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The user-friendly Canvas course

Summary and materials from the August 2020 TEACH Symposium workshop on "The User-Friendly Canvas Course"

As we transition to online learning, your Canvas site will be the face of your course and will make a critical first impression on your students. While the Canvas course can be effectively used as a repository to upload lecture slides and readings, it also can be built out as your main tool to promote active, student-centered learning. 

These resources guide you through creating a user-friendly experience for students that makes your course goals and expectations more transparent and accessible. 

Download Workshop Slides


This workshop is designed to help you empower your students by making Canvas do the work we need it to do. We begin the workshop with you reflecting on how you use Canvas and what you see its purpose to be. After exploring a few example Canvas course sites, we discuss how their design impacts your students. In particular, we identify ways to minimize your students' cognitive load by valuing three design principles: transparency, accessibility, and communication. Using our “Canvas Features and Pedagogical Applications” handout, you then have the opportunity to experiment with default and extended usages of modules, pages, quizzes, collaborations, discussions, assignments, announcements, people, and grades.

Example Canvas Organizations

Canvas courses can be structured in any number of ways. Consider the following example Canvas courses, which show off two out of the endless possible ways to organize your site: Example Canvas Course 1 and Example Canvas Course 2.

If you were in the position of a student, would you know how to find the link to the Zoom meeting for a given class or where to turn in your assignment on a given week? How can we signal these items easily for our students?

To better empower our students, we must consider the cognitive load that students will experience. We must minimize the difficulty they may face simply navigating through our Canvas sites, as we ideally want them to focus their efforts on the difficulty of the actual task. By prioritizing transparency, accessibility, and communication in our Canvas site design, we can better support our students and their overall experience in online learning. Moreover, we can take lessons from user design where principles of interaction design and information architecture are very relevant to how we structure and present different parts of our course.

As an example, consider Example Canvas Course 1 and Example Canvas Course 2:

Transparency - Each of these courses makes use of Modules to organize their content. Most of the content is arranged chronologically to show students what materials are relevant for each week. Example Canvas Course 2 also makes use of the Pages feature to have embedded weekly outlines that explain the assignments and readings. Moreover, it has separate modules for major assignments with all of the assignment info and milestones to be submitted.

Accessibility - Assignments can be found within each corresponding module based on when it is due (or within its own module) as well as in the Assignments tab on Canvas. These areas all provide a description of the prompt and expectations, as well as due dates. Several options have been provided for students who may have technological difficulties. These issues are pre-emptively identified using technology accessibility surveys. Both Canvas courses offered ways to view some course content asynchronously such as pre-recorded lectures or slides with audio narration. Example Canvas Course 1 also provides backup discussion boards for students who have issues connecting to the synchronous discussion sections over Zoom.

Communication - More consistent messaging is provided in both courses to keep students on track, but also to create a greater sense of human presence. Both courses make use of regular announcements to keep students updated and aware of upcoming deadlines. Example Canvas Course 1 offers a recorded video of a welcome message from the faculty while Example Canvas Course 2 uses a Canvas page to introduce the teaching team to students.

While we emphasize accessibility, we must point out that there are more official guidelines for specific accommodations that your students may need. If you have concerns regarding ADA compliance, you should consult with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE) at

Canvas Features Self-Assessment


Take this self-assessment to identify specific features of Canvas that you are familiar with and others that you may want to explore further. This can help you strategize the best use of your time in learning Canvas. Canvas offers many features that can help you create a more engaging and dynamic learning experience online.

Canvas offers many features that can help you create a more engaging and dynamic learning experience online. These features can be leveraged to seamlessly bring students from one learning activity (e.g. reading, or watching a video) to another (e.g. submitting a reflection, or posting on a discussion board). The included handout points out how different features on Canvas can be used, especially in possibly new or more creative ways.

Canvas Help

Visit GoCanvas for more information on using Canvas. If there are any features that you are unsure of how to set up within Canvas, please see "How to Use Canvas for Teaching If Your Class Can’t Meet In-Person" to learn these Canvas basics. You may also consider reaching out to Stanford's Canvas support.