In charge of designing your course in Canvas LMS? Technology will influence the didactical choices you make!

Authors: Chantal Westerveld, MSc. & Fleur Deenen, MSc.


Recent technological developments are changing even the most conservative industries, and education is not staying behind. Logically so, because effectively shaping minds of students worldwide is of the utmost importance. Empowering this innovation is Canvas Learning Management System (LMS), which is increasingly being adopted by educational institutes as their primary LMS.

According to Koehler and Mishra (2005): “Good teaching is not simply adding technology to the existing teaching and content domain.”(p.134). This sentiment illustrates the importance of properly incorporating new technology by revising the entire process, rather than just going with the flow. Implementing a new LMS gives instructional designers a perfect opportunity to take a close look at their course design.

Throughout this whitepaper, we hope to help you (re)design courses by showing you how to properly combine a design cycle for course development, with all of the benefits that Canvas LMS has to offer.

Design cycle

Several educational design models have been introduced over the last couple of decades. For the sake of this whitepaper, we have chosen to have a closer look at the ADDIE-approach as this widely used, generic design model can be applied to (almost) every educational domain (Dick, Carey & Carey, 2009).

ADDIE consists of five interrelated phases: Analyze (identification of structural problem), Design (deciding on learning objectives, instructional methods and activities), Develop (creation of content and learning interactions such as cases, instructions and videos), Implementation (delivery of content to the students) and Evaluation.

We believe that every modern and successful educational program starts with mapping out relevant learning outcomes, that is why we assume an outcome-oriented way of instructional design (Gulikers & Van Benthum, 2013). After finishing your program, what will your students have gained in terms of professional attitude, knowledge and skills? Defining learning outcomes will help determine what kind of assessment is best used within your specific course. This assessment program in turn will help you decide which teaching methods, educational resources and activities should be defined.

In this whitepaper, we’ll zoom in on the Design phase of the ADDIE-approach, which we split up in four steps: Learning Outcomes, Assessment, Content and Didactics (see Figure 1). Additionally, we will also reflect on the Evaluation phase of the ADDIE-approach towards the end of the document, because this crucial step generates important information for future course designs. Please keep in mind to always stay close to your own educational vision when (re)designing your course.

Figure 1: A closer look at the Design cycle of the ADDIE-approach

Design Phase, Step 1: learning outcomes

What will your students be able to do after completing the cycle?

According to Gosling and Moon (2001), a learning outcome is defined as something a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate at the end of a “period of learning”.

It won’t come as a surprise that the first thing to do, when working with an outcome-based approach to learning, is to define which learning outcomes you want your students to achieve. While defining these outcomes, it is important to include specific outcomes in terms of observable behavior (Magner, 1975). We suggest using the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001) to help you define these outcomes by using active verbs.

Once defined, presenting your outcomes to students will stimulate the learning process (Woolfolk, Hughes and Walkup, 2008). This is important because it’s proven that students need ‘focus’ to help their brains distinguish between important and less important information (Dirksen, Boer, Möller & Willemse, 2014).

Canvas allows you to facilitate all of this. You can use the LMS to add an overview of all relevant learning outcomes to the homepage or introduction page of a module (see Figure 2). It also allows you to use the Outcome functionality, through which you can clearly define the learning outcomes including different mastery levels.

Figure 2. Entering learning outcomes in Canvas LMS

Design Phase, Step 2: Assessment

How will you assess the learning outcomes?

Now that we’ve established clear learning outcomes, it’s time to move on to the next step in the Design Cycle: Assessment. In assessment, we distinguish three different ways: Summative Assessment, Formative Assessment and (direct) Formative Feedback. Each way has its own benefits and use in your course design, as well as the Canvas functionalities, which you can see in Figure 3.

It is crucial that you choose the kind of assessment that fits your defined learning outcomes (Nusche, 2008). Canvas helps you to make the right decision by offering an optional usage of learning outcomes in assessment rubrics. In doing so, learning outcomes are directly used as a guideline for grading assignments, quizzes and discussions.

Figure 3. Assessment in Canvas

Design Phase, Step 3: Content

What kind of content will you present to your students?

Up next is Content. What are you going to offer? How will you deliver it to your students? To ensure the quality of content, we advise you to think about these three steps in this phase: Selection, Organization and Presentation (see Figure 4).

Starting with Selection, we suggest making sure that your content meets the following criteria:

– The content aligns with former knowledge (Dochy, 1993)

– The content comes across as interesting and catches the attention of readers (Hidi, 2006)

– The content matches the learning outcomes or personal goals of the students (Keller, 1987).

With Organization and Presentation, it is important to take into account the effect of visual representation of your content. We would advise the use of predefined course templates, which are an excellent starting point for course development. Through these templates you can pre-structure the file storage repository, the course navigation and the homepage.

Another note on the importance of proper Presentation: according to the dual coding theory (Clarck & Paivio, 1991), the best way to stimulate students is by confronting them with audiovisual material like for instance a video. The way written and visual content is presented plays an exceptionally important role in getting and maintaining the interest and attention of your students (Hartley, 1999). Length, structure and layout of on-screen texts have to be correct (Lutgerink, n.d.), logical and free of redundant information.

With Canvas, you can make sure the content is clutter-free by creating links to additional Canvas pages. It’s a perfect way to keep your pages light, without sacrificing on content!

Figure 4. Selecting, Organizing and Presenting content via Canvas

Design Phase, Step 4: Didactics

How will you deliver the learning content to your students? What specific activities will you present that enable students to learn?

If you have chosen to incorporate new technology and online learning into your educational program, you will have to decide on the what and how. Which content will be discussed during face-to-face sessions with your students and which will be used online? That brings us to the final step of our Design phase: Didactics! Thankfully, there are plenty of options to choose from, based on your own educational vision.

Let’s have a look at some of the options. According to a literature review by Lee, Lim & Kim (2017), online learning activities are most useful in situations where factual learning content is transferred using less intensive and challenging activities, whereas face-to-face meetings are more suitable when students need to work on intensive and complex tasks where collaboration is needed, in order to achieve a shared focus and common understanding.

Fransen (2013) supports these findings, stating that there are three ways of learning, depending on the position of the learner in the process, as well as the function of the learner’s environment. These ways of learning are: individual self-study, learning through experts, and collaborative learning. Fransen observed that individual self-study is best suited for well documented and stable knowledge, while learning through experts helps with processing knowledge. Lee, Lim & Kim (2017) argue that, in order to reach a common understanding while working on more complex tasks, collaborative learning is simply put the best way to go.

In order to provide you with the means to get the most out of all three ways of learning, we provide you with some examples on when to use the different Canvas functionalities (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Learning Activities in Canvas Divided Based on Ways of Learning

Evaluation Phase

How will you evaluate your design in order to constantly improve your course?

Congratulations on finishing the Design phase of your course! Assuming that you will continue to develop and implement, you will thereafter reach the Evaluation phase of the ADDIE-approach. Arguably the most important phase, because evaluation will help you approach instructional design as a continuous cycle. Whatever your findings will be, the evaluation should be used to improve the course each and every time you complete another cycle.

Canvas will help you to get the most out of your evaluations by using automatically gathered data from the Course Analytics and Learning Mastery (see Figure 6). Course Analytics will give you real-time information on the quality of your learning materials as well as on the structure of your course (Bogaard et al., 2016), while Learning Mastery will offer valuable insight into student learnings and their specific needs.

Figure 6. Evaluation Through Course Analytics and Learning Mastery

Course Analytics offer very insightful data. With the help of this data, instructional designers will be able to answer the following questions and edit their courses accordingly:

  • Which materials are most used?
  • How active are students on discussions?
  • Which students are behind on learning and what support do they need?
  • Do students hand in assignments on time? Does this say something about the assignment level?

For Learning Mastery, Canvas has the ‘Learning Mastery Gradebook’, which automatically gathers data of assignments, quizzes and discussions. Given the fact that the Gradebook presents you with relevant data, connected to the assessment of learning outcomes in step 2, this information is particularly useful during your evaluation.

Take this scenario for example: if a single student scores low on one of your selected learning outcomes, you may consider giving him or her extra attention to help them improve. Whereas if all your students encounter difficulties it might be more accurate to say that it is your course, which needs help.

In order to come to the root of this issue, a new cycle might be necessary to revise your learning outcomes, assessment, content or didactics. Whichever issue you will find could be fundamental for the future effectiveness of your course.


Seeing more and more educational institutes embrace technological assistance is great, however it is important to guide this development in the right direction to protect the quality of education as a whole. Learning to use new tools offers these institutes a perfect chance to reevaluate their courses and approach instructional design from a new angle. Going through cycles creates an ever-lasting feedback loop through which you will constantly be able to improve your own courses.

We believe that a cyclic approach to the Design-phase of ADDIE, paired with Canvas LMS will help you to make the right choices when (re)designing your materials. Hopefully this whitepaper will make the switch towards this technology easier and more enjoyable.

We are looking forward to hearing about your experiences and would like to emphasize that we are always available if you have further questions or find yourself in need of some assistance. Please do not hesitate to contact us if this is the case!

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