Course Design Tips

icon of man at board

We know that when students struggle in a course with supporting technology or a completely online course, the frustration is often due to unclear course flow. Where do I find X, Y, Z?  What do I do next?  Which way and where should I submit an assignment? As we design, we need to think about clarity and accessibility.  Canvas can be powerful in efficiently providing students access to information and interactions, but only if there is...clear navigation and they can find what they need.  As technology gets faster, so we too tend to get impatient faster...

Clear Navigation via purposeful design allows students to access what they want easily, and this is a big part of Standard 1.1 on the Quality Matters Evaluation Standards. We like these standards because they allow you to review all aspects of your online course site to be sure your students participate in a quality online experience!

If you were going to offer a fully online course at UWT, you would have to "pass" a formal QM Review, which means meet a minimum of 81 of the possible 95 points for an 85% on the QM Rubric.  The goal of QM is to make course building collaborative, collegial, continuous, and centered on student learning.  It's not simply a "pass/fail" but a discussion we have toward trying to design the best possible course as well as seek to continuously improve. Even if you are not teaching a fully online course, these standards are a great guideline for making sure you are building a quality course site!

Best Practices...Steps to Consider in Building Out a Course

Design a strong Home Page (Front Page)

This is the first entry point and "landing spot" for your students each time they enter your course!

  • Make it purposeful! Tell them how you have organized the course, where to get started and set directing them to the most important resources they will need to be successful.
  • Provide clear navigation links to help them find what they might be looking for in your course site.

You have several options for this page...

Course Activity Stream You can have students enter straight into the "Course Activity Stream" This is the default homepage layout. By “activity stream” Canvas means the most recent announcements, assignment notifications, messages (“Conversations”) you send to the entire class, and discussion posts. It is like the Global Activity Stream you see after logging into Canvas, except it only shows activity in your course.

Choose the Course Activity Stream if you . . .
•    will actively use the communication tools in Canvas
•    expect your students to use the communication tools in Canvas
•    want students to stay aware of recently created assignments

Pages Front Page This option lets you work with a textbox (Rich Content Editor) to design your homepage from scratch. The page is completely blank, so you can add any text, links, images, and media you want. The editing options are similar to those found in Microsoft Word.

Choose a Page You’ll Design Yourself if you . . .
•    want a lot of control over how the homepage looks
•    are comfortable using text-editing programs like Microsoft Word
•    have time to design your homepage from scratch (it is fast and easy AND students really appreciate a well-organized course site!

Course Modules/Sections Modules layout allows you to organize items and areas in your Canvas site into categories. You can also create module prerequisites that require students to access course content in a sequence.

Choose Course Modules/Sections if you . . .
•    want students to see the course’s structure when they first enter your site
•    think students would benefit from seeing related content grouped together
•    would like to use module prerequisites for guided learning

The Assignment List
With this option you can list assignments, which are any graded activities (papers, quizzes, discussions, etc.), on your homepage. An assignment is added to the homepage after you create it and make it available to students.

Choose the Assignment List if you . . .
•    think your students will need frequent reminders about upcoming assignments
•    have many assignments with close due dates or that are based on one another

To change the Home Page Layout:

icon of choose homepage

icon of homepage menu


To choose from the above, click on the Chose Home Page link in the right menu. Provide clear navigation links to help them find what they might be looking for in your course site. Choosing a “Pages Front Page” will allow you to design a page yourself.  You can use that page as a welcome page, letting the students know who you are, how to contact you and how to get started in the course on Canvas.

To choose the Pages Front Page option you have to create a page first. Here is how to do it!

  1. Create a New Page (make sure you Publish it once you are done creating it)
  2. Set the page you just created to be you Front Page by clicking on the gear icon on the far right. icon of menu
  3. Go back to “home” in your course navigation and select the “pages Front Page” option. You will then be able to select the page you just created as the default homepage.

*Note:  if you choose any of the last three options (the Course Modules/Sections, the Assignment List, or the Assignments with Syllabus) you will not need to show the corresponding tabs on the left navigation menu as this would be redundant!  Hide them by going to course Settings-->Navigation Tab.

Record a welcome message!

Give your course site a "personal touch" by recording a welcome message to your students! It is easy to do within Canvas or you can contact Academic Technologies and have a more professional video created. Here is an example:

Greengrove And Masura from University Washington Tacoma on Vimeo.



Add Your Syllabus

(A long syllabus can be overwhelming for the learner and many now suggest that it be broken into 'sections' that allow the student to easily access information needed, when needed.  Providing navigation links to each section allow students to click on and jump to the sections in a long syllabus. The IDEAL is to develop your syllabus as an external document, cut and paste the entire thing in Canvas and provide a link to the document if students want to download or print it.  Below are a couple options to provide the syllabus information to students:

Option 1) Don’t use the Syllabus page but instead…Set your Home Page to "the assignments with Syllabus" by clicking on "Choose Home Page"—located in menu on the right column of your course page.  

  • Cut and paste your entire syllabus on the Home Page OR embed a Google Doc; don't use the Syllabus Page--left hand tab.  [Hide Syllabus tab under course Settings-->Navigation].  Add Syllabus navigation links on the top of the Page.
  • Always provide a link to the full syllabus for student to preview, open or download and print. Instructions can be found here.

Option 2) Use the Syllabus Page (one of the menu options in your course navigation) and then use the homepage as an welcome for students.

  • Cut and paste your entire syllabus on this Page OR embed a Google Doc, with navigation links on the top of the Page.  Set your Home Page to "a Page I'll Design Myself" and introduce your course, providing information on where to view the Syllabus.  You may want to include just the Syllabus navigation links here too.  
  • Always provide a link to the full syllabus for student to preview, open or download and print. Instructions can be found here.

Example of possible Syllabus "content" below that includes general UW policy information that you may want to include.


Credits: XXX
Prerequisites: XXX
Instructor: XXX
Office Hours: 
Best method to contact:  

Date, Time, Place of Course Meeting: xxx

Please view all links below in preparation for the Syllabus Quiz. 
Full syllabus available as PDF. Click here. [XXX link your here].


Course Overview  [These first two are linked just to demonstrate that this example list are Syllabus "section" titles, placed up front to be navigation links either out to the Pages with the detailed information or within the Syllabus Page as coded html.]
UW Policies and Expectations
Learning Outcomes (Course Objectives)
Course Readings and Materials (listed or information on where to find them in Canvas)
Outline of Topics Explored
Deliverables (Assignments, Projects, etc.)
Communicating with Instructor and Peers
Course Calendar

General Policies and Expectations upheld at UWT:

Technology Requirements - see

Getting Help:
Numerous campus resources are available to support your academic success. Know your options and seek help and resources when needed. 

Please review all syllabus expectations and complete the Syllabus Quiz within the first week of the course. 
The Syllabus quiz can be taken multiple times and is worth 50 points.

It is found in the Introduction module for the course.

Course Structure (Organizing Content)

Consider creating and using different types of content for students to address different learning styles. Employ multimedia and interactive content where appropriate. This is particularly helpful when teaching difficult concepts. Along with assigned readings, include quick screencasts or embed external video/audio content to help clarify challenging topics.

If you choose to present information in a sequential manner organize your content visually in a way that makes it clear to students what they’ll be learning and when.  Modules are a great way to do this. Some things to consider while structuring and organizing your content:

  • Organize content by course schedule
  • Organize content by topic or unit
  • Create chunks of content that follow consistent patterns for each chunk ie.

Use Modules to organize all course materials in one place

  • If using modules, every assignment, quiz, discussion board, file, or any other information that you wish the student to have should be in the module. This gives just one place for the students to go to see EVERYTHING required for them to see and do under a certain unit or heading.This tends to make it easier for a student to see in one place all of the things that are required for them to be successful for that unit or heading.
  • Prerequisites should be used on a limited basis and only for graded assignments, otherwise, the student can get stuck since they need to complete the assignment to continue but with no grade or ability to turn anything in electronically, that may be impossible.
  • The students should be informed (via email, announcement, the home page, etc…) of how you wish them to use modules.
  • Files and external URL’s (links) can be added to the module itself so the files and the web-pages (even YouTube videos) will open inside of Canvas.
  • We recommend hiding the Course Navigation Menu buttons (left-hand tabs) for items found in the modules (Assignments, Quizzes, Discussions, Pages and Files). This makes Modules the main focal point.

Remove any left hand navigation links that are redundant or not used

This can be done by going to Settings and choosing the Navigation tab and then dragging the unused tabs down to the bottom area.
Instructors can still access these removed tabs, but the students will not see them.

Create Your Assignments and Quizzes

Add due dates for every graded assignment. This allows students to get reminders on the calendar and in various places in Canvas.

  • Click into the quiz and click on the Publish button when you want it to appear in the gradebook.
  • Unless the quiz is proctored, consider it to be an open book quiz.
  • Use student view to submit a sample quiz to check that it functions properly.
  • When creating a quiz, use the tools given to you (number of attempts, showing correct answers, time limits, locking the quiz, etc…) to create the quiz experience that best meets your intentions for the quiz.
  •  Do not direct students to go elsewhere on the Internet while taking a quiz. Accessing other websites/applications can interfere with the quiz and may disconnect student from canvas.

Publish Your Course

When you begin building your course, it is unpublished. You will see the following message in the far right column of your course Home Page. 

course status icon

When you are ready to allow students to access the course, click the "published" link in the image similar to above that you find on the top of your course Home Page (left hand tab). This is also the last step in the Canvas Course Setup Checklist, Next Steps list (that appears at the bottom of your Home Page when you start working in a new course). Once published, your students will see the course in "Courses" drop-down list (top purple bar).

Make sure you publish all content items in within your course! Watch this video on the Canvas "draft state" feature for more information.