Managing Course Pacing and Student Access (Canvas)

As you’re organizing your course content, you should also consider how you would like students to move through your course in terms of pacing. Generally speaking, online courses are built to be more adaptable than face-to-face classes in order to accommodate students’ work and class schedules, as well as other commitments like childcare. That being said, there is also research that supports creating a structure for student pacing in an online environment using the conditional release of content (Fisher, L., Brinthaupt, T. M., Gardner, J., & Raffo, D., 2015). Choosing the right pacing style is a balancing act between what will foster the best student learning for your content area, while also delivering on the promise of self-paced learning and the added flexibility that students have come to expect from online courses.

Module access

By default, all published content is visible to students from the start of the class. While this is good for transparency with your students, it also means that students can work on assignments out of order or work ahead. If this is not your intention, one option to manage student pacing is a conditional release, in which each module will automatically unlock when a student fulfills certain conditions. This is accomplished in Canvas by adding prerequisites and/or requirements to each module. These conditions can vary from simple and broad (view all items in Module 2) to assessment-based and highly specific (complete ‘Lab Safety Quiz’ with a score of at least 8 out of 10). The conditional release allows students to work at their own pace, while also encouraging (or requiring) students to demonstrate mastery of an area before moving along.

A different way to manage student pacing is to lock modules based on date, or scheduled release. This could be helpful if there is timely content that needs to be delivered before a student can move along to the next unit, like a synchronous class session or feedback on an assignment. For this method, each module becomes available to students at the same time.

Additionally, content can also be manually released if the instructor chooses to manually publish each module when they feel the class is ready to move along.

Lastly, there is open visibility, in which instructional content is visible for the entirety of the course (though instructors can still manage students’ ability to submit to assignments, discussions, and quizzes if they have availability dates set, detailed further down the page).

The table below compares some of the upsides and drawbacks of conditional release, scheduled release, manual release, and open visibility of course content.

Pacing Style Description Pros Cons


Each module becomes available to a student once they meet the predetermined conditions.
  • Students can work at their own pace.
  • Allows students to focus on one unit at a time.
  • Students are required to either engage with all content (at a minimum) or demonstrate mastery in an area before moving along.
  • Heavily reliant on auto-graded assessments.
  • Could cause additional stress if a student falls behind and is unable to move along/stuck.
  • Limited/no collaborative opportunities.
  • Limited/no class discussions.


Each module becomes available to all students at a certain date and time.
  • All students move through content in the course at the same pace.
  • Allows students to focus on one unit at a time.
  • Less flexible for students.


Each module is available to all students once an instructor manually publishes it.
  • All students move through content in the course at the same pace.
  • Allows students to focus on one unit at a time.
  • Allows the instructor to decide when to move along based on the gauged understanding and needs of the class as a whole.
  • Less flexible for students.
  • Requires instructors to remember to publish each module manually.


All modules are available to all students for the entirety of the course.
  • Students can work at their own pace.
  • Instructors can still choose to manually publish certain materials and restrict access to submit to assignments, discussions, and quizzes with open/close dates.
  • Allows for the greatest degree of transparency (students know exactly what to expect in terms of future assignments, etc.).
  • Students may rush through content without fully engaging with all the materials.
  • Students may get overwhelmed by the amount of material, especially if they fall behind.

Assignment and Assessment Access

If you are using an open visibility model for your course, you can still control students’ access to things like assignments and quizzes if you so chose. When deciding on how long students should have access to an assignment or other assessment, consider allowing a window of at least a few days so students can properly plan when to complete their assignments and assessments.

The first option for limiting student access is to simply leave select materials unpublished until you would like students to be able to see them, similar to the Manual Release method for module delivery. When an item is unpublished, it is completely invisible and inaccessible to students. This method requires you to be proactive in your communication with your students, as students are not automatically notified when you publish an item in Canvas. Note that if you unpublish an activity that students have already submitted for a grade, the activity will be excluded from students’ grade calculations until you re-publish the item.

If you would like the process for managing student access to be more automated, the other option is to add availability (open/close) dates to activities in Canvas. Discussions, assignments, and quizzes all can have availability dates. Pages can have “to-do” dates. Unlike unpublished Canvas items, closed activities are still partially visible to students. This Canvas guide details the differences between due dates and availability dates, and the table below provides a brief overview of what students can see and do before an activity opens, when it is open, and after it closes.

Canvas Activity Before opening While open After closing
Discussions Students can view the discussion prompt, any attached rubrics, and the due date. Students can post responses and reply to their peers’ posts. Students can no longer post to the discussion board but can read all the posts that were made while the discussion was open.
Assignments Students can view the assignment description, any attached rubrics, and the due date. Students can submit their work and comments. Students can no longer submit their work but can still view their submissions and make comments.
Quizzes Students can view the quiz description and the due date. Students can open, take, and submit their quiz. Students can no longer take the quiz but may be able to see their responses, depending on the quiz settings.

Adding “to-do” dates to Pages in Canvas allows you to set a read-by or engage-with-by type of reminder to students. This will appear in their Canvas calendars and also their course to-do list. The to-do date in Pages does not restrict student access after the set date. To add a to-do date to a Page, edit it, scroll to the bottom, and check the box “Add to student to-do.”

The option to add a page to the student "to do" list