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What are the most popular Section ➜ Course organizational structures used in Canvas?

Community Member
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We are frequently asked how various institutions choose to nest their sections inside of courses. In other words, what are the most popular nesting methods used to populate enrollments into sections, and place those sections into courses within Canvas.

This is a very interesting question! Let's consider what a section and course in your SIS might be compared to the same concept in Canvas.


Sections are easy to envision, but it is worth a second for you to consider what a section might be called in your SIS. For the purposes of this article a SIS "section" is a collection of student enrollments in a division of a course that meets at the same time (or is online) and is taught by the same person. In many SISes, this division may be referred to as a section, class or course offering. If you are not certain of the division of enrollments that represents a section in this context, please reach our to your SIS admin or your SIS support team for clarification. Your Canvas IC or CSM may also be able to provide some guidance.

In almost every case, your sections in Canvas should mirror the enrollments in the same section in your SIS.

In some SISes, IDs for sections in Canvas may need to be different than IDs for the same section in your SIS due to SIS ID's being reused over time in the SIS. Careful consideration needs to be used to ensure unique SIS IDs are used in Canvas event between terms and academic years. 


Courses are a little more fluid. In general a "course" in your SIS is more like a catalog of courses you offer and are not linked back to a specific time period or teacher. As a result, the concept of a course in your SIS is most likely very different than the concept of a "course" in Canvas.

In many cases, a course in Canvas is more closely related to a section in your SIS. This brings us to the two most common Canvas section -> course setups we see used in Canvas. We call these two layouts 1:1 and 1:Many.

The diagrams below provides a high-level overview of the two different formats, but please read on for more details.

Simple 1-1 1-to-Many Diagram

One-to-One Relationship:

An individual course would be created for each section from your SIS.

For example, if a teacher has three sections of English 101, the course list for the teacher would list three separate courses. 


  • English 101 – Johnson – Section 1
  • English 101 – Johnson – Section 2
  • English 101 – Johnson – Section 3

Each of the courses will have a single section of enrollments. This method allows for individual management of content, assignments, groups, etc. This means that teachers would need to update each course with new content and assignments. If desired, teachers can group their courses together through a process called cross-listing.


One-to-Many Relationship:

A single course will be created and all sections will be added to the course per teacher, course, term association.

For example, if a teacher has three sections of English 101 and two sections of English 102, the course drop-down would list a single course for each SIS course.


  • English 101 – Johnson
  • English 102 – Johnson

The one-to-many relationship allows for a single location for managing course content, assignments, and due dates. This means that teacher can update an assignment in one location and have those changes applied to all sections associated to the course. Due dates and graded item availability can be different per section within the course using differentiated due dates.

Learner II

What are the long term ramifications of the 1:many structure?  Our University was an early Blackboard adopter and we developed a "recycling" culture (after each semester students would be removed from a course and the next group of students would be added) before best practices of creating new courses every semester were established.

Our system sounds nice and sustainable, but after 10 or so years some ugly warts began to surface in the older courses, and eventually bugs surfaced that forced us to move to a system where fresh courses were created every semester and faculty were required to copy/move/rebuild, which caused some unhappiness. 

Should 1:many be limited to a semester or year?  Or is it feasible to have a course that spans multi-year/semester periods via continually adding and concluding sections? (our SIS setup would be compatible with this approach as each section has its own unique identifier)

Community Member

Hi Peter!

In general a course should only be used during a single term, then a new course created for the next term and content copied over to the new course. If you used the same course over and over data is building up in the course since very little is ever really deleted from Canvas. All those old submissions, scores, assignments, etc are building up in the course behind the scenes. As a result I'm not a fan of recycling course in Canvas.

Another issue someone mentioned relates to looking up old scores. If you recycled course then it would be more difficult and confusing to go back and look at the old data in Canvas. It is technically still there, but you would have to restore the enrollment(s) to see it in the grade book.

In general a 1:many (really many:1) would be used to consolidate all the sections of a course that a teacher was assigned for a specific term rather than being used over time.

I hope this helps!