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Course design in Canvas - guidance

We started with Canvas a year ago. Our teachers did learn how to use Canvas and started organizing their courses without much guidance. Every course is different. Most courses have a landing page with information about the course and guidelines. A lot of teachers use Canvas to share files and to create assignments which they also explain on the landing page. Some teachers do update their landing page with announcements, warnings,…

Students complain that Canvas isn’t very user friendly, and teachers ask for a template course. I did create one, but there is no one size fits all solution.

I will give a workshop about course design in a few weeks. I want to be able to give them some guidelines based on what they want to use their online course for:

Your course needs to have a landing page.

  1. A page: Your course will look like a website. Students will be able to access information in a quick and easy way.
  2. A syllabus page: Your course will look like a website with a calendar, assignments,… on the landing page.
  3. Modules: Your course will be presented in a chronological order. The first page of the first module should contain links to general information.

Your course needs the following course navigation links:

  1. Home: The landing page, or de modules page
  2. Announcements: Course announcements, teachers blog
  3. Assignments: Quizzes and assignments organized in groups
  4. Discussions: All available discussions
  5. Grades: All grades from graded activities
  6. People: All the course participants, collaboration groups

The following links should be hidden, unless there is a good reason to show them

  1. Syllabus: Teacher that use it should set the syllabus page as the landing page.
  2. Pages: Pages should be well organized with a top-down design and accessed through links on other pages and the landing page.
  3. Files: Files should be added to pages.
  4. Quizzes: Quizzes should be added to modules and organized under assignments.

The following course navigation links should be visible if the tools are used:

  1. Conferences
  2. Collaborations
  3. Modules

The landing page should look like a front page of a website with easy access to the following information:

  1. Pages with general information: course introduction, outcomes, course materials, contact information,…
  2. Links to the different modules
  3. Main course materials: course text,...
  4. Links to some course tools that need extra visibility or an explanation.

The landing page should not be used for announcements. There should be an image at the top. Navigation needs to be consistent. All pages need to be mobile friendly.

Example: Minimalistic template design

What would you do differently at your institution?

Kindly regards,

Tobe Baeyens

12 Replies
Community Member

This is very useful....we too started using Canvas without much serious design support and my teachers and students are looking for information to streamline and unify courses...this is a useful analysis of problems and suggestions that many of us with limited resources can understand and use.


Wow. Thanks‌. That's a lot of useful information. I specially love the idea of creating ungraded assignments to present learning materials. I also like the design of you home page. Very simple and clear.

I sometimes think that the homepage should just have assignments, and that everything a student has to do to get ready for the assignment should be in the assignment description. An assignment would basically turn into a sub-website with links to learning materials, modules, quizzes, sub assignments,... The assignment could have a rubric with intended learning outcomes. This is the first thing a student should see (Aligning teaching for constructing learning - John Biggs). Students could start with submitting a first draft of the assignment based on their previously obtained knowledge and skills. It would be nice if students had access to all their previous draft submissions. This became a very popular feature idea in 2015 but has still not been implemented.

Explorer II

We've are also about a year into transition and we are also pushing a home page with a banner image, key information and docs that are referenced at the beginning and throughout the course when needed.  Beyond that, we have engaged in an extensive discussion around our institution about whether to put course content in Modules or on the Home Page.  There are uses to both and that is where there has been a lot of variety.  When speaking to instructors, I think it is important to help them understand it is about how to have students navigate through the course.  Making that choice early is key.

Module content:

On the home page we put text to the effect, "All course content is located in Modules" and link to modules.   Assignments are hidden to encourage students to go to modules, though it is probably true that they often do the ToDo list only.  Think of Modules as a storyboard to your course.  It is a list of activities and resources in order, but it is just a list.  No prettiness, no pictures, no explanatory text.  All of those need to be moved inside the descriptions, which is good for the todo list.  For resources, such as those needed for a lecture or discussion, we recommend creating an ungraded assignment to gather all the resources and make it due when lecture or discussion starts.  This has some added benefits.  Because you date it, it will show up on the student calendar and todo list, it decreases the scroll of death, and you can add hints and guidelines for the reading.  Modules also allows you to control when things are published or not, if you typically do not allow everything to be seen from the beginning of class.  You can also control student movement through content, requiring completion before access is granted to further content.

Home page content:

This is typically set up as columns as Layne Heiny suggested, though it can be difficult to make that accessible.  In some cases we have basically added the course schedule as an accessible table. Each row has the lecture date and then a link to an ungraded lecture assignment.  We discovered it is important to do the lecture resources as an assignment rather than a page.  If the instructor chooses to change the title, on a page that will change the link and break everything.  If you change the title on an assignment, the link remains the same.  The key here is to remind instructors that anything they want to provide for course needs to go into one of the lecture assignments or students cannot get to it. Modules, assignments are hidden.  

A note on the syllabus page

Assignments and descriptions are really important if you use the syllabus page.  It only lists things with due dates, and I don't think is shows practice quizzes.  It must be used very carefully.  If you do not put the resources needed for an assignment in its description, instead putting them in modules or elsewhere, students using the syllabus will never see them.  Everything needed for the assignment needs to be in its description.

The combination course

In the past we have had courses with a lab site and a lecture site.  We cannot run that structure in Canvas, so instead we are using both Canvas content plans.  Lecture materials are placed on the home page in lecture assignments and all the lab content is placed in Modules.  It seems to be working.

Hope that helps, and here's our typical home page used with modules as an example for you.



My high school students and I are brand new to Canvas, after using Schoology for assessments and Google classroom for assignments. 

One hundred percent agree that the front page should have access to everything. They want to click once. They also want a feel for the whole year. A two column approach showing links to each module without tables presents clean on their phones and sup ports minimal scrolling. I just started adding icons last night to key areas. The button is being added below each unit. 

Below is a screenshot of the two columns. Another course has a three column and there are kids who state it’s too cluttered. 

I‘d love to see how others handle a “one click” navigation. 


Community Advocate
Community Advocate


I second the comments about about examples and then either a home page or modules as the home page. We've found the exact same thing jcha said to be true. Students want to get what they need in the shortest amount of clicks. 

When you comment about the things that should be showing vs hidden - we have quite a few teachers who will hide most things and put all content in modules as that "one-stop shop." So we also hide assignments and discussions because we want students to access them in context (although, this doesn't always happen). Oh, and with modules, we encourage everyone to put the most recent module at the top of the modules page. 

I'm happy to share resources we have if you are interested. 

Best of luck! 



We have had many discussions about the course landing page in particular. We used to promote your #1 (Page/Website) but we seem to be moving more towards Modules as the landing page. From feedback we've gotten from students we're hearing that they are either going straight to the To Do list from the Dashboard or that they're accessing the course from the mobile app - so they're not even seeing the landing page past the first week or so. I'd love to hear if others have collected UX feedback from their students on their use of Canvas and how/if it's influenced your course design recommendations. 


Learning from EXAMPLES is a big one!

I know I have students who, faced with a technical step by step, just kind of freak out, but if they can look at an existing example, especially a real example by another student, that is a big help!

Do any of your instructors open their courses? I keep all my Canvas courses open so that anybody who wants to see how I am using the space can just click and look! For example: (that's a URL that stays good every semester; it always goes to my current version of the Canvas course)

Plus I've built some resource courses, like this Growth Mindset one:

Exploring Growth Mindset: Exploring Growth Mindset 

There are a lot of people I think who learn best from working through examples rather than through step by step instructions. Something just "clicks" when they see the end product, like in the screenshot you provided here. 🙂


This could be a very basic landing page, that most teachers should be able to make. I've added some text from course evaluation checklist.

template beginner

Community Member

You've defined the goals here really clearly, and I'm curious if you have gotten some insight into what some of the obstacles are that stand in the way. If there is a way to find out why people are not using Canvas as you expect/intend, you can try to address those obstacles directly. And there might be VERY different obstacles for different people.

For example, if students in my class are struggling, it really helps if I can find out why that is: are they bored? are they scared of technology? are they having trouble with the written material? do they resist doing new things because they do not like to make mistakes? do they simply not have time? do they have a different way of doing things that they prefer?

Those are all really different obstacles to overcome, and the more you can understand about how you can help people get over those obstacles to the goal you have in mind.

Highlighted‌, I don't know, but I'll post a question on your behalf in the comments under the blog post.