Structure your Canvas course

Structure your Canvas course

In pedagogy, structure can refer to both “the choice, breakdown and sequencing of the curriculum (content)” and “the deliberate organization of student activities by teacher or instructor (skills development and assessment)” (Bates, 2019). In keeping with this definition, this resource discusses a structure that instructors can use to deliberately, and efficiently, design their classes for student success during remote instruction.

When students are asked to transition their learning from one course delivery format (face-to-face) to another (remote instruction), the cognitive load increases significantly: Students must learn or become proficient in using a learning management system and digital tools they may have limited experience with (e.g.,  Canvas or Zoom); they must learn the structures and processes a particular instructor has created to support remote learning; and they must learn the content of your course. This can be more cognitively demanding for students than face-to-face classes. Therefore, the more clearly and uniformly you structure your Canvas modules for your students, the more cognitive capacity they can devote to learning the course content. Thus, it is recommended that faculty adopt a uniform and simple design for each module.  

  • 1. Ideally, follow the structure One Canvas Module = One Week
  • The alignment between topic and the week of the quarter will be a powerful aid for students in quickly orienting themselves to your course each time they sign in. For example, if week two of your course is about Genetic Engineering then title the module: Week Two: Genetic Engineering. 

  • 2. Establish a structure for each week/Canvas module and use the same structure throughout the quarter.
  • We recommend a six-section Canvas module structure: Module Overview, Review, Prepare, Learn, Apply and Additional Resources.

    - Module Overview The Module Overview is a downloadable Word Doc that explains the learning outcomes for the weekly module and provides instructions for the work students should do and the sequence in which they should do it. (The sequence should be the same in the Overview as it is in Canvas.)

    - Review – The Review section is used for every class after the first class to review the previous class session. In this section of your course, you can provide a short, bulleted summary of the previous class session’s content and a short transitional statement that explains how the last class session relates to the current class session.

    - Prepare – The Prepare section of the module equips your students to engage cognitively with your main content delivery piece, which for many faculty will be a lecture.  Many faculty see “preparing” for a class as completing assigned readings. It can also include a study guide for the reading or some questions for students to consider before or while doing the reading.

    - Learn – The Learn section is the location where you place your recorded lecture video, or link for students to sign in for a live Zoom session that you also record and later upload for those who are unable to participate in a live session. It also has at least one activity where students are asked to interact with (i.e., complete a task about) the content of your lecture. This may be a summary, a quick write, a low-stakes Canvas quiz or other low-stakes assignment that requires students to think about the lecture itself.

    - Apply – The Apply section provides students with a homework assignment or activity that asks them to extend what they’ve learned to another context or apply it to a contemporary world context or to a later, related assignment (e.g., a final project). 

    - Additional Resources – The Additional Resources section is a place where you can upload additional resources that apply to the weekly module. This may include YouTube videos, articles, websites, podcasts or other media that are not integrated into your module but may be closely related to it. They are curated by the instructor and are sometimes added “as you go.” They are considered supplemental and for student interest, not as material students will be tested on.

  • 3. Begin every Canvas Module with a “Module Overview” (click for template)
  • that mirrors the structure on Canvas, explains the learning outcomes for the weekly module and provides instructions for the work students should do and the sequence in which they should do it. (The sequence should be the same in the Overview as it is in Canvas.)
  • 4. Structure your Canvas module as you would a formal outline. 
  • Having a clear structure will help students follow your course outline. Use the same principles of organization you would use when writing a formal outline and ask yourself at each step whether the outline will be clear and transparent to students.  Number elements of your module so that the sequence is immediately clear to students.
  • 5. Use consecutive numbering of readings and videos within each module.
  • Take a moment to look at your numbering system from the perspective of students. Is the system you’ve chosen transparent? Is it easy for students to follow? Having a consistent system for numbering your course elements is an organizational practice that will make it easier for your students to navigate the online environment.
  • 6. Use full titles for course elements.
  • Give the type of element and the full title of the element in its description line/link.  If desired, give the author’s names in parentheses following the title.

    - Yes: Reading 1: Advanced series of more robust drones are teaching themselves how to fly (

    - No: Drones Teach Selves To Fly

  • 7. Treat each text line/course element in your Canvas module like a Table of Contents
  • that is clear and uniform in its presentation. Delete document extensions (e.g., .pdf, .doc), underscores and other non-standard sentence elements from the description line/link. This increases the clarity of the online interface and is an equitable practice that benefits all learners.

    - Yes:  Reading 4: On a formal model of safe and scalable self-driving cars (Shalev-Shwartz, Shannah and Shashua)

    - No: On_A_Formal_Model_Safe_Scalable_self-driving_cars.pdf

  • 8. Progressively publish Canvas Modules (i.e., give students access to one module at a time).
  • Students may work on the weekly module at their own speed, but all students should be working on the current week’s module simultaneously--to the greatest extent possible. This ensures that all students are working on the same weekly module at the same time, as much as possible, and minimizes possible confusion caused when students are out of pace with the rest of the class. You will know a Canvas module or module element has been published (i.e., made visible to students) when a green circle with a check mark appears next to the module or element.
  • 9. Consider holding shortened Zoom lectures.
  • If you plan to lecture, consider holding a live Zoom lecture at the time your course is scheduled. This provides students with some structure for attending class, which many may find helpful. Also, consider recording your lecture so that students who are not able to participate due to limited access to technology or who are experiencing changes in their schedules due to the disruption can watch or re-watch it later. You will also want to make sure your attendance and participation policies are flexible and clearly stated for students. Uploading narrated powerpoints of your lectures are also an option for those unfamiliar with Zoom. Regardless of the software or application chosen, make sure you enable closed captioning. Note: Consider reducing the overall time of your lecture (normal = 50 minutes; remote = 25 minutes): shorter segments allow for greater focus and reduce strain on bandwidth.
  • 10. Open your Canvas course with a Welcome Module
  • that corresponds to your first week or first class. The Welcome Module orients students to the course and includes information about:

    - Why learn about COURSE TOPIC: Why the class is important; how it relates to students’ goals; how it relates to work done by professionals in your discipline.

    - Instructor/TA information and bios, photos and/or videos: Instructor presence is an important element of online classes. Giving your students a sense of who you are as an instructor, and as a person, can help students feel more connected to your class, which promotes learning. 

    - How to learn in this course: Let students know how to best navigate the course online. This can include a description of the major sections of your Canvas modules, including their functions.  You may also want to provide tips for interacting with each element of the course. You may also want to address attendance and/or participation in this section, emphasizing a willingness to be flexible in light of the current context.

    - How we will communicate in this course: In this section, you can let students know how you will communicate with them and how they can communicate with you. Let students know how (via what means, e.g., e-mail, Canvas notifications) and when (at what times of the day, e.g., during business hours) they can expect to hear from you. 

    - Guidelines for how to participate (or Netiquette): Provide students with guidelines on how to interact with you and with other students in the class. This set of guidelines is a good reference for Zoom-based etiquette

    - Link to the syllabus and course schedule: Provide a link to the syllabus in a format that is easy to read online, as well as easy to download and print for students who prefer to write notes on a paper copy. Try printing your syllabus out yourself to see what it looks like in print form, as some web-based formats do not transfer well to a printed format.

    - Instructions for Student Introductions: Give instructions to students for introducing themselves to one another on a Discussion Board assignment. It is helpful to provide a few prompts (e.g., What do you like to be called in class? What do you enjoy doing in your free time? What are you looking forward to learning in this class?), including instructions to respond to at least one other person’s introduction.

    For templates that you can use to structure your class, see the linked documents in the call-out box at the top right side of this page.

Bates, A. T. (2019). Teaching in a digital age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. 2nd edition.