How Canvas improves courses: an instructor’s perspective

By Zachary McFarlane

Two faculty members and a TILT course developer walk into the locker room after a Noon Hour pick-up game of basketball. Now, feel free to stop here if you’ve heard this one before, but the first faculty member asks, “Have you converted over to Canvas yet?” The other faculty member shakes his head and says, “I’m not converting over until I have to. I grade on too intense a curve, and I don’t want to figure out how to input it into the grade book.” The TILT designer, who was eavesdropping from another row of lockers, peaks his head around the corner and says, “I’m sure we can do that. Swing by my office sometime, and we’ll figure it out.”

Bah dum dum. I know … the payoff on that was about as weak as my jump shot has been lately, and I’m not even sure if the faculty members actually took the developer up on his offer. But that conversation, which I overheard a few weeks ago, serves as a reminder that there are a lot of tools at our disposal in Canvas. Also, that there are people ready and willing to help us figure them out.

I’m an adjunct, teaching two courses in the journalism department. Prior to this semester, I was presented with two options: 1) bite the bullet, migrate to Canvas, and figure out the new system now; or 2) keep teaching in RamCT Blackboard and switch later, most likely when left with no other option.

Never the biggest fan of Blackboard, I went ahead and migrated. And I’m increasingly glad I did.

Teaching a writing class, one of my consistent pain points is grading. Not only are there mounds of papers and tests to manually grade, but there is also the issue of getting timely feedback to students so they can apply it to their next assignment. I have always loved giving extensive feedback on assignments. I have also, historically, loved utilizing the good ol’ red pen to do that. But after setting up a quick meeting with a course developer, I quickly saw that the pen was actually making me less efficient.

Thirty minutes into that meeting, two tools stood out to me as instantly useful in that regard — the assignment submission interface and SpeedGraderTM.

For assignments, I upload and organize content — worksheets, homework, etc. — then quickly segment the various pieces of content into whichever weekly module I want it. Students come to class, listen to me lecture, clearly have either a million little ah-hah moments or a good nap, then load up that week’s module and start working on their assignments right from there. When they’re done, they submit their work via the same assignment link. Not only is that useful and easy for them, it provides me a great amount of organization, without much effort.

When I’m ready to grade, I open up that same assignment, click on SpeedGrader TM, and grade papers with a variety of editing tools at my disposal — primarily in-text notes, highlights, and an overall comment box. Once I make my notes, enter the grade, and click submit, the grade book is automatically updated and, more importantly, the student has immediate access to my feedback and notes.

Overall, students have viewed this change as positive. Throughout this semester, I have seen the impact it has on learning outcomes. From assignment to assignment, there has been drastic improvement in students’ writing, as their current work is immediately informed by feedback on their previous submission (as long as they choose to take the feedback to heart — I doubt even Canvas can overcome that barrier). And those who do take feedback to heart enjoy not having to wait, alleviating at least one hurdle for our students as they try to improve.

For me, these two items have made the initial awkwardness of moving to a new learning management system worth it. The time it has saved me far exceeds the time it took to click on the migrate button, set a meeting with a developer, and sit down for an hour to get comfortable.

And if you still favor that pen, take it on good authority that you can line through, highlight, and write text … all in red.

For more information on Canvas resources and training, visit