Skip navigation
All Places > Instructional Designers > Blog > Author: John Martin

Instructional Designers

4 Posts authored by: John Martin

Thoughts on embedding digital worksheets like this one?

One of the more clever Canvas / Google combinations, imho, is embedding documents. Besides saving paper, 


  • Expandable! Paper documents have a finite amount of space. Even with margins set at 1/4" (not great on paper, but fine for Canvas with its built-in whitespace), you're limited in what you can share by your printing budget. Digital sheets can go on for far too long if you're not careful.
  • Links work! Click as hard as you want, the links on a paper document won't get you to any further information on a topic. Digital documents can lead students to many more places, and the students just click — no need to try to type in
  • Input! You want students to work together to brainstorm? Seeing each other's ideas helps them generate more. A common digital document does that.
  • Ease! Embedded Google docs are easier to change than Canvas content. Once embedded, there's no opening Canvas to Edit, no deleting of old files or uploading of new ones, no saving, no waiting, no worrying that students might have the wrong version. The one they see is the one I want them to see.
  • Last-minute changes! Maybe this is a sub-point of "Ease" but because it's so easy to change, it's easy to correct errors that you caught minutes before (or during) your class.
  • Color! With our budget, color paper copies are a special treat, but with digital sheets I can get as crazy as I'd like.


Here's an example of one our documents. You can comment on it if you'd like, but I've set the sharing so only I can edit it:


  • No Printer Smell! Some people really like the concrete tangibility of a paper copy. At our Active Teaching Labs (the embedded Activity Sheet here is from that program) we do print off 1 sheet for them. Notice that at the top of that sheet are easy-to-follow directions to the digital copy. We direct them to the digital copy so they can more actively participate in the session by clicking on the links that interest them, by sharing resources that they have, and by chatting (Google Docs chat) with other participants about the topic.
  • Control! Because embedded Google Docs can allow participants to actually participate, there's a chance that they will. That means they might want to take the discussion and focus to aspects of the topic that are more relevant to them than what want to blather on about. Giving students agency in their learning is not for the faint of heart.

Technical Tips


*ugly because it's more responsive (something to consider).


Your Thoughts?

I'll eat my hat if there aren't naysayers in this group. Tell me what I'm missing, how I'm wrong, why I should do something else or something differently. I'm here to learn from you! Thanks!

For faculty development programs we're developing, we've been working at aligning UDL, Good Learning Principles (based on Gee's 13 principles), and Canvas Tools. I'm coming up with things like the following, but am interested in seeing what others are doing in this area. 


Multiple Means of Engagement, Representation, and Expression for EMPOWERED LEARNERS

CO-DESIGN strategies in Canvas

  • Require that students use a profile picture (how) and biographical information (how), so you and other students can get to know them. This will result in discussions that are more personally-connected to their interests and skills.
  • Give each student a journal (how) or blog (example) where they can write about and develop their connection to the course topic. Even if they initially feel that there is no connection, by making this a weekly assignment, they will create a connection.
  • Group students (how) or let students create their own groups (how) so they can create learning objects on course concepts.

CUSTOMIZATION strategies in Canvas

  • Increase personalities by having students use a profile pic and biographical information (how) so they can better represent themselves and their interests to you and their classmates. This also helps you present content to better meet their individual needs.
  • Show students how to change course nickname (how), course card color (how) and set notifications (how).
  • Provide multiple forms of learning content — e.g. PDFs (how), interactive Google docs (how), videos (how), H5P games (how), pre-recorded lectures (how), etc. — so students can learn in ways that match their interests and needs.
  • Provide multiple options for final project assignments (how) — e.g., papers, presentations, digital stories, websites) so students can express what they learned in ways that reinforce and develop their unique connections with the course content.

IDENTITY strategies in Canvas

  • Use Discussions for role-driven conversations or reading responses (how)
  • Provide Group Space (how) for projects where students can contribute according to their existing skills — through interactions with each other on a topic, they will learn other perspectives related to the field.
  • Include assignments, activities, or discussions that require practice within domain specific identity.

MANIPULATION strategies in Canvas

  • Maintain simple course interface (how) with tabs (how) and other options (how) so students can navigate easily (this implies the distributed knowledge of the instructor knowing good design principles to reduce cognitive load)
  • Include hints/tips for both incorrect and correct answers of quizzes (how)
  • Use discussions and embed Kaltura MediaSpace videos/podcasts (how) so students can control interaction and playback .
  • Provide links to credible Internet sources — e.g. OER Commons app can be integrated in Canvas (how).


Multiple Means of Engagement, Representation, and Expression that support GOOD PROBLEMS

WELL-ORDERED PROBLEMS strategies in Canvas

  • Be sure your course Syllabus scaffolds (example) from topic to topic.
  • For students, figuring out your expectations is an important primary problem. “Well-ordered” applies to developing the course map too.
  • Be sure topics, Assignments, Quizzes, etc. are clear, logically-ordered, and easy to find.
  • Be sure topics, Assignments, Quizzes, etc. are repeatedly and explicitly connected to clear course learning Outcomes (how).


  • Use Piazza (how) to provide a “challenge of the day” (or week) of a wicked problem (what) being explored by colleagues in your field.
  • Provide feedback (personal and general) following assessments using Rubrics in Speedgrader (how).
  • Provide feedback for 1) correct, 2) incorrect, and 3) overall Quiz questions (1-min video).
  • Use Rubrics (how) that have a difficult-to-reach upper limit.
  • Do not underestimate your students; design Quizzes that get progressively more difficult.
  • Students tend to challenge each other at a level that reasonably reflects the upper limits of their understanding. Challenge them to develop quiz questions for each other and use the Peer Grading/feedback tool.
  • Develop low-stakes/high-difficulty practice tests (how).

CYCLE OF EXPERTISE strategies in Canvas

  • Include a variety of Practice Quizzes (how). Make it a regular and frequent part of the course.
  • Provide skill practice time every day with low-stakes quizzes (why) that present challenges in a variety of ways.
  • Point to, and have students explore inter-relations of systems in Outcomes and Rubrics to explicitly direct and keep students on track.
  • Revisit use of skills cumulatively in quizzes and tests (why). Include earlier questions/concepts in later quizzes and tests.
  • Have students learn skill techniques and tricks (and build on them) from each other in Discussion reflections (example).
  • Have students work together on challenges to learn skills collaboratively.
  • Encourage explorative thinking and failure through Discussions graded only on participation (and guide them to answers).
  • Take time early in the class to show students how to navigate Canvas. Continue to provide tips on navigation and/or use of your course platform as you introduce new elements.
  • Provide hints and feedback in Quizzes (how), to reinforce correct answers and re-teach after incorrect ones.
  • Set up Piazza or Discussions for students to ask and answer questions for each other. Credit students for answering other's questions.
  • Introduce needed skills for final assessment early and consistently (provide instructions relevant to task)
  • Start with a difficult, but low-stakes pre-test that introduces the full complexity of what they will understand by the end of the course.
  • Tie the pre-test closely to Outcomes and Rubrics.
  • Explicitly revisit that complex pre-test (and the learning outcomes) in lessons, quizzes, and assignments throughout the course, so they can map their progress in understanding the increased complexity.
  • Create assignments that focus on key concepts. Design larger projects that require synthesis.
  • Give students the same pre-test again at the end of the course, so they can show mastery.

SANDBOXES strategies in Canvas

  • Open your course early so students can get a “lay of the land”.
  • Create Discussions or Piazza forums where students can share and respond to ideas and thoughts. Give points to reward constructive feedback that models respectful discourse and risk-taking.
  • Have TAs and/or students create many low-stakes practice tests with answer feedback, so other students can take them, fail, and immediately be guided to success.
  • Use Discussions to explore material that are graded only based on participation and receives guidance for improvement.

SKILLS AS STRATEGIES strategies in Canvas

  • Reinforce course learning Outcomes by explicitly and repeatedly connecting them to as many elements in the course (lessons, readings, quizzes, tests, discussions, projects, etc.) as possible.
  • Use Outcomes to create rubrics for assignments that break down the requisite skills to complete it.
  • Let students revisit past quizzes and exams to revisit and retrieve information needed to be successful in later ones.
  • Set up Piazza or Discussions for students to teach and learn from each other by, for example, sharing how they solve problems. Reward this sharing.


Multiple Means of Engagement, Representation, and Expression that support REVEALING SYSTEMS

SYSTEMS THINKING strategies in Canvas

  • Create a Piazza or Discussions forum where you pose a wicked problem in your field (how) and challenge students to explain the underlying systems at work in it. Let student explore problems relevant to their interests in Groups (example)
  • Create a coherent and complete syllabus.
  • Write an instructor teaching philosophy (why) to help students understand your approach.
  • Embed an RSS feed (how) from pertinent sources so students can relate course content to current events and the world around them.
  • Use personal journaling (how) for students to relate content to their own life.

MEANING AS ACTION strategies in Canvas

  • Embed videos and other multimedia such as H5P (how), Google Docs (how), Dotstorming, Padlet, Tricider etc. (example) in Pages to make content more interactive.
  • Share personal stories of how you developed a passion for course concepts. Include examples in your Profile and Biography (how) pages.
  • Set up Piazza, Discussions , or link to a Google+ Community (example1, example2) for students to share connections between course content and popular culture, current events, and personally meaningful experiences.
  • In Quizzes or other Assignments, challenge students to find new situations in their embodied lives to relate course content.


These are part of a larger handout here: TEiC Course Design Handouts - Google Docs 


Do others have examples of work that aligns Canvas Tools with Good Learning principles?

I'd love to get people's ideas and feedback on this Canvas professional development program that we're working on. We're finding that our faculty are moving to Canvas with some ease, but most are not taking the opportunity to really improve their teaching. We're hoping to spark that in a big way. Thoughts?


Teaching Effectively

With my colleagues, I'm designing a set of four guided face-to-face sessions in May of 2017 to help faculty learn how to teach effectively in Canvas. For us, teaching effectively is aimed at both students and instructors. For students, it is not just basic information transfer — what Chi, (2009) calls passive learning, but more active, constructive, and interactive learning. We're basing it on principles of good learning, and applying them in Canvas. For faculty, it also includes administrative efficiencies. We're integrating Backwards Design with Design Thinking and Universal Design for Learning to give them a unified framework.



STEP 1. Immediate term: Mini-Canvas Camp. Four 120-min workshops in May and June on fundamental TEIC topics: Course Design, Assessment, Social Learning, and Individual Learning. These will be the first four of several (a dozen or more) modules that can be led face-to-face, online, or in a blended format. The aggregation of workshops is designed to be flexible: they can be collected in a “Canvas Camp” institute-type model, an online DIY format, or tailored to the needs of a particular SCID.


STEP 2. Over the next 3-4 months, 1-2 dozen more modules will be built around foundational TEIC topics. The materials will live online and be available to hold as face-to-face or blended workshops, or as DIY online resources. The modular format allows flexibility to be assembled and grouped in ways that directly address campus needs.


Core4: Face-to-Face Sessions (Immediate term)

Course Design
(120 min)

(120 min)

Social Learning

(120 min)

Individual Learning

(120 min)

Canvas Tools Addressed

Teaching & Learning Principles (benefit for student)

  • Design Thinking
  • Backwards Design
  • Universal Design (flexibility, multiple means, etc.)
  • Formative & Summative feedback
  • Better understanding of content-specific systems
  • Collaborative learning
  • Project-based Assignments
  • Scaffolding
  • Empowering learners
  • Co-Design
  • UDL
  • E-Learning
  • Teaching for learning

Administrative Principles (benefit for instructor)

  • Reduce student emails
  • Streamline course management
  • Faster grading
  • Useful feedback for assignment design
  • Cohesive grading systems
  • Student-provided points of feedback to each other.
  • Peer feedback is often more accepted/valued.
  • More interesting projects
  • Peer feedback is often more accepted/valued.


(recruit consultants)

1-hour huddle

(individual help)

1-hour huddle

(individual help)

1-hour huddle

(individual help)

1-hour huddle

(individual help)


May Session Dates and Times (9-11am and 1-3pm — includes extra 30 min for settling in, break, etc. Followed by an optional 60-minute Post-session application lab where instructors can get consultant advice directly while working on their courses).

Monday 15

Tuesday 16

Wednesday 17

Thursday 18

Friday 19



Course Design


Teaching & Learning Symposium

Social Learning

Individual Learning


Monday 22

Tuesday 23

Wednesday 24

Thursday 25

Friday 26

9-11 am

Social Learning

Course Design


Individual Learning

(Review and revise

for next week’s sessions)


Monday 29

Tuesday 30

Wednesday 31

Thursday Jun 01

Friday Jun 02

1-3 pm

Memorial Day

Social Learning

Individual Learning

Course Design




Participants will

  1. Apply what they have learned in their own Canvas sandbox or course space, including:
    • student-centered navigation practices such as clear and concise Syllabus pages, Calendar-scheduled Assignment pages, and clearly articulated learning objectives
    • peer-to-peer learning and communication venues, such as peer review, group spaces and discussions, and collaborative Google document work
    • distributed learning frameworks, such as outcome-connected rubrics, learning objective-reinforcing quizzes and surveys, and student metacognitive prompts and reflections
    • UDL-inspired assignments that allow for personalized learning options via multiple means of content representation, student engagement, and expression of learning.
  2. Work on their own course design, leaving each session with some preliminary course design work finished, and experience accessing and applying paper and online resources that can guide them beyond the session.
  3. Engage with a variety of demonstrations and models and evaluate which would be useful in their own course

What can Canvas design strategies learn from game design? How can we use what Canvas allows (Mechanics) to structure what students can do (Dynamics) in ways that encourage them to learn effectively and contribute to a course culture (Aesthetics) that values inquiry and exploration. This post lays out the framework.


MDA for Course Design

Hunicke, LeBlanc & Zubek's (2004) MDA framework for game design can be adapted here. They propose that game designers can approach their craft through the lens of MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics), where the Mechanics (what is possible — rules and resources) leads to Dynamics (what occurs — activity), which lead to players' Aesthetic experience (components of engagement). I apply the MDA lens to course design, where the instructor plays the role of game master — both a designer and a player, adjusting the Mechanics both before and during the actual game in order to affect the Dynamics in each class such that the desired Aesthetics are reached.





Mechanics include the rules and resources that allow Dynamics to happen. In game design, the mechanics include everything that can affect the play of the game: rules, pieces, cards, the game board or playing field, etc. In course design, mechanics include things like: policies and rules, classroom or class space (online or face-to-face or both), assignments, lectures, videos, etc.



Dynamics are what actually happens when players interact with the Mechanics. In games, the dynamics are what the players do. In baseball, they run and throw and hit and catch and steal and bunt and foul etc.; in Poker they shuffle and deal and fan cards and sort and draw and bluff, etc. In courses, Dynamics are what the instructor and students do. For example, students listen and watch and read and raise hands and talk and move seats and flirt and take tests and cheat and text and increase the typeface to stretch their papers, etc.; whereas instructors take attendance and lecture and assign homework and quiz and test and grade and hold office hours, etc. In addition to the mundane Dynamics in a course listed above, perhaps the most sought after cognitive Dynamics are captured in Bloom's Cognitive domain (1956), or Anderson et al's revision of them (2001)

  1. Remember
  2. Understand
  3. Apply
  4. Analyze
  5. Evaluate
  6. Create


They are others in Krathwohl & Bloom's (1964) Affective domain (these are often ignored in course design — and instructional technology, in general)

  1. Receive: be open to accepting new information/ideas, etc. (e.g. I am aware of a rule)
  2. Respond: comply; change behavior accordingly (e.g. I will follow this rule — perhaps because I don't want to suffer negative consequences)
  3. Value: assign intrinsic worth to new information (e.g. This rule makes sense to me)
  4. Organize: relate new information within existing systems (e.g. This rule helps other beneficial things happen)
  5. Characterize: relate new information with one's identity (e.g. This rule is part of what makes me who I am)


Dynamics spring from models — based in theory and based on trial and error experience. Models help designers predict Dynamics, but as with most models they're not as perfect or accurate (or chaotically messy) as real life. Dynamics provide Feedback to designers, who can use it to iterate and adjust mechanics, which in turn can affect Dynamics. Game designers typically do this a lot in playtests before they publish their games. As a sort of Game Master, instructors can adjust mechanics (to some degree) on the fly by modifying assignments, spending more or less time on a topic as needed, reviewing material, grading more or less rigorously, etc. Changing the Mechanics changes the Dynamics, which affects the Aesthetics. Exercising caution must be advised here — changing the course to be responsive to student needs is often a good thing, but changing the Mechanics of a course too much often results in students feeling ungrounded, and may result in backlash against an "unorganized" instructor.



Aesthetics are the tone or the experience. Hunicke et al shy away from describing Aesthetics as "what makes a game 'fun'?" (2004, p2) and instead suggest a taxonomy of Aesthetic components that includes: 1. Sensation (Game as sense-pleasure), 2. Fantasy (Game as make-believe), 3. Narrative (Game as drama), 4. Challenge (Game as obstacle course), 5. Fellowship (Game as social framework), 6. Discovery (Game as uncharted territory), 7. Expression (Game as self-discovery), and 8. Submission (Game as pastime).  The balance of each of these (and there are probably others) determines the aesthetics of the experience. I think of it as a sort of graphic equalizer. One adjusts the frequencies to try to get the sound one desires. MDAGraphicEQ In course design, we can even match up the eight aesthetic components that Hunicke et al list with educational ones:

  1. Sensation (Game as sense-pleasure) = Embodiment
  2. Fantasy (Game as make-believe) = Epistemic Frames
  3. Narrative (Game as drama) = Course Schedule, pacing (help me out on this one)
  4. Challenge (Game as obstacle course) = Problems
  5. Fellowship (Game as social framework) = Sociocultural Learning
  6. Discovery (Game as uncharted territory) = Research
  7. Expression (Game as self-discovery) = Personal Strengths Finding
  8. Submission (Game as pastime) = Time on Task

Unfortunately, it's not as easy to adjust the Aesthetics of the experience, whether in game design or course design, as simply moving a slider. For example, if one wants a game high in Sensation and Fellowship one must adjust the Mechanics to be more like Twister than Chess. In course design, a collaborative field research assignment might be high in the Embodiment and Sociocultural learning components, whereas reflective journaling might emphasize Personal Strengths Finding. Assigning plenty of worksheets might increase time-on-task; but not in a good way.


What This All Means...

So, can we use this framework for designing courses? Yes. With the following caveat. Courses are not publish-and-leave games, or books, or movies, that can be designed and left for consumption by students. Instructors and students continually interact with and affect course form long after the initial design. Recognizing that instructors are sort of Game Masters and students are active participants (and shapers) of the gameplay of courses, it's important that we design them as evolvable and emergent systems that take into account human psyche and social interactions — much more complex mechanics than dice and cards. This is where a deeper understanding of experiential and sociocultural learning (discussed throughout the rest of my writing) begin to contribute. At this point, however, it starts to get messy. The educational Aesthetic components can be achieved through a mix and match of educational Dynamics, which in turn are affected by course Mechanics. For example, a Fellowship/Sociocultural learning is hampered when there's no forum for student-to-student interaction. Likewise, Discovery/Research may be more difficult when computer browsers are locked down. Without a compelling story, learners may not enter into the Epistemic Fantasy of deeply solving an authentic problem from the perspective of a person in the field or discipline being studied.


Next Steps

A good next step might be to begin to map out a number of these relationships, either through stories and examples or through educational research. Both have value in this conversation.  



Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., ... & Wittrock, M. C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives, abridged edition. White Plains, NY: Longman.


Bloom, B. S., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. Bloom, B. S. (1969).


Bloom, B. S. (1969). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals; Handbook. Affective Domain. McKay. Bloom, B. S. (1974).


Bloom, B. S. (1974). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook 1-2. Longmans: McKay. Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004, July). MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research. In


Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004, July). MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research. In Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI.


Krathwohl, D. R., Bloom, B. S., & Masia, B. B. (1964). Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook ii: affective domain. New York: David McKay Company.Inc. ISBN 0-679-30210-7, 0-582-32385-1.


Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(4), 212-218.  

Filter Blog

By date: By tag: