somewhat related). Grade as complete/incomplete.
  • Ask students to create a rough draft. Utilize peer grading in Canvas to off-load grading and include student-to-student communication and collaboration.
  • Students submit a second draft or final draft. Grade with a rubric.

By asking students to select their topic and work through the writing process on a step-by-step basis, the instructor can see the process the student takes through the paper’s development, and students are not able to procrastinate and thus won’t feel pressured to plagiarize someone else’s work (Elias, 2020) as they’re already doing most of the work anyway. This process also discourages plagiarism as there is not as much of an emphasis on the finished product, as the possible score is distributed across multiple activities (Carnegie Mellon University).

Built-in flexibility

Dropping lowest scores

Another way to reduce the appeal of cheating in courses is to offer some flexibility in grading (Ostafichuk, Frank & Jaeger). This can take many forms, of course, but one common to classes using a learning management system like Canvas is to drop the lowest score in a grouping of similar activities. As an example, an online instructor might have a Canvas Assignment Group containing all of their graded quizzes. The instructor can then create a rule for that Assignment Group which will tell Canvas how to calculate scores of the activities inside. For example, the instructor might set the Assignment Group to exclude each student’s lowest score in that group when calculating the final grade. The quiz score that is dropped varies from student to student, but each would have their lowest score dropped.

Student options

Building off the concept of dropping the lowest score students achieve from a group of assignments, you can also use this functionality to build in student choice. For example, if you have more than two discussion activities in your class that meet the same learning objective, consider letting students select the one that they want to participate in and then “drop” the other.

Late work leeway

Another option for flexibility is to set the “due” dates for your graded activities but leave the “available to” date empty or make it the absolute last date and time you would accept submissions. This will allow your students to submit their work beyond the due date and have it flagged as “late”, but also reduce the likelihood of a student cheating on an assignment if they’ve procrastinated or otherwise fallen behind in their coursework. You can also create late work grading policies within Canvas that automatically deduct a percentage of possible points on a daily or weekly basis.

Make use of rubrics

Decorative icon of a rubric.  Research has shown that rubrics are effective tools in shining light on the most important elements of an assignment, setting student expectations for quality and depth of submitted work, and simplifying the grading process for instructors (Kearns). By making a rubric available ahead of time, students have another opportunity to see how their work will be graded and what crucial elements they should include. They can also address equity issues between students, leveling the field between students whose education has prepared them to succeed in college versus those who have not (Stevens & Levi, 2006). Some instructors have found that using rubrics reduces their time spent grading, possibly because of the focused nature of what is being assessed (Cornell University; Duquesne University).

Canvas has built-in rubrics that can be attached to any graded activity. Rubrics are used mostly in Canvas Assignments and Discussions. They can be added to quizzes but aren’t used in the actual grading process for quizzes and would be used as guidance for students only. To learn more about rubrics, take a look at this rubrics guide by Boston College. There’s also a more task-oriented guide from Canvas, available here.

What do you think?

What techniques have you found useful in limiting academic misconduct in your classes? Let us know by dropping a comment below!

So You Want to Be Flexible: Canvas Can Help

Article by Luke Konkol

In a time when students might require extra flexibility, it’s important to remember that it should not come at the expense of instructor bandwidth. Providing extensions on student work, alternative assignments, or dropping work can have a positive impact on students, but how can we best find the sweet spot between an inflexible structure and ‘anything goes’? Some answers lie in Canvas features. In this post, I’ll share a few ideas of how you might set up Canvas for your own benefit, in addition to students’.

“I Just Need a Little More Time.”

By default when you make a Canvas assignment, it’s assigned to every student and the due dates apply accordingly. However, you can also get specific and assign different dates to individual students. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of emails asking for extensions, and masses of sticky notes and spreadsheets suggest that no method of tracking them has been totally effective. By updating the assignment dates for each student who gets an extension, Canvas will track this for you and the student alike.

Some instructors also don’t realize how late work shows up on the student side. When work is late, Canvas is overly clear, marking it with a big red “LATE”. This can be off-putting to otherwise achieving students—especially when the work is not actually late. Adjusting a student’s individual due date means their work will only be marked as late if it is submitted past their specific due date.

A Usable Gradebook

An indication of ‘late’ work also shows up in your gradebook. Unfortunately, Canvas doesn’t make their cacophony of symbols and highlights transparent anywhere within the gradebook itself, so those individual cells just turn into noise. This is less true if you can use these features of the gradebook to their full potential. One first step is using individual due dates as described above; when you do, the highlight for “late” work starts to mean something.

Excusing and Dropping

Canvas grading is also not as “all or nothing” as it first appears. What seems like a flaw can work to our advantage: anything un-graded does not count against students in the way a zero would. But it’s sometimes difficult for students (and the future you) to interpret this lack of data. Canvas has thought this one through. You can make it explicit which assignments will not be counted towards a student’s final grade by marking such assignment as “excused”.

Excusing work is a good option if the dropped score doesn’t apply to everyone, but what if you want to discount a graded item for the entire class? You can tell Canvas to drop certain assignments, such as the lowest in an assignment group, by setting up assignment group rules. The thing to remember is to enter those zeroes for missing assignments—otherwise Canvas will drop the lowest scored assignment instead.

Assignment Groups

In fact, there are several tricks you can use so the Canvas gradebook tracks scores but assignments ‘count’ differently. For example, some instructors prefer to manually assign scores elsewhere but still want Canvas to serve as the interface for student work. A rather extreme example (using labor-based grading) can be found here. Whenever you use unconventional grading methods, the key is to be transparent with students about what Canvas (and you) are doing. This guide on group weights is enough to get you started on this advanced topic, but we recommend setting up a CATL consultation if this is something you’d be interested in exploring further.

The Learning is in the Doing “So Far”

These tips demonstrate the way in which, at first blush, Canvas seems to focus its flexibility on the student side of the equation. This is to say, instructor errors (like forgetting to enter a zero) seem to unduly benefit the student. But these effects are just symptoms of a wider philosophy underlying the way Canvas works. Like any learning management system, Canvas is based on the idea that a certain transaction is taking place, but instead of focusing on a raw accumulation of points (like other LMSs) Canvas’s approach to scoring is a reflection of how students are doing “so far”. If a student only does one of ten assignments but does it well, Canvas tracks this as success.

What does this do for us? For me, it clues us into a different way to think about student progress—and one that speaks directly to students achieving objectives. If we want students to be able to X, why have a dozen assignments asking them to do so if they succeed in doing it in two or three? Despite a distaste for ‘busy work’ shared by instructors and students alike, it tends to creep into the online environment. The silver lining is that the boost in remote learning (where the necessity that we clearly articulate the work we expect from students is highlighted) has revealed the craving we all seem to have for objective-centered student work.

A Note on Objectives

So, you want a student’s grade to reflect their meeting objectives instead of a raw accumulation of points. Now what? That’s a good question—and the answer is bigger than we’ve got the space to address here. My temporary answer is a cop-out: keep your objectives in mind as the driving factor for using the techniques I’ve provided above.

But give it some further thought. If this idea of objectives-based grading is intriguing to you, consider that Canvas has a spot for you to create outcomes and that you can then attach these outcomes to assignments.

As if this weren’t enough, Canvas even has an alternative gradebook based on what they call “learning mastery” which tracks this very thing using benchmarks for mastery you set. I didn’t advertise this above because the focus of this post is on practical action you can take now to save yourself some work, but if this is something you’d like to explore further, please don’t hesitate to schedule a consultation!

What Do You Think?

How do you manage flexibility in your courses? What Canvas (or other) ‘hacks’ do you have to share with your colleagues? Let us know below! I’ve also been thinking a bit lately about how some of these practices (e.g. objective-based grading) might be worth keeping around even once things “go back to normal”. I’m curious to hear from you on this. How have your grading practices changed? Is there anything you’ve started doing that you plan on keeping going forward?

An example of Student ePortfolio from Ntxhee Yee Thao

Are ePortfolios Right for Your Students?

Are ePortfolios right for your course? Spoilers: we think so. ePortfolios (web-based managed collections of artifacts or ‘evidence’—here of student learning) are one of the Association of American Colleges and University’s (AAC&U) 11 High Impact Practices (HIPs). ePortolios, and assignments tied to their creation, often fulfill a number of the eight key characteristics of HIPs. Most importantly, ePortfolios also help students integrate their learning and make connections between other HIPs.

Different types of ePortfolios help articulate how students must consider different audiences when demonstrating their learning. You can also blend them together for a customized student experience. You might do a course portfolio, a programmatic portfolio, or introduce students to the idea of a developmental or professional portfolio demonstrating their progress over time.

ePortfolios for Reflection & Assessment

Using ePortfolios for learning and reflection encourages metacognitive connections between skills, assessments, and learning outcomes. Reflection, which can be done either publicly or privately, can take many forms within a portfolio. When reflection is built into the assessments that may become artifacts of a portfolio, students will have already done some of this reflective work, making it easier for them to draw connections between and among course work.

Example of student portfolio from Cheynne Ver Voort
Example of student portfolio from Cheynne Ver Voort

Kris Vespia, Associate Professor of Psychology, adds mini reflections to the end of some assessments which ask students to write a few short sentences about the skills they learned while working on the activity, how they see themselves using these skills outside of the classroom, and which learning outcomes they see this activity or assessment fulfilling. Later, if a student takes Kris’s Psychology senior capstone course, they can use those assessments and reflections they’ve been accumulating to produce a programmatic portfolio. These portfolios contain artifacts of learning from across their educational careers that meet the Psychology departmental learning outcomes. The Psychology programmatic portfolios are intended for a public audience, so each item includes a short paragraph describing the artifact and the skills demonstrated through its creation. Here is one example of a student’s programmatic ePortfolio from Dr. Vespia’s capstone course.

After a few semesters, this project has given the Psychology department some very strong assessment data from which they can draw. Might your department or program benefit from a similar practice?

If assessing such a thing seems like a heavy lift, consider that the AAC&U recommends aligning ePortfolios with the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) and the General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) to articulate explicit connections between student learning outcomes and the work they’re doing. This may afford instructors and programs the opportunity to utilize the AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics as a starting point for assessing ePortfolios as an authentic assessment which can be particularly challenging to assess at scale.

ePortfolios for Professionalization

Example of student ePortfolio from Andrew Ransom
Example of student ePortfolio from Andrew Ransom

ePortfolios and a curated digital identity can help students demonstrate their abilities to integrate their learning across disciplines and feature digital literacy competencies making them marketable to employers and graduate schools. Portfolios are central places where collected work publicly shares the formation of career readiness. The process of creating a portfolio allows students to practice discussing the academic work they’ve done in multiple contexts and for multiple audiences. In this and other ways, a portfolio can better inform graduates for when they enter the job market as evidenced by The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). While NACE is somewhat proprietary, you can get a feel for the sort of competencies they’re after—all boxes ePortfolios help check—by looking at results such as these (in this case from California University of Pennsylvania).

If this is of interest to you, feel free to expand the list below for details on some skills closely associated with ePortfolio work.

One thing that will likely influence students' success, whether they are continuing their education past their master’s degree or entering the job market right away, is their comfort level with computers, applications, software, and social media. Employers often have some unrealistic or misaligned expectations for new hires who are just leaving college—they assume that because students use technology and social media in their personal life, they’ll understand how to use it for professional purposes, too! This is assumption is often incorrect, but an ePortfolio project can help give students some experience with using technology for professional purposes. By creating a portfolio, students can also start thinking about their professional digital identity, which has become crucial in a world where networking on sites such as LinkedIn is instrumental in finding a job.

Digital Technology is #4 on the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) list of 8 core skills for career success. Employers are looking for candidates who have demonstrated competency in existing digital technologies and the ability to adapt to new and emerging technologies. 

Learning how to use a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, which is one of the tools that we recommend using for creating an ePortfolio, is another skill that students can add to a CV or résumé. Even though students may not imagine themselves using website builders or CMSs in the future, they may find that these skills will still come in handy. Ask your colleagues—some of them are even asked to add things to our campus websites using a CMS called Kentico in order to fulfill public posting requirements for grants!

Career Management is #7 on that list from NACE: The ability to identify and articulate skills, strengths, and experiences in a way that's relevant to the position students desire is a skill that a portfolio can help students develop because they can practice thinking and describing projects and assignments to different audiences; proficiency in exploring and pursuing job options and the ability to self-advocate in the workplace can stem from this kind of practice.

Explaining how projects and assessments from undergraduate and graduate academics apply to skills listed in a job posting is one of the things students will likely be asked in an interview. Students might want to express how they could potentially grow into that entry-level position by sharing the skills they’ve cultivated in a project that indirectly relates to their field of study.

Communication is #2 on that NACE 8 core skills and competencies list: the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively in both written and verbal contexts. Think about how appropriate it would be to be able to share how courses, course work, and projects from undergraduate and graduate careers can apply to the skills in a job description. Creating a portfolio is basically practicing those interviewing skills so that students have some vocabulary and examples to pull from directly.

Getting started with recommendations for students

Getting started with an ePortfolio project or assignment can sound like a daunting task, but it’s not so bad if we keep in mind that what we’re really after is helping students collect and describe the work they’ve already done. The list below summarizes some of the key considerations to start with.

As an instructor, you can guide students in this process. You can also use the structure of your course to establish baseline groupings—e.g. “Theory, Research, Practice.”

Ask yourself: what patterns are you seeing? Hopefully your work is at least linked by your major, minor, and/or emphasis. How might you articulate these patterns using portfolio sections, categories, or pages? 

Don’t forget about group work. Are any of these projects the result of group work? If so, you must get permission from your team members to share the work publicly (if that’s your plan). It might be necessary to redact or remove other student names from the work—but don’t mischaracterize or pass off their work as your own. Alternatively, feature only the sections you’ve worked on by yourself. In your portfolio, you’ll need to articulate how these are a part of a larger project. 

Who is your portfolio for? Peer reviewers? Instructors? Employers? Graduate Schools? If you want a public, web-indexed portfolio, consider choosing a medium like WordPress (see below), Wix, Weebly, or Google Sites.

As an instructor, make it transparent what you anticipate students will do with their portfolio. Is it just for this class? Do you intend for it to go beyond the course? How will this influence the way you have students engage with it as a medium?

As an instructor, this is a great first assignment for ePortfolios.

Write a résumé or CV. Make a “web safe” version if you’re making a public portfolio so that it doesn’t have your home address or phone number on it.

Meet with Career Services for feedback!

Each time you finish a paper, project, grant proposal, or other artifact that you’re proud of, save it somewhere (see Collect your work and think of how it fits together above) so that you can add it to your portfolio. A you make progress, you can also add it directly to your portfolio if you’ve already started one.

As an instructor, consider how your existing assignments might fit into a scheme suitable for a course or program-level portfolio.

Claiming a UWGB Subdomain & Installing WordPress

One way students can create an ePortfolio is by building a UWGB-hosted WordPress website in which they can add pages, images, documents, and other educational and professional artifacts. This starts with claiming a UWGB web domain and installing WordPress. The steps for doing this are available in this document.

Below are some examples of student portfolios built in this way:

Stay in touch.

Have you or your program used ePortfolios in the past? We’d love to hear about your experiences. What tips do you have for other instructors starting out with this sort of assignment? Or perhaps you’ve never used ePortfolios before, but are thinking about incorporating them into one of your courses—what questions do you need answered to get started?

Drop us a line via email or comment below!

If you’re interested in beginning a portfolio project in your course, request a consultation with CATL and one of our team members will get back to you about how to get started if you would like some guidance.