Canvas is Virginia Tech's learning management system (LMS). Instructors use Canvas to manage teaching materials like assignments, quizzes, feedback, and student grades.
- Official courses are automatically created in instructors' Canvas accounts.
- Enrolled students are automatically added.
- Instructors can reuse teaching materials by importing them to a new course site.
- Canvas provides 24-7 support by phone (833-639-7621) and chat (click Help on any Canvas screen).
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.
- Mistakes frustrate students and embarrass instructors. Double and triple check your course content from both student and instructor points of view.
- Students learn better when they interact with the material vs. listening to a lecture. Use demonstrations, activities, and discussions throughout the course.
- Students are more likely to participate if they feel as if their teachers are working with them. Invest time in course design, communication, and monitoring.
- One of the most common student complaints about online courses students is lack of communication with their instructor. In the absence of in-person communication, communicate frequently with students via individual messages, course announcements, and assignment feedback.
2. Make courses accessible.
- All students should be able to access your teaching materials. Make sure your content is accessible to students with disabilities. It's far easier to create new accessible content than to re-work existing content.
Top of page
Prerequisites to Course Design
Learn the learning management system before designing your course. Learning options include:
Top of page
Resources for Designing Courses
To learn more about Instructional Design & Course Development, request a consultation with TLOS instructional designers by using our contact form.
Top of page
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.
- If you are teaching a Pathways course, go to Pathways Assessment to find outcomes that best align with your course.
- If your department has set outcomes you should use, refer to them during course design.
Modify outcomes or design your own
What your students will learn:
- What subsequent courses and job skills will rely on material from the course?
- What content must they internalize?
- What will they apply the new knowledge to?
- What skills must they learn? Where will they apply the skills?
What your students already know:
- What courses have they taken?
- What knowledge and life skills do they have - even if tangentially related to the materials?
How they will learn:
- What is best conveyed in writing? In video? Through student group activities?
- How much material can you effectively have students self-study, saving in-class time for guided activities and applications?
How you will evaluate them:
- How will you measure knowledge?
- Standard testing might be adequate, especially to make sure students have read the materials before coming to class for activities.
- Frequent quizzing during and between classes improves student learning.
- How will you measure application? Open-ended activities, essays, and problems solving can rate students' application of knowledge to new arenas.
- How will you measure skill development?
- How will you communicate your rubrics?
- How will you weight different evaluations in final grades?
Your expectations for students:
- How much time do you expect them to spend on the course? (You should spend the same amount!)
- What are your behavior and performance expectations? How will you inform students of expectations, monitor them, and correct them?
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.
- Keep in mind that students are novices who taking other courses. Plan for them to spend time on course content and homework for them to be able to learn.
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).
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:
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:
- Your name, contact information, and office hours.
- Materials they need (including recommended and supplemental).
- Your expectations for performance and in-class etiquette.
- A detailed lesson plan including units and components in units.
- A course schedule.
- Your grading process and rubrics.
- Information about the honor code.
- Information about services for students with disabilities.
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.
Top of page
Adding Content to Canvas
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 to Canvas using the My Media and Media Gallery tools, not Files, because Files has limited storage. We suggest:
- Breaking long lecture videos into shorter segments. Shorter videos help keep students' attention.
- Organizing videos into series using Playlists in Media Gallery.
- Adding captions to videos. Captions make videos more accessible. They also allow students to search videos for specific content to review.
For complete instructions, see: Video Content Management - Using My Media and Media Gallery (for Instructors).
Create (Web) 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:
- Clear, concise, and meaningful titles for your pages.
- Keeping pages relatively short - split up long content into multiple pages.
- Not embedding more than one video per page. Multiple embedded videos can cause pages to load slowly.
- Organize pages by using modules.
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:
- The course title and overview
- Your contact information
- Where to find course materials
- An interesting image related to the course material
- You can also include the syllabus, course schedule, and more.
Then, in the Home tool, make the Home page the Pages front page.
Write a welcoming Announcement
- You can compose your announcement and set it to post at a later date.
- Include links to the syllabus, course schedule, and introductory Discussion.
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:
- What you want your students to know about you.
- What you want to know about your students.
- Invite questions about the course.
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.
- In Settings, create the grading scheme.
- Copying the settings of the draft into the official course site will also transfer over the grading scheme.
- 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.
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?
Top of page
Add Assignments and Pages to Modules
See Canvas Instructor Guide - Modules.
- 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?
- Put your readings, assignments, and quizzes in the module. See: How do I add assignment types, pages, and files as module items?
- Make sure your modules are in the correct order.
- Test the module links before publishing.
- Publish modules. Publishing a module publishes the content inside.
Set student groups
- Student groups in Canvas let students share files, submit group assignments, and chat, all in Canvas.
- We recommend creating groups of 3 or 4 randomly-assigned students (unless student schedules force them to self-group).
To make groups, see Creating Student Groups in Canvas - Teaching with Canvas (for Instructors).
Customize course navigation
Customize the course navigation menu.
- In Settings, you can reorder, disable, and enable menu items based on their importance.
- We recommend minimizing the number of items in your course menu to streamline navigation.
See: How do I manage Course Navigation links?
Top of page
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 Videos: Video Content Management - Captioning Videos
- Add machine-generated captions to videos.
Zoom Meeting Recordings: Video Conferencing - Making Zoom Accessible
- Enable closed captioning during meetings.
- Add machine-generated transcripts to recordings.
Virginia Tech Captioning Services Request Form
- Request professional-grade captions for teaching materials.
Speech-to-text and text-to-speech
Read on-screen content aloud: Literacy Software - How to Use Read&Write
- Read aloud text on your desktop and online.
- Convert speech to text.
- Look up words and check grammar.
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
- Check documents for accessibility.
- Export documents as accessible PDFs.
Microsoft Office documents: Accessibility Checker – How to Create Accessible Documents with Microsoft Office Products
- Check documents for accessibility.
- Convert documents to accessible PDFs.
Canvas course sites: Accessibility Checker for Canvas - How to Use Blackboard Ally
- Check Canvas files for accessibility & give feedback on how to improve accessibility.
- Create accessible, alternative formats for student download.
Color contrast: Accessible Technologies – How to Ensure Sufficient Color Contrast in Web Content
- Check for adequate contrast in MS Office documents and Canvas and other online content.
Digital Math - How to Create and Edit Digital Math with EquatIO
- Convert between LaTeX, hand-written equations, printed documents, spoken and typed math and digital math.
- Read math in screenshots aloud.
Professional Development Network (PDN) Courses
Sign up for Courses about Teaching and Learning for ways to improve your course.
Instructional Design (ID) Guides
Post these resources either on your homepage or your syllabus page:
Top of page
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:
Top of page