Skip to main content

CETLI asked undergraduate students across Penn for feedback on how Canvas helps or hinders their learning. This page provides some insights from them about what has been most helpful as well as tips for how instructors might address these elements in their own Canvas sites.

If you need help customizing Canvas to meet your needs or if you would like another perspective on your Canvas site, consider consulting with CETLI.

Canvas Navigation

What students say about how they navigate Canvas sites

I would say the biggest thing I struggle with is finding things - it can be difficult to figure out where a certain professor posted something because every professor lays Canvas out differently.

[Canvas sites work when they feature] the tabs that are actually important for the students and keeping those more concise (if you only really need 4 tabs like home, files, and assignments, and grades, then don't use the other ones).

I find that sites with minimalist designs are the easiest to use. I haven't enjoyed using Canvas sites for courses where there are lots of different tabs.

What might instructors do?

Plan how you intend to organize your course and think about your students as your primary audience before you start creating materials. What may make perfect sense to you is not perfectly legible to your students.

A good Canvas site should:

  • Limit the number of tabs visible on the left hand side to only those the students need. Learn how to modify the course menu from the Canvas guides.
  • Provide your contact information, how best to contact you and your office hours. If you have TAs, their information should be present as well.
  • Show due dates for major assignments in a prominent place and call students' attention to the "to do" list on the right side of the Canvas site. Be aware that things won't show up there if they don't have a due date.
  • If you have a preferred way for students to ask questions, such as Ed Discussion or Canvas Discussion, direct them to those resources.

Consider the different options that Canvas provides for the home page :

  • Use a Page: You can edit the page so that the due dates and information your students need are right there. You can link from that page to other elements of Canvas like Modules and provide links to your contact information, office hours and class meetings.
  • Use Modules: Well organized modules can show students what is coming class by class and help them find materials quickly. You can create an "Information" module and use text headers to tell students where to find general information.
  • Use the Syllabus: The syllabus page shows a table-oriented view of the course schedule, and the basics of course grading. You can add your contact information and office hours in an editable box at the top.
  • Use the Course Activity Stream: Using this page shows the most recent announcements, active discussions and upcoming assignments (but because it doesn't also include readings and other general information this type of page isn't useful for all classes.) The course stream automatically updates so that students see deadlines clearly.

Explain to students about how to find information on Canvas for your class (understanding that everyone does it differently). You can use class time for this or record a short video tour of your Canvas site.

Organizing Course Materials

What students say about how they prefer to access course materials

I think the best organized Canvas sites I've seen take advantage of the Modules section in the left-hand menu, and organize any materials that students need to access there. Having all documents in one place instead of spread out among Files and Pages sections is already a huge help.

My favorite is when we have a module each week that has the reading, the lecture (and slides), and the assignment. No one wants to go on a hunt in files for a document.

The less teachers put in the Files tab better. I find that files are difficult to navigate.

What might instructors do?

Use Modules that you organize by week or unit. Modules that reflect the progression of the course are clearly helpful for students. Again and again students say modules, organized by class date, create the easiest way to find the information they need in a timely way.

Hide Files. You can use files to store documents and organize materials, but modify the course menu to hide the Files tab from students and encourage them to navigate the course through modules or some other means.

Guide students to Modules. Once you have created well organized modules, consider selecting the Modules view as your home page for students or you can link from your home page to the modules to help students quickly navigate to this area.

Edit your Canvas site throughout the semester. As you go through the course, move the modules that you have completed to the bottom of the page so that students encounter the modules they need to work on first.

Communicating Assignments and Deadlines

What students say about how to communicate key dates

It is most helpful to have all the deadlines and assignments ready and in one place so I can see what I need to do for the next few weeks. If you can have everything up a month ahead of time that is even more useful so I can plan my work.

I look at the calendar first. But I get frustrated when a course lists nothing on the calendar or when a course lists too much and my calendar looks cluttered.

What I care about 90% of when I go to Canvas is exactly what's due.

What might instructors do?

Remember, students find it useful when Canvas sites focus on what is most important to them. While they like some attention to design, they are looking for assignments and deadlines. Avoid unnecessary details and remove things that are out of date.

Keep assignments in Canvas. Students have to come regularly to Canvas and sometimes are frustrated when they have to check a number of different sites. If you are using external tools (like Gradescope) you should think about ways to remind students of assignments and grades.

Take advantage of the To Do list. Make important deadlines into assignments with due dates in Canvas so that they show up in your students' "to do" list. Call attention to the list for your students and explain how you will use it.

Use the Calendar in Canvas. Assignments with due dates will show up automatically. You can also use the calendar to indicate major deadlines and things that students need to pay attention to (but not everything). Be aware that the calendar is where many students start when using Canvas.

Streamline your Canvas site throughout the semester so that the things students need to access are prominent and clearly identified. You can do this by updating the home page, using announcements that show up on the home page, or moving older modules and out-of-date information to the bottom and posting the most timely material to the top.