Getting Started with Canvas Basics

Course Access

To access your PSU Canvas account, go to You will be prompted to authenticate with your PSU Odin name and password. This will take you to the main Canvas Dashboard where all courses to which you have access are listed.

Home Page

When students log in to your Canvas course for the first time, they need something friendly and welcoming that orients them and directly communicates what to do. Make sure your Course Home Page is ready.


Canvas has several ways to communicate with your students. Learn how you can stay connected.


Canvas has a number of tools to help you share course materials with your students. Using Modules to organize this content can simplify navigation for both you and your students.


Discussions are threaded conversations on a single topic. They are asynchronous, which means participants do not have to be online at the same time. You can use this flexible tool for communication and assessment.


Canvas Assignments is an assessment tool. Anything a student submits for grading and feedback is an “assignment.” Learn about the ways you can use the Assignments page.

Student Interactions

In  online learning, you’ll often need to structure peer collaborations into the course and encourage them  through course structure, proactive communication, and feedback.


As with assessments in a face-to-face classroom, Quizzes in Canvas help you gauge student understanding of course content.


The Gradebook stores all information about student progress in the course, measuring both letter grades and course outcomes.

Course Management

Canvas has lots of features and tools for teaching a course. But you also need these “under the hood” functions for managing your course site.

Communicating in Canvas

Canvas has several ways to communicate with your students. Here are two of them:

  • Announcements are course-wide.
  • Inbox messages may be private between an instructor and a student or group of students, or a message between students.


You can use Announcements to give students news, updates, and reminders. Students receive email copies of your announcements in their campus email. This is based on their notification preferences; by default, they receive the message immediately — but they can opt for less frequent notifications.

Note: A default Canvas course is set to show the latest announcement at the top of the page. You can set how many announcements to display, but we recommend just one to make sure students notice the most important and current information.

Watch the video for a basic overview:


306 – Announcements Overview from Instructure Canvas Community on Vimeo.

Using Announcements

The primary use of an announcement is for news and reminders:

  • Notify students of class cancellation, if a class location has moved, if you will be out of town or delayed in providing feedback on an assignment, etc.
  • Remind students of upcoming due dates.
  • Notify students of campus events or news items of interest or relevance.

You can also use announcements to engage students at the beginning of each unit (week). Doing this consistently helps participants stay connected and recognize that you are a human with a personality (and not just a computer). It helps define your “presence” in an online course.

When writing an announcement, use the “inverted pyramid” model from journalistic writing. Open with the most important facts or information and then progress through less important details. Most people will read only the first sentence or two unless they perceive a need to keep going.

Guiding announcements generally include two or more of the following:

  • Introduction to the main idea for the week — short, one sentence, to motivate and encourage engagement in the topic of the week.
  • Any scheduling information such as days the teacher will not be available, a changed due date, holiday, etc.
  • Summary response to previous week’s discussion (or assignment submission). Provide positive feedback; whenever possible, mention student names and take quotes directly from their postings. This should be only a paragraph highlighting just one or two exceptional comments. (This recognizes and motivates, as well as demonstrating that you actually read the discussions.)

Other Considerations

  • By default, students receive an immediate email copy of a course announcement. However, faculty do not automatically receive copies of announcements they have created. If you want email copies of your own announcements (e.g., as reassurance that the announcement went out), edit your notification preferences.
  • You can schedule Announcements in advance or post them immediately. Delaying release — even by a little — gives you time to proofread (and revise if needed) before students receive it.
  • If multiple sections are loaded to your Canvas site, you can post an announcement to just selected sections if necessary.
  • Announcements are also available in Canvas Groups. You can post an announcement to just one group, and group members can post announcements to each other.
  • When you copy an entire Canvas site from one semester to the next, the announcements are included. You will need to go through them and delete any that are no longer needed or edit the release date for those you wish to reuse. Be sure to also edit out any information that was only relevant to the previous class!
  • You can use the Rich Content Editor and Content Selector when you create an announcement. Use these to format the text of your posts or to link to the items you reference; for example, if you are reminding students that an assignment is due, you can link to that assignment.

The Inbox

The Inbox allows Canvas users to send messages to one another within Canvas.

Both faculty and students can configure their notification settings to receive Canvas Inbox messages at the email address of their choice. You can also choose how often to receive these notifications.

Use the Inbox to:

  • Send information or updates to an individual student, a section, or a group.
  • Record a media comment (audio or video) to send to an individual student, section, or group.
  • Send file attachments to an individual student, a section, or a group.
  • Use the “Message Students Who…” feature in the Gradebook to contact students who have not submitted an assessment, who scored less than a given grade, or who scored more than a given grade.

Adapted from “Communicating in Canvas” in Start Here 102: Best Practices in Online instruction, licensed CC BY 4.0 by Grace Seo, University of Missouri.

Student Interactions in Canvas

Student interaction plays an important role in learning and overall sense of community. Whether you’re teaching fully online, blended, or in-person, you might consider developing space to support such interaction in your digital classroom. Canvas has tools to help students digitally interact:


  • Create student groups to use with Canvas Discussions, Canvas Assignments, and Canvas Peer Reviews.
  • Create student groups randomly or manually, or allow individual signups.
  • Have student group members create and edit their own Canvas pages.
  • Have students create their own groups in your course (if enabled).

Peer Review

  • Facilitate students reviewing one another's work and giving substantive feedback.
  • Allow students to serve as an audience for one another's presentations, performances, etc.
  • Assign peer reviews randomly, manually, and both within or among group memberships.
  • Have students use associated rubrics to leave peer feedback.


  • Add a Google Doc as a collaborative document and share it with individuals or groups in your Canvas course.
  • Have students add their own Collaborations (if your course uses Collaborations). Student collaborations will automatically be visible to instructors. 
  • Use Collaborations to co-create certain course elements (e.g. syllabus, discussion guidelines, rubrics).


Students can:

  • Share learning resources with one another.
  • Teach topics or information to one another.
  • Help one another troubleshoot issues or answer content-related questions (e.g., course Q&A forum).

Integrating these instructional strategies and technology tools helps cultivate a safe learning community, foster peer interaction, and give timely and meaningful feedback by involving students in both doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.

Adapted from “Learner-Learner Interactions” in Start Here 102: Best Practices in Online instruction, licensed CC BY 4.0 by Grace Seo, University of Missouri.

Discussions in Canvas

Discussions are threaded conversations on a single topic. They are asynchronous, which means participants do not have to be online at the same time, making them an especially flexible communication tool. You can use Discussions for communication and for assessment.

This video provides a basic overview:


303 – Discussions Overview from Instructure Canvas Community on Vimeo.

Using Discussions in Your Teaching

  • Have students introduce themselves to the class at the beginning of a semester.
  • Create a Q&A thread for the class and ask students to post questions instead of contacting you by email. You can even encourage students to respond to each other in this thread rather than waiting for you to reply.
  • Create a “water cooler” thread for students to chat about topics unrelated to the class. While this is not teaching per se, it allows students to connect with each other and helps build social presence in the course.
  • Ask students to use the media tools in the Rich Content Editor to post their responses. For learners who are more comfortable speaking than writing, this provides a means for them to respond more fluently. In a language course, this allows you to assess students’ pronunciation, grammar, etc.
  • Have students work through a case or problem.
  • Embed a media prompt (a diagram, video, etc.) for students to respond to.
  • Students can create their own discussions within Canvas Groups.

Setting Discussion Guidelines and/or Expectations

In your syllabus or on an introductory page in the Modules area, be sure to define exactly what you expect from students when posting to discussions. This can include general netiquette information, use of full sentences, citing sources, and specific information on how you will assess discussions (include quantity and quality of posts).

Considerations for Using Canvas Discussions

The “threaded discussion” option will make conversations easier for everyone to follow. Remember to select it when creating a discussion. (It’s not selected by default.)

You can use the Rich Content Editor in Canvas to format the text of your discussion prompt, add links (to other parts of the Canvas site or to other webpages), and embed videos.

For a graded discussion, you can review student responses in SpeedGrader. When you select a student in SpeedGrader, you will find all of that student’s posts to the discussion — which is helpful if you require students to reply to their classmates in addition to posting their own responses to the prompt.

You can attach a rubric to a graded discussion or require peer review for discussion responses.

Using Discussions with Groups

In a large class, consider breaking students into smaller groups and then having each group respond to discussion prompts.

Discussions in Groups allow for collaboration on projects.

Writing Good Discussion Questions

Asking the right question(s) is vital to creating a good discussion in your course. Consider the following discussion prompt:

After reading textbook chapter 5, please describe challenges that social workers face due to the social climate, economic changes, and political environment.

Once a few students have responded to the question, it’s likely they will have covered all potential answers. The rest will have little to add without being repetitive. Additionally, fact-based questions like the one above don’t help students identify their own knowledge gaps, explore multiple perspectives, or negotiate content meaning.

Instead, ask open-ended questions or questions that have more than just one or a few correct answers. These can offer additional discussion opportunities. For example:

How do you perceive that plan as adequate to the problem? What makes you think so? Where might that plan derail? What other plans are possible?

Questions that invite students to share their own point of view from their personal and/or work life can generate multiple perspectives.

Important Takeaways

Make sure responses are not “right” or “wrong” and cannot be answered with “yes” or “no.” The best discussion prompts ask students to reflect and to demonstrate higher order thinking (analysis, synthesis, comparison, evaluation). Otherwise, discussions risk becoming “homework out loud.” Students perceive them as busy work, and you won’t enjoy reading and assessing the responses.

Discussions are meant to be interactions among learners. You may want to ask students not only to post comments to the discussion questions but also to respond to one or two other students. If so, give different due dates for initial posts to discussion and for peer-to-peer interactions. This will help you avoid a situation where learners post the discussions and interactions on the last day of the discussion, giving learners no time to interact with each other.

Adapted from “Discussions in Canvas” in Start Here 102: Best Practices in Online instruction, licensed CC BY 4.0 by Grace Seo, University of Missouri.

Using the Home Page in Canvas

When students log in to your course for the first time, they need something friendly and welcoming that orients them and explicitly communicates what to do.

You have several options for your course home page, but OAI recommends setting it to a page you create (also called a Front Page). Starting new students on a syllabus page or a modules list isn’t nearly as welcoming as a page with your contact information, a picture of you, a personal welcome, and/or instructions on what to do first.

By default, your Canvas course will display announcements at the top of the page. This is where you can post important reminders or other course information. You can set how many announcements show up on the home page —but limiting to just one can help make sure students notice the most important and current information.

Course Navigation

When students log in, they will notice the course navigation bar. Canvas lets you simplify navigation by hiding items not used in your course. This can reduce confusion for your students and keep them focused on the relevant course materials.

OAI recommends using Modules to organize all your instructions, content, activities, and assignments. This gives students one central location to look for everything. By doing this, you can hide the Assignments, Quizzes, Discussions, Pages, and Files pages from the navigation bar in the student view.

That means fewer “where is” questions for you and less frustration for your students!

Example Home Pages

An example home page for a Spanish class, with a large image of a cathedral and with emphasis on a link to Modules.
An example home page for a biology class, with a large image of deep woods and with emphasis on a link to the syllabus.
An example home page for a history/social studies class, with a photo of the instructor and an emphasis on how to contact the instructor.


Use these templates from the Commons resource library to create your own home page. (For help, review Meet Canvas Commons.)

Note: These homepage templates will import into a course’s “Pages” section. Select “View All Pages” to reach a newly imported page template.

Adapted from “Using the Home Page” in Start Here 102: Best Practices in Online Instruction, licensed CC BY 4.0 by Grace Seo, University of Missouri.

Learn More Elsewhere


Supporting Students through Difficult Conversations

The classroom can be a place to explore controversial topics including equity, identity, religious beliefs, and political views. These topics may come up as part of your curriculum, or through external factors and events. You may or may not choose to engage students in difficult conversations — but either way, it’s important to prepare.

Notice your own responses and emotions surrounding a topic and recognize that you and your students may not be able to show up as your best selves for these conversations. One approach to this might be transparency with your students, acknowledging how challenging the topic is and giving everyone space to process before moving forward with a conversation.

If you do choose to engage students, it will be important to acknowledge the range of perspectives and intense emotions that are likely present in your classroom. The following tips may be helpful for framing a conversation where students with diverse experiences and points of view can engage productively with one another.

Helpful Tips

Establish community agreements before discussing difficult topics.

Encourage your students to help create these collaboratively. They might include one or more of the following agreements:

  • Addressing ideas rather than people
  • Taking and making space to ensure everyone has a chance to speak
  • Entering the conversation with a spirit of curiosity and good will
  • Welcoming correction and reflection

Identify a clear purpose for the conversation.

Is the class interested in exploring a question, better understanding the context of a recent event, reflecting on the impact of current events, or something else? There is no right answer, but it is helpful for students to agree on a focus and purpose before diving in.

Provide space to summarize the discussion.

Provide space to summarize the discussion, receive student feedback, and allow students to reflect on their feelings and experiences. This might look like a brief exit email or poll, a word in the Zoom chat, or a Google Doc with reflection notes.

Recognize that difficult topics may impact students differently.

Your students likely experience a range of emotions when responding to difficult topics, informed by a range of factors including their lived experiences, intersecting identities, and feelings of safety in the class space. Particularly during uncertain and highly stressful circumstances, some students may be more at risk for marginalization connected to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or region/country of origin.

  • It may help to encourage a discussion of students’ relevant experiences while being mindful to not ask students to self-disclose information they may not be ready to share.
  • Consider asking students to complete an anonymous poll about their questions or concerns (or email you privately, if an individual response is needed). Options include Google forms, discussions, and survey tools. Find out whether students feel they are making progress, if they are having difficulties with the course, and if they have specific suggestions for addressing any challenges they identify.

Acknowledge the impact on your students.

If you do not choose to address a difficult topic substantively but still want to acknowledge it, you can:
  • Begin by recognizing that different people have strong emotions from a variety of perspectives, and it may be hard to focus.
  • Give your students a chance to write for a minute or two to process their thoughts and feelings, and/or identify people they want to reach out to for the types of connections and processing that would benefit them. Then move on to your plan for the day.
  • Note the difficulty of focusing and of controlling strong emotions and let students know they can feel free to take a brief break to refocus.

If a student raises a topic when you had not planned to discuss it, classroom discussion agreements might provide guidance to have a productive and respectful conversation. If you do not feel prepared for a conversation, you can recognize that the student might want to have the conversation, but explain that you want to think further about whether and how to engage it as a class.

Woman writing on computer smiling

Staying Present in Your Online Course

Being present in your remote course is key to keeping students engaged, leading to overall student success.  Here are a few ways to stay connected to your students and help them feel like part of your learning community.

Post regular announcements.

Post regular announcements to keep students informed and create an encouraging online environment. Being present doesn’t mean that you have to be online all the time. You can maintain regular contact with your students through weekly updates, video reminders, and full-class messages acknowledging students’ good work.

Provide an open discussion area.

Providing an open discussion area encourages connection for your students both to you and each other. Another way to build community is through an asynchronous discussion board.  This provides students a way to reach out to their classmates about topics that are not specifically related to a weekly topic or specific assignment.  For example, a student might use this discussion area to ask for help in finding resources for an assignment or to share details about a community event related to the course topic.

Create a Google Forms Survey to do a quick check-in throughout the term.

When asking for feedback, it’s important to ask questions about things you can change, and to respond to that feedback holistically. Two simple feedback questions that can be effective are: 

    • What is one thing your instructor could change to improve your learning in this course?
    • What is one thing YOU could change to improve your learning in this course?

Schedule an optional session in Zoom to do a live check in with your students.

Giving students the opportunity to meet with you in real time can help to build community in your course. Be sure to have some kind of interaction planned to keep students engaged.

Student Voices on Remote Learning

Students had a range of responses to the sudden shift to remote learning during Spring term 2020. While many students expressed appreciation for PSU’s efforts to keep them safe and for their instructors’ efforts to support their learning, some areas of challenge also emerged. Students face many situations outside of the control of individual instructors, but here are a few common scenarios along with suggestions for approaches instructors might take to address them. 

Quotes and vignettes are based on student feedback received during Spring 2020. See more details about Spring 2020 remote learning experiences in the Office of Student Success Remote Pulse Survey and the Disability Resource Center Student Survey. Student quotes have been edited for clarity.

Students felt overwhelmed in digital spaces.

“… The zoom lectures often feel like they are moving all over the place and even the instructor is having a difficult time staying on task, as there are more interruptions than typically experienced in lecture halls. … The zoom lectures seem to be more stimulating and exhausting than in person lectures…”

“…One class has a reading list on the syllabus, but the articles on the reading list are in the library, and not grouped by week or in any order, so one has to have the syllabus in one window, and the library list in another window to open the correct articles. Another has videos that are buried in the Table of Contents…”

“It’s much more difficult to read and focus. I feel frustrated with some professors who make me jump through hoops as a person who gets help with DRC. “

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Consider reducing duration and/or frequency of Zoom sessions in favor of asynchronous learning activities to meet course goals.
  • Intentionally plan your Zoom sessions and share interaction guidelines with students. Set standards for how students should ask questions, and whether and when they need to have their cameras and mics enabled.
  • Give extra attention to how you organize your course. Consider a weekly course structure, which may be different from how you’ve previously organized your course.
  • Work with the Disability Resource Center as needed to enact remote accommodations that meet students needs.

Spring term coincided with global crises.

“Trying to survive is hard enough, let alone worrying about class. Trying to maintain eligibility for grants by going full time when I can’t even cook dinner some nights. Sleeping badly which doesn’t help. Eating poorly which doesn’t help. Having to relocate to a different household due to my roommate being very ill doesn’t help. Losing my job doesn’t help. My whole life has been uprooted”

“Mental and physical health challenges that are being felt by most of us doesn’t seem a priority in adapting our course load to this reality.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Anticipate that you and your students will be feeling a variety of emotions that may make teaching and learning more challenging. Consider additional flexibility in how students engage in and demonstrate their learning. Universal Design for Learning offers valuable suggestions. 
  • Balance curricular challenges with a supportive and affirming learning environment. Offering students multiple opportunities to take quizzes or complete homework is one way to support students.
  • Share information about campus services and resources with students. For example, the Food Pantry, SHAC, Learning Center, and Financial Wellness Center are all resources here to help students succeed. The C.A.R.E. Team addresses concerns regarding specific student’s wellbeing. Faculty and staff may submit a CARE report to notify the team of a student concern.

PSU students continue to lead busy and complex lives.

“It is very difficult to sit through a Zoom class session when my child is also home. As a single mother, my resources have been stripped due to this virus and the virtual experience has been hard to manage at home with family.”

“…. I have deadlines almost every day of the week, and many of them can’t be started whenever I want to, as I have to wait for a professor to upload assignments, or for another student to do their work first, that means I can’t control when the work needs to be done, which is hard because I am a primary care provider to a 5 year old, who no longer has school, so I mostly have to do work after she goes to bed, sometimes until 2am.”

“I don’t have a space in my house (a one bedroom apartment) where I can study or attend classes without interruption, and I don’t have childcare for my daughter.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Trust your students and recognize that they may be facing challenges to showing up to your class that you can’t anticipate. Consider the impact of course policies on students at the margins. For example, might a “no late work policy” disproportionately hurt essential workers or students who take care of family members? 
  • Offer flexibility where possible. This might mean offering alternative ways to complete assignments or attend class sessions. 
  • Connect your class to students’ experiences. If you’re not sure how your course content relates to students, ask them to help make the connections. Seeing how what they’re learning in class connects to the real world and their own lives helps sustain engagement and motivation.

Students feel increased time pressure.

“I found some instructors made classes even more time consuming than in the past and this is not the time for busy silly work.”

“… I feel the professors have decided to make up for lack of in-person time with additional assignments which only stresses myself and others out as we try to figure out our life financially and health specifically….”

“Since switching to remote learning there has been an increase in coursework for most of my classes. Since going to remote learning I also have had less access to reliable internet, which has made online learning more difficult.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Plan your course activities and expectations carefully, so that students spend thee to four hours on course work for each credit hour of a course. This total time includes both instructional (“class time”) and homework/study time.
  • Anticipate that students are juggling additional stressors and may benefit from extra time to complete assignments.
  • Ensure strong alignment between your required course assignments and your course learning outcomes.

Flexible Teaching Strategies

When adapting your course to a new format, it can help to review instructional strategies. This article looks at different ways to provide content, peer learning, and student inquiry activities. In a traditional course classroom activities are synchronous (everyone is present at the same time). That includes lectures, discussions, labs, and small group work. Activities that are usually asynchronous include reading, media viewing, and homework.

With technology, teaching strategies that are usually synchronous can become asynchronous and vice-versa. For example, you can break lectures into short videos and have students view them online. Reading can become a peer activity using a shared annotation tool like Below are some strategies to help you stay flexible and explore new options.

Content Strategies

Sharing knowledge with students through written and media content is often the backbone of academic teaching. The challenge is to help them care about and question that material in productive ways. Students learn better when they feel your enthusiasm and insight. They’ll also learn more when you connect new ideas with their prior experience and knowledge.

Suggested Guidelines

Deliver or record your presentations in 15 minute “chapters” interspersed with activities. This is particularly important for challenging reading material or presentations. Some examples of what to record:

  • Demonstrate a procedure, project, or method of reasoning.
    • Show examples of the kind of work you want students to produce.
    • Explain abstract content with practical examples or case studies.
    • Show students a solved challenge and give them a new, partially-solved problem to complete individually or in groups.
    • Present recorded field work, subject-expert interviews, or sample project work.
  • Focus on introducing, roadmapping, sparking curiosity, and integrating new material with previous topics and course activities.
  • Motivate students by displaying enthusiasm for and showing the relevance of the material to real-world applications and students’ current and future lives. Students learn and remember new material when it’s presented in relation to things they already know (or think they know) about.
  • Introduce a new topic by walking through its sequenced components and methods. Build toward increasing complexity. Ideally, teach the steps in the same sequence that students must perform them.
  • Give students the most help and rapid feedback early on, followed by prompts for independent inquiry instead of direct instruction.

Note: Explore the wide range of available media and Open Educational Resources. Don’t reinvent the wheel, but address any differences between your perspective or knowledge and those presented in the external media.

Activity Ideas

Many of these are adapted from Todd Finley’s 53 ways to check for students’ understanding of course material. Students could:

  • Use audio or video to record questions and interpretations, or to amplify the course material.
  • Identify the theory or idea the material is advancing. Then identify an opposite theory and how that framework presents a different perspective.
  • Create a concept map connecting the new material to topics already covered in class.
  • List the three most interesting, controversial, or resonant ideas you found in the material and record/write a short rationale for the selection.
  • List 10 key words from the material and write/record a summary based on these words.
  • Write three substantive questions related to the content and share them with the class.
  • Summarize the author’s or presenter’s position or objective. What are its assumptions or preconceptions?
  • Identify the main point, and arguments or evidence for and against it.
  • Choose three key words or concepts from the material and define them.
  • Create a collage or video around the material’s themes, and briefly describe their choices.

Peer Learning Strategies

Students create more personalized learning experiences by engaging with each other. They often feel more comfortable asking questions and can gain deeper knowledge by explaining concepts. Peer-to-peer learning is very flexible — it can take place both synchronously and asynchronously.

Suggested Guidelines

  • Give students a clear understanding of the purpose of paired or group work. It can make students anxious or irritated, but is very effective when students feel it’s relevant and useful.
  • Interactions in class are often skewed toward more confident students. You can assign roles or have students change roles to make sure all voices are heard.
  • Address grading anxiety by making peer work low-stakes or having each student produce an artifact for individual assessment (not just a group grade).
  • Designate time within the weekly workload for students to discuss and collaborate on the group activity.

Activity Ideas

  • Have students pair up and peer review each step in a multi-step project for feedback and help (“workshop” each incremental step).
  • Pair or group students and have each address a different question or challenge. Have them share answers in a Google Doc, a discussion thread, or in synchronous breakout rooms with a shared worksheet that all groups use. This allows groups to observe each other’s work.
  • Use pairs or small groups in which each student peer teaches one concept, process, or method in their own words, and gets feedback from their peers. This can be done via Zoom or video recordings.
  • Use problem-, case-, or project-based activities divided into clearly defined contribution roles and then workshopped or presented as a group. Grade each contribution individually to reduce anxiety. This can be done via Zoom or video recordings.
  • Collaborative written reports in which each student in a group contributes one topic. This is an “authentic” exercise since workplace writing is often team-produced.
  • Have students post “One thing I understood well” and “One thing that’s still unclear” in a discussion forum. Use one student’s post as help on a topic. This lets them peer teach and highlights any topics you need to review.

Student Inquiry Strategies

Inquiry-based approaches let students discover knowledge rather than having it presented. Discovery generates better learning retention, particularly when assisted by timely guidance (Halpern & Hakel, 2003). Used across disciplines, this approach helps students learn to do scholarship rather than absorb it. Communicating findings is a key part of this process.

Suggested Guidelines

  • Inquiry learning is question-based rather than thesis-based. Spend time fostering good questions and projects. Help make them relevant to personal, social, or community issues along with course learning outcomes.
  • Students formulate new knowledge by associating it with and refining existing knowledge. Make sure you have a good benchmark understanding of what your students know, so you can give them appropriate challenges.
  • Give students inquiry or research projects before presenting a full explanatory framework. The students’ work will generate questions, making them want the explanations you present afterwards.
  • Inquiry is particularly effective when students can share their plans with other students for discussion and feedback.
  • Inquiry is most effective when students have a degree of control over their work. Try letting them choose the specific path or topic they pursue. Give them resources and guidelines instead of step-by-step directions.

Activity Ideas

  • Have students formulate a question that takes them into their environment to document evidence (social, environmental, aesthetic, political). Field-based experiential inquiry lets students connect their work to a community rather than abstract values.
  • Create a media literacy challenge for your course subject. Have students find media examples and create a process to evaluate them.
  • Have students write or revise interview questions for a subject matter expert in the community. The interview can be audio, a recorded video meeting, or an email exchange. This can also be an oral history interview.
  • Structure a group project or experiment in which each student suggests strategies, and have the group vote on the approach(es) taken. This provides a realistic experience of workplace constraints and collaboration.
  • Use a Design Thinking model to research a particular problem (physical, social, environmental), collect data, and create a prototype solution. Have students or groups present conclusions for whole-class discussion.
  • Have students find a historical artifact relevant to your course topic and analyze it using a rubric.


Halpern, D. F., & Hakel, M. D. (2003). Applying the Science of Learning to the University and Beyond: Teaching for Long-Term Retention and Transfer. Change, 35(4), 36–41.

Flexible and Affordable Teaching Materials: Using OER

“Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources released under an open license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. OER can be full courses, course materials, lesson plans, open textbooks, learning objects, videos, games, tests, software, or any other tool, material, or technique that supports access to knowledge.”SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition)

Consider using OER to:

  • Reduce textbook costs for students.
  • Increase access to course materials (e.g., available on-demand across devices).
  • Build collaboration (between educators, between students and educators).
  • Improve flexibility and material quality (e.g., tailored material for specific purposes, adding current content).

OER reduce barriers to education while increasing the quality of teaching and learning.

Where to Find OER Textbooks

  • In online textbook collections. OpenStax has free learning modules and textbooks both developed and peer-reviewed by educators. Open Textbook Library is another collection that pulls titles from multiple OER sources.
  • By discipline. OER textbooks serve many fields, including commonly required coursework and high-enrollment classes. The PSU Library curates materials by discipline.
  • By PSU faculty. PSU has its own publishing initiative, PDXOpen, which supports faculty in developing open-access textbooks.
  • Using search engines. Two great options to begin your search are OASIS and Mason OER Metafinder (MOM), which search across OER repositories and thousands of entries. These are particularly helpful for more advanced or specialized courses.

How to Use OER

Where to Find Other Forms of OER (and Free Teaching Materials)


  • Khan Academy: A collection of instructional videos, practice exercises, and other educational videos across many subject areas.
  • Moving Image Archive: Over a million free films, movies, and other videos. Many (but not all) are available for free download. Be sure to check for permissions information in the video description.
  • YouTube Education University: Primarily a collection of lectures in various disciplines. YouTube offers a filter so you can search for videos published under Creative Commons licensing.

Photos and Other Images

  • Wikimedia Commons: Openly licensed and public domain images and visual media hosted by Wikimedia.
  • Flickr: Many photos on Flickr are available for free use and editing with a Creative Commons license.
  • Unsplash and Pixabay: While all photos on these sites are free to use, photographers appreciate being credited to help expose their work. Crediting can simply be including the photographer’s name and a link to their profile and/or photo.
  • The Gender Spectrum Collection: Seeks to add gender diversity and representation to “stock” photos for lecture slides, presentations, and so on. Free to use for educational, non-commercial purposes, but requires you credit the photographer and use photos without editing.

Books and Other Literature

  • Bloomsbury Academic: A collection of books and digital resources in the humanities, social sciences, and visual arts.
  • Project Gutenberg: Over 58,000 free eBooks digitized and proofread by volunteers, with a focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired.

Supplemental Materials

  • OER Commons: “A public digital library of open educational resources,” including syllabi, lesson plans, assignments, modules, textbooks, etc.