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.


 

A broken chain

Avoiding Broken Links in Canvas

Has this happened to you? You open an email from one of your students that reads, “I can’t access the required reading file in week 3 of the Canvas course?” Concerned, you open your Canvas course. You check your week 3 module; it’s published and so is your “Required Readings” page. Strange. You open the course page and click on the link to the reading file; it downloads. Even stranger. Your student still insists that they cannot access the file. What is going on???

Instructors working in Canvas can occasionally encounter scenarios like the above where a link, image, or file in their Course works for them but does not work for their students. These errors can be very tricky to diagnose and are often caused by something sneaky going on “under the hood” in Canvas. Thankfully, Canvas has a tool that instructors can use to hunt out bad links in their course. This post introduces Canvas’s course link validator tool and explains how it can be used to proactively detect broken links in your courses. It will also provide a few tips for fixing these issues once they’ve been detected and best practices for avoiding these issues altogether.

Detecting Broken Links

Your secret weapon in this fight against broken links is the course link validator. The course link validator, which can be accessed from the Settings page of your course, scans all content in a course for links that may not work for any of several reasons. It will detect and report links to unpublished content, links to content in another course, and links to external websites that just don’t work. It’s a great idea to run the link validator right before you are ready to publish your course and run it again each time you make a large change or addition.

After running the link validator, Canvas will display a list of each piece of content in your course that contains at least one link that may need your attention. These problematic links are further sorted beneath a description of the cause of the error. In the example screenshot of link validator results below, the validator found five broken links in this course:

The results of a link validation check in Canvas.

  • One embedded image in a quiz question that will not work for students because the embedded image is stored in another course.
  • Three links within a single page that students cannot access because each link points to an object in another course. This page has a link to a page in another course, an embedded image stored in another course, and a link to a file stored in another course.
  • A link in a different page that points to an assignment in this course that has not yet been published.

These results illustrate two of the most common causes for confounding broken links in a course:

  1. Links pointing to unpublished files or other unpublished course content
  2. Links pointing to content that is in a different Canvas course

Both of these issues create links that appear to work fine for the instructor but do not work for students. Without a tool like the course link validator, it would be very difficult to detect these issues!

Defeating Broken Links

Whenever the link validator detects a broken link in your course, it’s time to spring into action and heal those links. Mending links that are broken because they point to unpublished content is straightforward: find that content in your course and publish it! Fixing links that point to content in other courses is trickier.

First, you need to remove the bad link. To do this, find the course content that contains the bad link and edit it. Then remove the bad link or embedded image:

  • For broken links, find the course content that contains the bad link, click edit, click the link in the editor, then click Remove Link.
    The Remove Link option in Canvas
  • For broken embedded images, put your text edit cursor after of the image and backspace to remove it.

Once the bad link is removed, use the Canvas editor’s tools to create a new link that points to the course file or course page, or embed the image from your course images. If that file, page, or image you are linking to doesn’t yet exist within the course, you’ll have to upload it from your computer or import it from the other course. Recreating the link in this fashion will point it at content that is contained within the same course, ensuring your students get to where they need to go!

Why Broken Links Happen

These sneakily broken links are typically the result of a teacher trying to share something with their students that their students are not allowed to access. Naturally, teachers are afforded much wider access to a course than students. The most confusing broken links commonly point to either unpublished content or content in another course. Students can’t see unpublished content or content in the teacher’s other courses, but the teacher can!

One item type in a Canvas course that can unexpectedly cause access problems with its published status is course files. Unlike most other content in a Canvas course, you typically don’t have to manually publish course files; most files you upload to a course will be published upon upload. However, files or even entire file folders can be unpublished in your course Files page. When that happens, students will receive access denied messages after attempting to click a link to that file. To resolve this issue, the course instructor must publish the file or folder in the course’s Files page.

Links to content in another Canvas course can sneak in whenever course content is manually copied from one Canvas course and then pasted into another course. The result of copying and pasting between courses creates links to files, pages, and images that point to an outside course. When students try to follow these links, Canvas sees that they are not enrolled in that course and sends an “access denied” message. To prevent this type of broken link, never copy and paste links or images from one Canvas course into another. Instead, use Canvas’s copy and import tools whenever you need to duplicate content from one course to another.

An Access Denied Error in Canvas

Try it Out!

Whether or not you have been bitten by broken links in the past, we encourage you to run the link validator in your Canvas courses. If the validator finds any issues, take a look at those pages in your course and either remake those links or publish any unpublished link targets. You can check to see if your fixes were successful by rerunning the validator and using student view to try the links as the test student. If you’re ever unsure of how to fix an issue reported by the link validator, please don’t hesitate to contact Canvas 24/7 support via the “Help” button in Canvas, email UWGB’s Canvas support team at dle@uwgb.edu, or request a CATL Consultation for one-on-one training on finding and fixing broken links!

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?

Drop-ins: Gradebooks, VoiceThread, MS Teams for Teaching, & PlayPosit

We’ve blocked off time on our calendars for Jan. 20 & Jan. 22 to hold drop-in sessions dedicated to the Canvas Grades tool, using VoiceThread, using MS Teams for Teaching, and using PlayPosit. Please join Drop-ins here on Collaborate Ultra if you have questions, or feel free to request a one-on-one consultation if these times don’t work for you.

 Jan. 20

 Jan. 22

End-of-Semester CATL “Office Hours” (Drop-Ins and Webinars)

We’ve blocked off time on our calendars on weekdays through Dec. 30 to hold drop-in sessions dedicated to supporting instructors at the end of the semester, so please stop in via Collaborate Ultra (you can also request a one-on-one consultation if you aren’t able to make these times).

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