Using Canvas to Teach and Learn

Published: Tues., July 10, 2018, by Dr. Tawnya Means

As a graduate student, you will use digital tools for teaching and learning to accomplish both student and instructor purposes. A learning management system (LMS) is a portal for bringing together the digital tools used for teaching and Canvas is the official LMS for the University of Nebraska system. It is also currently the second most used LMS in higher education and the only LMS that is still increasing in market share. This means that what you learn about Canvas while you are a graduate student at UNL will most likely continue to be useful if you continue in higher education at other institutions.

You have most likely experienced a range in how instructors use LMS tools for disseminating content, managing assessment, providing feedback, encouraging and supporting interactions and collaborations, etc. The focus of this post is to share some tips for using Canvas as an instructor, but there are also some great tips for the student side—visit the Canvas blog to see an ongoing discussion. Keep in mind your experiences as a student when you are designing your Canvas course site for teaching.

As you begin teaching or facilitating courses, you may or may not have the flexibility to adapt the course to fit your personality and teaching style. If you have the opportunity to design or update your course site, there are a number of resources available that can help you on your way. 

One of the most important ways that your student experience can influence your teaching experience is by having lived the experience. If you have not participated in an online learning experience, you can do so in a self-paced online course from SUNY Teaching Online. This course will help you learn more about the “concepts, competencies, pedagogies, and practices that are required to plan, develop, and teach an online course.” Even if you are teaching a fully face-to-face and in-person course, Canvas tools can be used to support your teaching. For example, you might use the Canvas Collaborations tool to facilitate in-class group work and documentation of discussions. As students work on assignments, this digital tool can extend their learning and give you insight on what they're doing as they complete the work.

There are always challenges to learning a new system, but learning a few Canvas tricks can help you be a hero in your department! For example, Canvas has a hidden page where you can restore accidentally deleted items such as an assignment, discussion, quiz, or page. You also have the ability to “Message Students Who…” to communicate with students. For example, you can send reminders to specific students who haven't yet submitted an upcoming assignment, send individual students some score-specific feedback, or send a note out about graded assignments. Both of these tools can be huge time savers.

A few of my favorite tips include (1) cleaning up your dashboard by setting course favorites, (2) adding personalized nicknames for your courses, and (3) setting dashboard images for course cards. I like these so much because the LMS can extend your influence on your students. Images are an excellent way to personalize your course and humanize your profile. You can use images (and other files) in your announcements, pages, assignment descriptions, quizzes, and many other areas within Canvas.

Using the mobile app Canvas Teacher gives you easy access to your course content and information about your students. If your students have a question posted in the discussion board, or there is a problem with a due date or a quiz question, you can jump into the app to quickly review or fix it. And if you set your Notification settings appropriately, you won’t miss important announcements, discussion posts, emails, and submission comments or questions from your students. 

Ensuring the academic integrity of your quizzes and exams is a crucial part of teaching. Canvas has a variety of tools and supports a number of methods to protect the value and integrity of your course. For example, you can limit the time allowed on a quiz, shuffle question response options, provide or limit access to quiz results, and you can set the visibility options for courses, pages, assignments, quizzes, and more.

The benefit to your students as you learn more about using Canvas will be a clear and defined structure and organization in your course site. This will help you save time in teaching, reduce the number of questions your students ask about where to find materials and what to do. It will help you think through and refine the organization of your course, and it will help you increase the effective uses of technology for teaching and learning.

Dr. Means is Assistant Dean and Director of the UNL College of Business Teaching and Learning Center.