Canvas - Best Practices for Canvas Course Design


Canvas is Virginia Tech's learning management system (LMS). Instructors use Canvas to manage teaching materials like assignments, quizzes, feedback, and student grades. 

Official Canvas sites with automatic instructor and student enrollments appear in instructor accounts prior to the beginning of the semester. You should design your teaching materials and site using a draft course site so you can get started earlier and so you can import the materials into multiple official course shells.

The Canvas Instructor Guide has full instructions on using Canvas. These instructions are specific to Virginia Tech. To see other Canvas topics, please see Using Canvas at Virginia Tech (for Instructors).



Rules of Thumb for Course Site Design

There are many approaches to designing a Canvas course site; however, some rules of thumb apply across the board:

1. Make courses interactive.

2. Make courses accessible.

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Prerequisites to Course Design

Learn the learning management system before designing your course. Learning options include: 

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Resources for Designing Courses

To learn more about Instructional Design & Course Development, request a consultation with TLOS instructional designers by using our contact form.

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Designing a Course 

Outline a course plan

Before you start using Canvas, outline your course. The course should be designed around what you want students to learn, not around Canvas' technology. Know that all courses get refined; the first time you teach a course, you'll probably identify a lot of ways to improve it. 

Set course objectives and/or outcomes
Find standard outcomes

Objectives are what you expect students to learn. Outcomes, in an official sense, are university or department-set learning objectives that are used for accreditation and standardization. 

Modify outcomes or design your own

Determine - 

What your students will learn:

What your students already know: 

How they will learn:

How you will evaluate them: 

Your expectations for students: 

Review and set course content

Using the information from your course objectives, organize the content presentation, activities, and testing into logical units. An effective example structure is:

1. Identify prior knowledge

Students learn better if new material can be related to existing material. That's why the first hundred words in a new language are so hard to memorize - you learn them in a vacuum. So, create an introductory activity where students brainstorm about ideas and topic related to the future lesson's content. For example, a lesson on excavation techniques could begin with asking students for stories of them digging in the dirt as children, digging fence posts, or working at construction sites. Keep these activities light and fun. 

2. Convey new information

This is the "boring" part, where students read material, listen to lectures, and/or solve set problems. In the excavation example, have them review texts, articles, videos related to excavation.

3. Quiz knowledge

Frequent quizzing helps students learn and retain knowledge. They should come to class prepared for the activities. Quizzes should be short and can be online or in class using Canvas, iClickers, or on paper.  

4. Set activities and applications

Develop activities where students apply the knowledge and skills to new situations. Activities can be discussions, group projects, design projects, and more. They should be challenging and interesting. An example could be a group design project around a realistic excavation, including planning, calculations, considerations, and a presentation. 

Canvas has a number of add-ins that facilitate group work. See Canvas - How to Request and Use External Tools (LTI Tools).

5. Test

Evaluate learning and application beyond what you quizzed them on after they first learned the material. This could be in the form of a test or activity. An excavation example could be individual assignments on excavation design. 

6. Encourage innovation

This could be something fun, a free-form, ungraded class activity that makes the information meaningful to students personally, academically, and professionally. For example, let them choose groups and work on an excavation project of their choice. 

Make sure content is accessible

Creating accessible content supports learner variability and provides access to individuals with disabilities. Virginia Tech recommends our community members check the accessibility of teaching materials to make sure they comply with VT Policy 7215 and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Courses must be compliant with WAG 3.0 standards for accessibility. All texts and images must be accessible to students. Virginia Tech and Instructure offer a suite of accessibility tools: 

Establish pace

This is often the most difficult part of course design, because you must predict how quickly students can learn. Consult with prior instructors and be prepared to be somewhat flexible.  

Create a syllabus

Syllabi must include: 

Create rubrics

For each assignment, create a rubric showing grades and what students need to do to get each grade. Clear rubrics are fair to students and can prevent grading conflicts. Tables are the easiest for students to read. You can attach your rubrics to Canvas Assignments, include them in the Syllabus, and/or add them to as File or in a Page

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Adding Content to Canvas

Upload Files

Upload Syllabus, readings, problem sets, PowerPoints, test exams, activity instructions, and more to the site's Files area. You can link to them from other areas in Canvas. Consider: 

See How do I use Files as an instructor? 

Add Media

Add media to Canvas using the My Media and Media Gallery tools, not Files, because Files has limited storage. We suggest:

For complete instructions, see: Video Content Management - Using My Media and Media Gallery (for Instructors)

Create (Web) Pages
Content Pages

Canvas Pages is where you can create custom web pages for your site. They can be used for a Home page, reading materials, a syllabus, embedded videos, assignment instructions, or links to other materials and sites. We suggest: 

Home Page

You can select one page to be your Front Page, and then set your site's Home page to be that Front Page. Design your home page to guide your students through the course. We suggest you include: 

Then, in the Home tool, make the Home page the Pages front page. 

Videos by TLOS: Professional Development Network

Welcome students
Write a welcoming Announcement
Create an introductory Discussion

Create a Discussion and set to get to know your students early. They are more likely to feel comfortable coming to you with any questions. You can set the discussion to open at a later date. Include: 

Set up Assignments and grading
Set a Grading Scheme

The Virginia Tech grading scheme is the Canvas default. If you use your own grading scheme, please see Enable a Grading Scheme in Canvas Course Settings to set and change it. 

  1. In Settings, create the grading scheme.
    • Copying the settings of the draft into the official course site will also transfer over the grading scheme.
  2. Create an organized assessment structure using assignment groups in the assignment section.
    • Group assignments based off your course plan.
    • Like modules, assignment groups can be empty at first.
Create Assignments

The Assignments tool in Canvas can be used to give Quizzes, read-and-respond homework, and problem sets. Create individual Assignments for each activity students must complete. Graded assignments automatically create columns in the Grades area. See:

Create Assignment Groups and Set Up Grading

Assignment groups can be used to organize assignments by unit or grade weight. See How do I add an assignment group in a course? 

Set up Outcomes and Rubrics

To link rubrics to your outcomes, see How do I align an outcome with a rubric in a course?

Set up Canvas' Syllabus tool

Alongside your written syllabus, we recommend using Canvas' Syllabus too, because it updates when you change assignment names and dates.

See How do I use the Syllabus as an instructor?

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Organizing Content

Add Assignments and Pages to Modules

See Canvas Instructor Guide - Modules.

  1. Create a set of course modules, with one module for each course unit. See: How do I add assignment types, pages, and files as module items?
  2. Put your readings, assignments, and quizzes in the module. See: How do I add assignment types, pages, and files as module items?
  3. Make sure your modules are in the correct order. 
  4. Test the module links before publishing. 
  5. Publish modules. Publishing a module publishes the content inside.  
Set student groups

To make groups, see Creating Student Groups in Canvas - Teaching with Canvas (for Instructors).

Customize course navigation

Customize the course navigation menu. 

See: How do I manage Course Navigation links?

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For additional resources on how to make content created or shared in Canvas accessible based on the Canvas Rich Content Editor Checklist (PDF), see our video series on Web Accessibility in Canvas.

Captioning and transcripts

Media Gallery VideosVideo Content Management - Captioning Videos

Zoom Meeting RecordingsVideo Conferencing - Making Zoom Accessible

Virginia Tech Captioning Services Request Form

Speech-to-text and text-to-speech

Read on-screen content aloud: Literacy Software - How to Use Read&Write

Read Canvas Pages aloud: How do I use the Microsoft Immersive Reader when viewing a page as an instructor?

Accessible documents online and offline

Google Suite documents: Accessibility Checker for Google Suite Documents - How to Use Grackle

Microsoft Office documents: Accessibility Checker – How to Create Accessible Documents with Microsoft Office Products

Canvas course sites: Accessibility Checker for Canvas - How to Use Blackboard Ally

Color contrast: Accessible Technologies – How to Ensure Sufficient Color Contrast in Web Content

Digital Math

Digital Math - How to Create and Edit Digital Math with EquatIO

Professional Development Network (PDN) Courses

Sign up for Courses about Teaching and Learning for ways to improve your course.

Instructional Design (ID) Guides

Student Resources

 Post these resources either on your homepage or your syllabus page:

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Getting Help

For instructions on resolving common issues with Canvas, see:

Instructure, the creators of Canvas, provide 24-7 Canvas support, including live chat and a support hotline. 

To get Canvas help, click Support on any Canvas screen and choose from help options: 

For help using Canvas to teach:

For help setting up accessible content:

For help with instructional design:

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