What the Setup Checklist Does Not Tell You

Community Champion

I generally like the idea of the Setup Checklist that is part of every unpublished Canvas course site, especially the sense of humor that Instructure uses throughout the page. While some are, admittedly, rather glaringly obvious--like having to add assignments ("Gee…I need to add Assignments? In a college class?!? Who knew?!?")--others are useful for the first-time Canvas user, such as the information covering the Home Page. One thing I've always appreciated about Instructure is their sense of humor.  Some earlier documentation (on the ePortfolios, I think it was) had as sample entries putting together the Death Star plans. Others had Harry Potter-related items. Alas, those pages are gone--no doubt thanks to a few lawyers without that same sense of humor--but the general spirit lives on.

It is with that same spirit that I present to faculty members things that should be included on that Setup Checklist, but would take too long to spell out. The Setup Checklist is nice and brief in its recommendations. The ones below are not so brief. Nevertheless, I hope this helps a few faculty members out there as you are preparing your Canvas course sites for the new academic term. And remember—have a sense of humor about this!  You'll need it by November.

Caveat:  Not all items discussed below may be editable by you, depending on your installation's administrative settings or added features.  Yes, that means:  "Your mileage may vary."

1. Don't even THINK of clicking that Publish button for your course before checking your course in Student View

Some faculty are under the mistaken impression that the Student View will not work on an unpublished course site.  Absolutely incorrect!  You do not have to publish a course site in order to use the Student View to get a pretty good idea of what your students will (or will not, as the case may be) see upon first looking at your course site. It is very easy to get wrapped up in creating assignments, adding files, and otherwise getting your course site together in somewhat reasonable order before the term begins. But looking at your course site in Student View before you click that Publish button may help you realize that students do not always see things the way you do.

Check every menu item you see while in Student View; yes, every menu item. If you're not going to use it--or do not even know what it does--consider hiding the menu item.

Many faculty are especially surprised to see that all of the assignment groups that they so lovingly carved out on their Assignments page are NOT seen by students by default when students see it. A check in Student View will tell you that when students click on the Assignments menu item, they see them in the order that is most important to them: by due date, along with the grade earned (if any). Oh, they can view your groups—if they click on the Type button on the upper right—but (news flash) they likely won't unless you mention that to them.

After the class begins, before you call your support center or email your friendly neighborhood Canvas expert with a statement that begins with these four words "My students say that…." STOP!!  Ask yourself: "Have I checked the Student View?"  It is not perfect, but it's close enough to avoid potential embarrassment before the first day of class.  Use it early; use it often.

2. You DO plan on using the Gradebook, right?!?

While you're in the Student View, assuming you published an assignment or two (you can publish assignments ahead of time, even before publishing the class site, as I assume you know), introduce yourself to one of the coolest things in all of Canvas-dom: "What If" grades. I personally guarantee that your "What do I need to get an A?" questions will be dramatically reduced courtesy of this feature. Trust me. (Full disclosure: Though I work full-time, I am not currently teaching at my institution due to a few health issues.  But two years ago, when I was, as students were gathering in the computer lab before class I overheard one of my students say to another: "This testing grades thing is the coolest thing about Canvas!")

I have heard many arguments why faculty choose to not use the Gradebook, and many deal with the fact that certain methods of their grade weighting cannot be done in Canvas.  Yes, the way Canvas does weighted grades is not without certain limitations. So if you are among those who drop the first quiz if the student both scores more than 90% on the final exam and successfully completes the team project with a passing grade of 70%, Canvas' weighting will not help you. But we were all students once, and I can tell you that I sure appreciated knowing what my grade was at any point in time.

By the way, you may want to bookmark this page on what the various icons mean in the Gradebook:  What do the icons and colors in the Gradebook represent? (And if anyone at Instructure is reading this, that would be a valuable link to appear on everyone's Grades page.  I may have to think about making that a feature idea.)

And speaking of the Gradebook...

3. The default settings in Canvas include the ability for students to see the high, mean, and low scores for each assignment.  Be sure to check that setting if you do not like this.

"Aha!" you are thinking, "I knew there was a good reason not to use grades in Canvas!"​  Yes, this catches some faculty off guard. Personally, when I taught a class, I never had an issue with letting students see these numbers for each assignment. But you may, and if you do, check here: https://community.canvaslms.com/docs/DOC-2957. There is a checkbox that you must enable in your Course Details screen. (And while you're reading that, check the link for how students view the grades page referenced on that screen.)

In fact, if I still have your attention, assuming you found your way to the Student View and (therefore) saw the Course Settings screen on the way, it's not a bad idea to look at some of the other default settings in the Course Details tab, especially.  All sorts of cool features (or not so cool, depending on your viewpoint) are there.

4. If you weighted your Assignments, be sure they add up to 100%

So I extol the virtues of using grades under number 2, and now I'm giving you yet another reason to do the opposite. Before you angrily click on another topic thinking "This moron doesn't think that I know how to add up to 100%!" I realize that this sounds silly, but many an email/call has been received by yours truly from faculty who say that the grades students are seeing are out of whack, and it often comes down to this very issue. Unlike some other learning management systems I have worked with, Canvas will merrily allow you to have your weighted assignment groups add up to more than (or less than) 100% with nary an error message appearing on the screen. And while the military or NASA would be proud of an exceptional effort of more than 100%, your students may not be as amused. Head to the Assignments page again and double check your weights by clicking the Assignment Settings icon.

5.  Run the Link Validator

Even if you have but one link in a class (but you can't quite remember where….) you should still run the Link Validator. Yes, "false positives" will pop up from time to time, but the Link Validator makes it easy by providing you with a link to the page that turns up the issue so you do not have to guess where it was.  And then you can check the Student View (there are those two words again) to double-check.  The link validator is definitely one of the nicer new additions to Canvas over the past year, in my opinion, and any early bugs have largely been fixed, but DO read the documentation on what it will not find.

6. Publishing a course does not always mean students can see it right away

I realize that the Next Steps guide states "Publishing will allow the users to begin participating in the course" but have you checked first with the support people at your institution? Many courses are tied to term dates and all sorts of other variables that I won't bore you with here.

At some institutions, publishing a course is but the first step and you must adjust the "Start" date on your course settings  screen if you want to give students access to the course before the term begins. This is one place where Student View will absolutely not help you. But if your students claim that they can't see your course even though you said you published it, they may be telling the truth.

NOW (i.e., before the term begins) is the time to look through those all those emails or documents that your support people sent to you. Look for keywords like the following: Canvas, start date, registration, SIS, enrollment. Every school does this differently; some enrollments in Canvas are automatic through your student registration system, while others are not. Check to see what is activated and when.

7. If you create online quizzes, are thinking of creating online quizzes, or flat-out do not trust online quizzes because you fear something can go wrong, you must read this document

The great Kona Jones has created the definitive guide to security settings in quizzes. While the quiz engine is due to be revamped soon and things may change, at the time of this writing it is the best documentation you can read about quiz settings other than what you read in the Instructor's online guide on Quizzes in general.  (Which, by the way, is here.)

Those 7 items are my personal recommended additions to Setup Checklist.  But I would be remiss to not mention that after the first week of the semester is over (aka "Hell Week" to many of us in the support service areas—if not faculty themselves), here's another tip:

Use the Canvas Community

Speaking of the great Kona Jones under number 7 above, she is but one of many people who are in the Canvas Community. Check things out; ask a question.  As we often tell our own students after we foolishly ask "Does anyone have a question?" odds are if one person has it, others do (or had it), as well. If you cannot figure something out, it may have already been answered. If you still cannot figure something out, ask the Community.

Suggested Readings (Feel free to ignore; after all, our students ignore our suggested readings!)

While the Community has been responsible for many "must read" documents, I would personally recommend checking on the following, but only after you have used Canvas for a while and start wondering why certain things "tick" the way they do:

Your ideas of Canvas' best kept secrets

A wonderful example of how the Canvas Community members all help each other out.  (Full disclose number 2:  I was not among them!)  While some of the issues may have been fixed by some updates, it is still worth checking out.

And for the student side of things of a similar nature, this one:

Best Kept Secrets - for Students!

Again, the Canvas Community--and I again was not among them--helping one another out.  Some items may have since been addressed, but it remains a valuable discussion.

Thank you for reading this far--if indeed you did!  Enjoy the term.  And please, remember these two words:  ​Student View​.