Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Getting Better at Canvas

 I am not a Canvas expert, but I've learned a lot this past semester, and hope to keep learning more.

This post is a compilation of some of the things I've learned that make Canvas better for me and my students.



I took a course offered by my employer (Contra Costa Community College District) called Becoming an Effective Online Instructor (BEOI). In the course they recommended using lots of pictures in our Canvas pages. I haven't gotten to the point of "lots" yet, but I'm trying to become more aware of what images will help students learn mathematical concepts, and also what mathematical images bring beauty to the screen. 


I love this image, titled Banded Torus, by Thomas Banchoff and Davide Cervone. I recently realized that part of its power for me was its black background. So I changed the cover images for my calculus and precalculus courses, to incorporate a black background. Both of these are done on desmos in reverse contract. The originals, with white background, were nowhere near as lovely.

For calculus, I wanted to show both slope and area.

For precalculus, I wanted to show all of the functions we study (along with the circle). I did leave out the rational functions, not wanting the image to look too busy.


That BEOI course offered very specific ideas about how to set up an orientation module. (I had to do one their way for the course, and then I modified it to make it my own for my students.) One of the items in it is a quiz. I loved putting that together. I tell students where the answer to each question is (as part of the question), so they can look it up. Partly, it's a way to emphasize certain things from all of the pages I am hoping they will have read. (Yes, you can call me at home! But not after 8pm.), and it's also a chance to be silly (how many chickens does Sue have?). It also allows students to start out the semester with a perfect quiz score (hopefully!).

Zoom Recordings

I guess Zoom saves these already, but I wanted them listed in my modules. So I had a module with links to each day's recording. In a mid-semester survey, two students requested that the various topics covered be listed with timestamps. I don't have time to do that, but I figured out a way to allow students to do it for each other. I have one page in each unit where I link to each recording by date, and list the topics we covered underneath. I set that page so that students can edit it. (They didn't this semester, but if we start out this way, and they get a bit of extra credit for it, we might be able to jointly build a great resource.)

Quiz & Test Retakes

Until this semester, I did not use the Canvas grades function. I do my grading using Excel, and it has lots more flexibility for my crazy formulas that calculate the grade four different ways and take whichever is best for the student.  But everything was online this time. So that's where the grades were. I turned off the totals, so students wouldn't see the wrong scores that Canvas figured.

I allow students to take quizzes multiple times. (New version each time, of course.) And they get two chances on most tests. I started out building a new Canvas assignment for each retake. What a mess to figure grades! I finally realized that Canvas would accept multiple attempts on an assignment, and allow me to look at each one. That feature works great.

There is a "hide grades" feature that is supposed to hide the grades until I'm ready to post them. But it apparently doesn't hide my comments, which defeats the purpose. (Since I explain my grading in the comments.) Maybe there's a better way to do that, and I'll learn it soon. [Edit: After I wrote this post, I found out that there is indeed a better way. In the gradebook, go to the assignment, at the name of it, click on the three dots, choose 'Grade Posting Policy', and choose manually. Then remember to 'Post Grades' when you're done.]


Organizing Content

The Canvas "modules" serve as containers for each of my units. So each one starts with a "unit sheet", giving an introduction to the ideas they'll be learning about, objectives, and a schedule. That schedule is what I want my students to think of as their home base in my class. I add details to it daily, I highlight the current class session, and I link to pages and assignments in it. I add more detail to it when I'm prepping my next class. It works great for me, and I want it to work great for my students. I put a link to it on the Home page, so it's easy to get to.


Community Page-Building

Canvas pages start out as editable only by the teacher. But you can change that to allow students to edit a page. Our fist topic in our second unit (in trigonometry) was radians, and I wanted them to do something after our first test, before that next class session. So I created this page, and I told them to find the best videos online that explain radians. I think comparing video explanations was a great way for them to be thinking about whether they really understood the concept.

Next Semester

I am still thinking about how to get students to participate more, and will be looking for ideas to help with that. I know I should make a few videos where I explain some of the key concepts. But I seem to be resisting doing that.

What have you learned recently about how to use Canvas well?


  1. Thank you for posting this!
    Good ideas here.

  2. "Message Students Who".... in the grade book. For any assignment, you can click on the three vertical ellipses next to the name and select "Message Students Who". It gives options "haven't yet submitted", "haven't been graded", "scored less than", and "scored more than." You can set the cutoff for a score and it sends an individual message to students that meet the criteria. It's a get way to nudge students when a deadline is fast approaching (and it was especially important for asynchronous online quizzes. For some reason these seem to slip their minds.) But I also send congratulatory messages to students that did well and encouraging message to those that need to work harder. They usually responded and really appreciated that I "noticed" them.

    1. Thank you! I may try that next semester. I usually do something similar early in the semester (but hadn't used that capability, which sounds neat). Later in the semester I don't usually remember to keep doing it. I wonder if doing it this way would help me to remember.


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