Structuring your course in Canvas

To support you in the event the University needs to suspend in-person courses the Learning Enhancement Team are putting together some resources and actions you can take when shifting from face-to-face to online instruction.

A well-organised course provides a clear path for students to progress and is extremely important for those that are required to study online.  By providing structure and clear, welcoming instructions and information students will be more comfortable and confident and will ask fewer logistical questions.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this self-paced module, you should be able to:

  • organize your course using the Modules tool
  • create a weekly narrative for your course
  • find out what students are using in Canvas

Weekly Objectives
Course Narrative

How do I put this all together?

If you're at the putting it together stage we're going to presume you already have the following:

  • Clear and measurable learning outcomes
  • Assessments that can show to what extent your students have met the learning outcomes
  • Activities and other active learning strategies to allow students to practice doing what you describe in the learning outcomes
  • Content that provides sufficient information, explanation, and demonstration, in both written and visual form, for students to successfully reach the learning outcomes

Consistency is the key

While there are many different ways to organize your course, once you choose your strategy the best thing you can do for your students is to implement it as consistently as possible. Like in-person students who get in the habit of going to class at the same time and the same place every week, online students need to form those same habits to maintain consistent performance across the semester. Making sure that assignments are always due on the same day of the week and modules always begin on the same day of the week goes a long way to providing structure.  

Students also benefit from consistently having an overview of each module describing what they are to do and learn.  By placing an overview (either written or on video) at the beginning of each module as an advance organizer, students are better prepared to complete it.  The overview should also include a list of reading (identifying chapters from books or linking to digital resources) and brief assignment descriptions or links to Assignments, Discussions, or Quizzes where the full descriptions are. Some faculty members like to put the overview description or video on one page and then readings and resources on a subsequent page and then have assignments and activities follow individually in the module.  Either way is good as long as you pick one approach and use it consistently.

Even if you are working from a strong constructivist frame, when putting your course together make sure to keep in mind the scaffolding provided by the three phases of direct instruction.

  • I Do: How are you modeling and explaining new material and the ways in which new material connects to previous concepts? See the Multimedia module for ideas on presenting these think-alouds and walkthroughs. 
  • We Do: How are you guiding and coaching the learning process? Providing prompt and actionable feedback is one way but preemptive checks on understanding and formative feedback can help support learners before misunderstandings are documented in assignments.
  • You Do: How are you providing independent practice?  Keep in mind, independent doesn't have to mean alone. Group work can provide collaborative practice independent of the instructor.

The long and the short of the Modules tool

The Modules Tool in Canvas can make course organization and navigation easier for yourself and your students.  It is the place where you organize your activities, content, and assessments in the order in which you want your students to progress through them.  Having all instructions, content, activities, and assignments in the Modules tool avoids the problem of telling students to "go there and do this" and then "go somewhere else and do that". 

There are two schools of thought about how to organize items in Modules: the long version where every item is a separate part in the module including links and readings as well as activities and assignments and; the short version where each module begins with an overview Content Page that includes a list of the books or chapters for the module as well as links to other items the students are to read, watch, and explore.  

Short Version:

View of Module tool showing 3 module items

Long Version:

Image of Modules tool showing 8 items

As you can see, making each item a separate module element can significantly increase the length of the module and long modules can appear overwhelming to students and reduce motivation. On the other hand, instructors are concerned that students skip over readings and don't explore links unless they are required to progress through them one at a time. Having a separate module element for each and setting the module to require students to move through each item individually in sequential order to reach the activities and assignments can mitigate that concern.  

What are weekly objectives, and why should I use them?

CLOs are statements that define the aims, skills, and outcomes of a course. They also apply to course modules and assessment tasks. Effective CLOs should be clear and measurable through assessment. CLOs are general statements about the overarching aims and what learners are expected to achieve at the end of the course, whereas, module objectives are nested into course objectives and are more specific, testing and measuring skills learned as part of that module, and can be viewed as the building blocks or tasks that lead students to mastery of CLOs.

Module objectives are usually broken into either weekly or topic objectives in Canvas, they form the building blocks or tasks that lead students to mastery of a course learning outcome.

Module (Weekly/Topic) objectives are created to help students to:

  • Develop relevant skills
  • Focus their time and effort and to plan ahead
  • Gauge their mastery of content and skills
  • Identify the purpose and relevancy of content, activities, assignments, assessments, and technology

What does this look like?

Your weekly/topic pages should resemble the following by starting each week/topic with the following signposting (in bold type).

Weekly/Topic Title:  Canvas Overview

Description: The topic this week will cover the short history of the Learning Management System (LMS) for eLearning. This will provide a foundation for realising the teaching and learning experiences in an online learning environment.

Course Learning Outcomes Addressed: CLO1, CLO3

Weekly/Topic Objectives: 

1. Identify characteristics of a learning management system

2. Articulate the history of the learning management system

3. Differentiate the difference between a course management system and a learning management system.


resource_icon.png Additional Resources

NM State University "Map Your Way to a Quality Course" walks you through the steps to developing a quality course map. Have a look at the alignment of CLOs and module objectives. 

Without a clear understanding of how, and why, different teaching and learning activities are connected, the student experience can feel like ‘just one thing after another'.

At course level, a clear and compelling teaching and learning narrative enables and empowers staff and students to navigate the ideas and practices that form their academic discipline, forging professional and personal identities.

Constructing your weekly/topics in modules with pages that are clearly signposted, enables you to weave context, themes, or a story—a narrative—into the course structure, you can increase student engagement and emotional connection to the material, thus contributing to a lasting, transferable, and meaningful learning experience.

Weekly/topic modules in Canvas function similarly to chapters in a book in that they arrange course content in a logical, orderly way. But they also provide a high-level organisational framework that can guide students toward understanding. Your modules don't need to be too complex at a minimum they should be a thoughtful grouping and sequencing which facilitates the construction of a meaningful “story” of what students should learn and why.

Creating a module structure provides students with a framework that is logical and consistent structure of course content. They assist with students not getting lost in the course and provide a big-picture understanding. This type of engagement helps students retain details and make meaning of information and also increases the impact of and learning potential in your course.

The following pages will look at how to create a basic narrative in Canvas by:

  • using basic visual design concepts
  • chunking content
  • creating a hierarchy of content
  • being consistent

Using basic visual design concepts

When you start developing your Canvas modules and pages it’s important to understand the relationship between content and design.


Image source:  (CC0)

You don't need to have graphic design skills in order to produce well structured and designed pages. Below are 4 key guidelines you should consider when creating your online content:

Creating Hierarchy

Organisation helps students understand the priorities of the information and ideas you present to them. Create a hierarchy by arranging your content points from the most important to the least important. By guiding the eye through the information in a specific order, you make the content easier to scan and digest.

Tip – use a SEH College template. This has hierarchy and structure. If you modify the template make sure you use the same structure throughout your site.

Headings, sub-headings and paragraphs assist in this as well.

Tip – Use the inbuilt formatting in Canvas. There are 3 inbuilt heading styles, use them consistently in your site.


White space is the term for blank areas of the design between the visual elements. White space helps the viewer understand the relationship between each item on the screen by separating groups and elements, adding emphasis, or allowing our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Too little white space creates a crowded design, while too much white space can look incomplete and create a lack of interest.


Chunking learning content

Even when using a College template as well as heading, sub-headings and paragraphs you need to consider how much text and information is on each Canvas page. When there is too much information our minds turn off and we disengage with the material or quickly move to another page. Learners usually don’t thoroughly read online content, they they scan over the content.

How do we make studen
ts scan the information that we want them to learn? The answer is chunking.

What is chunking?

  • Dividing content into small pieces
  • Accommodates for shortened attention span
  • Small enough to process – no more than 15 – 30 minutes per sitting
  • Logical breaks
  • Can be more than one "chunk"

Provide students a little bit at a time. Start with the basic concepts and build upon them. If a page seems to have a lot of text and information, find a good place to cut it into 2 pages. As a learner clicks through pages it also gives the feeling of accomplishment and progression.


Source: Simons College

Tips for chunking:

  • Use bullet points. Everyone will scan bullets
  • Break things into steps. If the information happens in a sequence then number it
  • Always think about the information from the perspective of the student. What should they know 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.?
  • Find ways to rewrite sentences to be more concise
  • Avoid long paragraphs
  • Consider using text, images and videos for chunking
  • Insert learning activities or self-checks as breaks

Further tips and examples of chunking can be seen at eLearning Industry and Simmons College.


Consistency is one of the most under-utilised visual design principles in online course sites. It is important for the structure to be logical and consistent. Students need to know what they are looking for,where to find it, and what to expect when they find it. Consistency refers not only to the overall design of the site being consistent but also to how resources are titled, labelled and how these resources are linked within the course site. 

To keep an online course site consistent the following practices can help:

Naming conventions

  • Your method of organising information and activities (modules, pages, folders, units…), should be named consistently. For example: Module 1, Module 2, or Unit One, Unit Two, etc. Try not to mix identifiers.
  • Learning materials or resources such as handouts, website links, videos, etc. should be consistently named, and their names can reflect their applicable learning units. For example: Chapter One Readings, Chapter One Web Resources, and Chapter One Videos.
  • Whatever naming scheme you choose it should be consistent throughout the course. Learning Activities such as course discussions, assignments, interactive tutorials and discussions should follow the same conventions recommended for learning materials above. For example: Week 1 Quiz, Week 1 Assignments, and Week 1 Discussion.

Layout, location and ordering

  • Students should expect to find similar items in the same places throughout the Canvas course site. Typically students will need to access learning materials such as readings, videos, or web resources before engaging in graded or ungraded assignments.
  • For example: a midterm exam that falls in week five of the semester could be placed between the weeks 1 and and 6 modules (say in its own module with a study guide), but regular reference to this item and its location could be made during weeks 1 through 5 so students know where to find it.

Text, icons, colour formats

  • When creating textual content for your courses, use the same font, font colour and font size throughout the course except in the rare instances where a different font, colour or size is necessary for emphasis or navigation. This improves readability for students. Whenever possible, text should be at set in the “paragraph” format and headings set with the appropriate “header” format (Header 2, Header 3 and Header 4) through the rich content editor in Canvas. Colours used for emphasis, visual appeal or navigation should be consistent.
  • An example of colour consistency is that hyperlinks links in Canvas pages are blue – you would want to avoid using blue text in Canvas pages unless you intend it as a hyperlink.


  • If appropriate to the course, scheduling online course assessments should also be consistent.
  • An example is to have a consistent day and time that all graded discussion answers and replies are due each week. Each week, after that deadline has passed, you close the discussion to activity while you grade responses.

Follow the signposting below to setup your weekly/topic pages in Canvas. Copy and paste the following into a new page in Canvas and replace the prompts.


Insert a 1-2 paragraph description of weekly overview here. What will students do during the week? What is important for them to learn? Try to make this language ‘student-friendly’. For example: “This week you will study …"  

Tip: You could replace the written overview with a video created in Canvas.

Week/Topic Objectives 

By the end of this week/topic you will be able to: 

List objectives here. You only need 3-4 well-written, student-friendly objectives. Make certain at least one of your objectives includes a higher-order task like synthesis, analysis, or evaluation, and that your objectives are not solely content-based, but allow students to apply critical thinking skills to content. 

Weekly schedule 

Before Class 

Provide links to any readings/videos/online resources etc. Make sure you include 1-2 sentences on the why the students should complete these resources and their relationship to the week. 

During Class 

Provide links to any readings/videos/online resources etc. Make sure you include 1-2 sentences on the why the students should complete these resources and their relationship to the week. 

After Class 

Provide links to any readings/videos/online resources etc. Make sure you include 1-2 sentences on the why the students should complete these resources and their relationship to the week. 


Provide links to any readings/videos/online resources etc. Make sure you include 1-2 sentences on the why the students should complete these resources and their relationship to the week. 

Assessment Preparation 

Include here 1-2 sentences of any up-coming assessment tasks and at what stage the students should be at so they can plan to successfully complete them. 



Telling your story: Building a narrative in Canvas (Time 50mins) – due to technical issue please find the complete slides here.
Adapted from “IU – Teaching Online” (Links to an external site.) by UC Davis (Links to an external site.) which is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (Links to an external site.) with the following additions:

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License