Learning goals are integral to designing a course. What do we want students to learn? What skills should they leave that class with that they did not have at the beginning of the semesterUnfortunately, it can be extremely difficult to measure the success of a course in meeting the stated learning goals. Final exams and course projects are commonly used, the assumption being that any student who has mastered the materials and skillset taught in the course will succeed at the assignment. The commonly used format places one high-risk graded assignment at the end of the course, perhaps with a midterm or two along the way, measuring student learning after-the-fact. These summative assessments can be highly informative for the teacher, indicating which goals have been met and where modification is needed for future semesters, but does not aid in student learning. For students, formative assessments best help them to reach learning goals.  

Formative assessments can take many forms (projects, quizzes, writing, etc.), however all generate a considerable amount of work in the form of grading and feedback for the teacher. Online course design, taking advantage of the many tools offered by the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS) offers solutions to that dilemma. Below I have outlined two methods of course design that prioritize formative assessment in a class without adding considerably to the teacher’s workload. Both of these tips also apply to hybrid or in-person courses, and can be integrated into existing courses to help students achieve learning goals far in advance of the high-risk final exam.  


Scaffolding assignments to help students prepare for a large project or paper. 

Consider an early writing class – high school or freshman year of college – where the learning goal is to write a cohesive, balanced paper arguing an opinion. One instructional style might be to spend a class discussing each part of the paper (introduction, thesis statement, main body, etc.) then ask students to write a paper on an assigned topic. You might receive some fantastic papers, but you will also find yourself grading some terrible ones. The fault in this approach is not in the material being taught, but rather the frequency of feedback to students. If the first time a student gets feedback is at the end of the semester, then they have no opportunity to improve.  

Instead, imagine the course was run slightly differently. On day 1 students are asked to select a topic of interest, and some guidance is given on what constitutes an arguable opinion. Before a single word is written each student will receive feedback on their topic, and have the chance to modify it moving forwards. The time it takes to review a one-line topic from each student is minimal, and can be further shortened by using an online submission graded with Canvas’s SpeedGrader function, which will cycle through the submissions automatically as you provide feedback. In subsequent classes students learn how to identify reliable sources for research, and how to state supporting evidence. Perhaps they are organized into peer-review groups that will provide feedback on an initial draft before you, the teacher, ever lays eyes on a full paper. The time required to grade a draft can be viewed as an investment, since the final papers will be at a significantly higher level of mastery then if you did not give feedback early on in the process. Determine if the final paper can be submitted in an alternative format, perhaps a class able to meet synchronously schedules an essay-reading. By including many low-risk assignments, the overall grade impact of that final paper is reduced, but you can be confident that students have worked towards learning goals from the first class.  

Scaffolding is the process of breaking a single high-risk assignment into several smaller low-risk assignments. At each point students receive feedback and have the opportunity to improve, increasing the likelihood that they will meet each and every learning goal for the course. And, with frequent checks of student performance, you will have plenty of advanced warning if the class needs a review of any material.  


Leverage Canvas for real-time feedback on student understanding. 

Canvas is a powerful LMS, designed to provide online alternatives for every situation commonly faced in a physical classroom. Video lectures can be recorded, textbooks referenced, example problems provided, and any imaginable assignment submitted. It is entirely possible to run a course online identical in format to the in-person version, but in doing so you neglect to consider how an online format can be leveraged to enhance learning. We learn well when given opportunities to practice new concepts. In a physical classroom this often takes the shape of homework worksheets; students learn material in lecture, complete a worksheet by themselves, then receive feedback and a grade a week later. The goal of this assignment is to have students master a concept through hands-on practice before the high-stakes final exam. Transitioning this same activity online can increase the level of feedback students get, and reduce the time the teacher spends providing that feedback. 

With a paper homework assignment, the teacher must grade one per student which in large classes requires a significant amount of time. An online alternative is to use the Canvas quiz feature. In Small Teaching Online the authors describe a powerful combination of technologies; autograding, multiple attemptsThe homework assignment is converted into a quiz consisting of questions with a singular correct answer (multiple choice, or True False work well). Then, the teacher inputs standard feedback into the questions; for an incorrect answer they may refer students to specific pages of the textbook or a timestamp in the lecture video. While assignment setup may take extra time, there is not grading requirement regardless of how many students are in the class. The teacher than decides how many attempts students get; 2 or 3 attempts for a homework-focused grading system, or even unlimited if the goal is to prepare students for a high-risk summative assessment later on. Any highly reflective questions can be formatted as a class discussion or a single short answer assignment, which takes less time to grade than the entire homework.  

From the student perspective they are able to practice material they know to be important, receive feedback on incorrect responses, review the difficult points, then retry the practice problems to verify they have fixed their mistakes. To the student the combination of feedback and an opportunity to try again without penalty tells them that you, their teacher, are invested in their learning. 


As we adapt to the unexpected need for social distancing many teachers (faculty and TA’s) are suddenly expected to teach online with little or no experience. With the added difficulty of learning a completely new LMS it can feel as though you are being asked the impossible, and that the consequences will fall on squarely on your students. Initially, I believed the AT Scholars would serve almost as translators, helping faculty directly convert courses online. Now, several weeks into my training I realize we have an even more important role; to provide faculty with digitaoptions that are unavailable in a face-to-face setting.