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Design Principles for Canvas

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At Stanford, a Canvas course site is the primary learning space through which students interface with any course. A well-designed Canvas course can do much to facilitate learning, foster community, and promote active engagement for students. You can apply the following design principles to manage communications, increase productivity, and improve feedback and assessment.

User-experience matters

When a learning space or interface is user-friendly, appealing, and intuitive, the students are free to focus their full attention on learning. If the space is inconsistent, unappealing, or confusing, the learners may spend too much energy trying to figure things out, leaving them frustrated or exhausted when it is time to learn. An effectively designed Canvas course should provide a smooth user experience with little extraneous cognitive load.

Clear and explicit expectations

The information that students will most readily want to know is, "What do I need to do to succeed in this course?" Providing this information to students in an easily accessed and unambiguous way can improve their feelings of self-efficacy and autonomy.

Consider the following suggestions when planning and designing a Canvas course site.

  • Ensure meeting times, location, and links are prominent and easily accessible
  • Make activities, assignments, assessments, and their deadlines clear and consistent
  • Provide clear grading breakdown and policies
  • List required course materials, their cost, and how to access them
  • Use the Canvas Syllabus tool to ensure your syllabus appears at
  • Consider opening your Canvas course for shopping

User-friendly and organized

A well-designed Canvas course is easy to understand. Ideally, students can fairly quickly orient themselves to the organization of the course. There should be a consistent logic to how the course is put together allowing students to comfortably find what they are looking for.

  • “Chunk” content into manageable pieces.  Organizing Files into folders or utilizing the Modules tool is a great way to organize content.  
  • Use consistent and logical naming conventions for files, modules, pages, etc. Avoid dates for naming conventions.
  • Use headers, text formatting, and visual/graphic elements carefully to enhance clarity, accessibility and organization
  • Check links, files, videos, and external URLs to verify they work and have the correct access settings
  • Hide unused Canvas tools in the course navigation menu
  • Complete building out your course (adding content, creating assignments, etc.) and check how things look in Student View before publishing your Canvas course

See  these Canvas course set up tips for more information.

Motivating and communicative

Frequent communication and a supportive environment can motivate students to stay on track. A humanizing presence can be impactful especially in fully online learning. Consider ways to foster connections through the design of a Canvas course.

  • Include a statement of care, inclusion, and support for students
  • Send a welcome announcement before your course starts
  • Use Roster Photos to get to know your students, learn how to pronounce their names, and use their preferred pronouns
  • Add personalized elements, such as a profile photo
  • Provide resources or contact information for getting help
  • Express confidence that all students can succeed in the course with persistent effort and support

Learn more