Effective Canvas Course Design for Distance Learning
7 min read

Effective Canvas Course Design for Distance Learning

Effective Canvas Course Design for Distance Learning

For the past three years, I have been working for my University as a student consultant supporting Canvas for faculty. This gives me a unique perspective since I use Canvas as both a student and an administrator. As a student, I have experienced ineffective Canvas course design and know how detrimental it is to the learning experience. As a Canvas administrator, I know the full extent of what is possible to achieve if an instructor takes the time to learn the full capabilities of the tool. It's no secret that well structured courses lead to a better learning experience for the student, and allow instructors to prioritize their time on interacting with their students. The primary objective of a Learning Management System like Canvas is to make course tasks easier for both students and instructors. Every design choice you make in your course should align with this objective.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are mine and mine alone. They do not represent my employer or university. I have no formal education in course design and any opinions presented are strictly derived from personal experience.

The Basics

The rest of this post will guide you in creating a compelling distance learning course experience in Canvas. However, if students have trouble navigating your course, it will be all for naught. As such, the first thing that you should do when designing your course is hide certain navigational items from students in your course settings.

An effective navigational menu has only the most important items.

As you will come to see, Modules is the most important navigational item in your course, and as such it should be towards the top of the navigational menu. Since we are going to make heavy use of Modules, certain navigational items become redundant such as Pages, Assignments, Quizzes, and Files. These can be hidden since they would only serve to duplicate already available information. Other commonly hidden items include People, Outcomes, Rubrics, Collaborations, and Chat. These items will only be hidden from students, meaning you still have easy access to create new Assignments and Quizzes. Your particular institution may also have several external apps ("LTI Tools") that are available for use in your course. Any LTI Tools that you are not using should be hidden from students to avoid clutter and confusion.

Several useful options exist on the instructor Home Page.

A feature that is integral to creating your course is the Student View. Available to instructors on the course Home Page, this feature allows you to navigate and view your course exactly as a student would. This is extremely valuable since at times the instructor view of the course can vary greatly from what students are actually seeing. Now that the basics are out of the way, we can move on to discussing effective course design.

The Home Page

As an instructor, you have options for what to select as your course's home page. The most effective option is to make a "Page" within the Pages section of your course, and use that as your home page. The other options are not nearly as informative for students, and may even be confusing.

An effective home page acts as a jumping off point for your students.

The Home Page is a student's gateway to your course. It's the first thing that they will see every time they access your course. Because of it's prominence, it's a good idea to make your Home Page a "jumping off point" for all the possible actions that students will want to take within your course. A good rule of thumb is if a student can't access something with one click, then it should be on your Home Page. Some important things to include are your name and contact information (along with TAs if applicable), as well as links to join virtual lecture and office hours, whether that be via Zoom, Google Meet, WebEx, or another platform. It's not necessary to duplicate your Syllabus or Modules in this space, since these both are already one click away for students in the navigational menu. Doing this will clutter up the page and make it far less effective. If a student has to scroll down on your home page, there is too much content.


Canvas allows you to easily edit a "Syllabus" page by default. Most instructors already have a PDF syllabus prepared, which can be embedded in the page as a file preview. However, for maximum accessibility, it is recommended to duplicate the content of your syllabus onto the page (meaning, copy and paste or re-type the text content of the syllabus into the Rich Content Editor). This allows students to easily re-scale text to the size they are comfortable with, as well as allows visually impaired students to use screen readers to interact with your course. A good reference that focuses specifically on how to improve accessibility on the web is the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.


The Assignments function in Canvas has several helpful features to keep your students on track. When creating an assignment, the most important thing to remember is to set a due date. This activates several important student features including showing the assignment on the student dashboard To Do list, and adding it to the student's Canvas calendar. Setting a due date will also automatically mark submissions as late, or lock out students from submitting after the due date passes if you choose. Without due dates set, assignments are far more confusing and cumbersome for students to manage.

Assignment availability can be customized per student.

You can also set availability dates for an assignment, meaning the content will not be viewable until a certain date, or between a range of dates. Another excellent feature is the ability to create different visibility rules or due dates for individual students or sections of students using the "Assign to" function. This is particularly useful for students with learning accommodations. As an aside, if you implement a due date for a particular assignment, it makes sense to leave Submission Attempts set to unlimited. This will allow students to make as many submissions as they like up until the due date, with only the most recent submission showing up for grading.

Assignment Groups reduce the burden of calculating final course grades.

Assignment Groups reduce the burden of calculating final course grades at the end of the term. By creating Assignments within groups, you can choose how heavily each Group of Assignments is weighted towards the final course grade. An easy method that applies to most courses is to have three Assignment Groups: Homework, Midterm Exams, and the Final Exam. Students feel more comfortable when they can see an accurate course grade being calculated in their gradebook.


Modules are the key to keeping students on track in Canvas, especially when in-person instruction is impossible. They allow you to structure your course week-by-week, or by textbook chapter, or any other way that you see fit. You can restrict module progress based on previous module completion, or only allow students to complete one module per week. Modules make course expectations extremely clear by allowing students to see what they need to do as well as what they've already completed. Plus, it's rewarding for students to have a visual representation of course progress as the term progresses.

The great thing about Modules is their versatility. In addition to Assignments and Quizzes, you can add a wide variety of resources such as lecture videos, supplementary readings, files, external URLs, Pages, and even Discussions. The more variety you have in your Modules, the more engaged students will be with your course.

An effective module has variety.

Here is an example of an effective Module. It makes use of Text Headers and indentation in order to create a "learning flow", a clear progression that students should follow from top to bottom. Use of sequencer words such as "first", "next", "then", and "last" help students to understand the order in which the Module should be navigated. Additionally, this Module includes both a visual and reading component in order to keep students interested.

For a more guided learning experience, certain items can be set as required in order to progress to the next Module. You can also enforce sequential navigation, meaning students have to complete each item in order from top to bottom.


Discussions allow students, TAs, and instructors to converse with each other.

The Discussions feature allows students, TAs, and instructors to converse with each other in a public forum-like format. Creating a discussion makes an open thread that anyone enrolled in the course can participate in. During a time where many students are attending class entirely from remote locations, this is an especially useful feature to enable in your course. Students can create threads with questions about assignments or class structure, and receive answers from their peers or instructors. Answers to common questions can be pinned to the top of the page, alleviating the stress of answering common questions multiple times via email.


Overall, Canvas has many features that greatly enhance the learning potential of online courses. When used effectively, Canvas can make the administration of your course easier as well as improve the student learning experience. This post is simply a primer into what is possible, however there is far more depth to Canvas. An excellent resource for more in-depth information is the Canvas Knowledge Base. The Canvas Questions Forum is also fantastic for asking more detailed questions about specific situations.