Canvas Student Support and Syllabus Statement

OAI supports only faculty, but here are some ways for students to get help with Canvas.

  • The Learning Center has self-paced learning resources for students new to Canvas. We recommend sending students there first — and encouraging them to take the Center’s remote readiness course during the term’s first week.
  • The OIT Helpdesk offers “just in time” technical support. This is good for students having trouble logging into Canvas, finding or accessing Canvas materials, and other technical issues.
  • The Help item (on the global navigation bar within Canvas) reveals links to OIT’s Canvas resources and to technology support through the myPSU portal.

Syllabus Statement

Consider adding this statement to your syllabus:

This course uses Canvas as the main learning platform. If you haven’t used Canvas before, I recommend you take the PSU Learning Center’s remote readiness course this week. If you’ve used Canvas and you just need occasional technical support, contact the OIT Helpdesk. If they can’t help you, please let me know.

Student-Faculty Partnerships in Curricula

There is a growing movement to not only include but also involve students in curricula decisions. Students in higher education have challenged the notion that they are customers receiving a transactional education and instead call for higher levels of participation and agency in their learning (Matthews et al., 2017). Students collaborating with institutions, programs, and faculty to design curricula is a framework known as students as partners, or student-faculty partnerships. At Portland State University, student body President Nya Mbock has called for more student involvement with faculty in the curriculum (Swordfisk, 2021).

Positive outcomes of student-faculty partnership include increased student engagement, motivation, and ownership for learning, a positive shift of power dynamics between faculty and student (toward more equitable power), engagement and empowerment for students who are historically excluded, and increased student confidence and self-determination (Cook-Sather et al., 2014).

With any approach to curricula, the intention of including students can end up harming students. It’s important to set intentions, to be transparent, and to reflect on how power affects the partnership. Without these intentional pieces, partnership work may end up tokenizing students and essentializing the student experience (Cook-Sather et al., 2014; de Bie et al., 2021). As a result, and despite good intentions, partnerships can reinforce the inequitable learning environments that they seek to disrupt. For example, partnership work may focus on an increased sense of belonging for students, which may be problematic when the institution students are invited to feel connected with has a history of erasure and colonization for some student populations (de Bie et al., 2021).

Example Partnership Approaches

Here are three examples of partnership approaches you can include in your own practice:

  • Student-faculty course design. This happens before a course is taught and when you are designing the course. A student or group of students collaborate with the faculty member on the design of a course. This might include a redesigned syllabus or elements such as course outcomes, a course assignment, or an entire course.
  • Students create and choose. This includes students in a course you are teaching. This might include having students choose the weekly discussion topics or create and vote on quiz questions, embedding students’ social bookmarking annotations to shape course content, or having students collaborate to create course content (Cook-Sather et al., 2014).
  • Partnerships in assessment. Invite students to identify grading criteria for an assignment or final essay or invite students to co-assess their own final presentations. Another example is to bring a rubric with past student papers (used with permission) and have current students grade the papers based on that rubric. Have a discussion about the rubric and invite students to offer suggestions on adapting it for their course term.

Getting Started

  1. Begin by reflecting on how you currently involve students in your curriculum.
  2. Create a list of when students get to make decisions within your curriculum. (If this is currently  “never,” consider starting with a negotiated syllabus.)
  3. Acknowledge that this iterative process never really ends.

Examples in Practice

Negotiated Syllabus

Provide a diversity of materials in formats that remain consistent from week to week. Students choose which materials to engage with to learn the concepts outlined for that week. The focus of the negotiated syllabus is to highlight student agency within their learning by creating opportunities for students to choose the way they want to learn a concept.

For example, provide lecture slides, supplementary texts, and external videos covering the information being taught each week. From this collection, students can choose which items are most useful to them and will have reliable access to their preferred materials for each new topic.


Reflect on the level at which students make decisions and identify opportunities to increase student involvement: Hold a discussion with students in class to determine course learning outcomes and discuss how predetermined assignments will help the class reach their goals.

Be prepared to make small changes to assignments based on the class discussion. This is expected, as every class will have different students. The discussion may also yield ideas for new or different assignments to help the class meet their co-created learning outcomes.

Alternatively, hold a discussion with students in class to create course assignments based on predetermined course outcomes and how these assignments will help the class reach their goals.

Identity Expression

Integrate the student voice into your course by providing ample room for identity expression and application of the material to students’ own lived experiences — in ways such as including languages spoken beyond English and encouraging cultural and community practices. This engages more parts of the brain and allows for greater communication between them, along with deeper integration of the learned material into long-term memory (Johnson et al., 2006)

Co-created Syllabus

Develop a syllabus, in partnership with students, that reflects your collective values. Co-creating a syllabus is a chance for students to democratically participate in their own learning. It signals that a course is designed to share power and encourage not only student involvement but also engagement and agency.

The syllabus might include co-created community guidelines, flexible deadlines based on the class’s needs for that quarter, or opportunities for students to self-grade. You might also consider including a list of linked resources (where to find cost-considerate course materials, necessary technology, internet access), a land acknowledgement, and an acknowledgment of bias.


Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felton, P. (2014). Engaging Students As Partners in Learning and Teaching : A Guide for Faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

De Bie, K., Marquis, E., Cook-Sather, A., & Luqueño, L. P. (2021). Promoting Equity and Justice through Pedagogical Partnership. Stylus.

Johnson, S., & Taylor, K. (2006). The Neuroscience of Adult Learning: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. Wiley.

Matthews, K. E., Groenendijk, L. J., & Chunduri, P. (2017). We Want to be More Involved: Student Perceptions of Students as Partners Across the Degree Program Curriculum. International Journal for Students As Partners, 1(2).

Swordfisk, K. (2021, September 27). In pursuit of student success: ASPSU president prioritizes student involvement, improving the post-COVID learning environment. PSU News.

Learn More Elsewhere


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.

Encouraging Student Agency through Alternative Assessments

Research shows that the more we give students qualitative feedback and withhold quantitative grades, the more students are able to absorb that feedback and improve their learning (Schinske & Tanner, 2014). Alternative assessments can support that process.

Building trust with your students is foundational for developing alternative assessment practices that work. It’s important to explain to students why you chose your assessment methods. Wherever possible, provide clarity and transparency around your decisions and expectations. Keep in mind that your students may have spent most of their academic careers growing familiar and comfortable with standard assessments.

Questions to inform your assessment decisions:

  • What does it look like when students are learning?
  • How can you clearly communicate your expectations to students?
  • How can you give students opportunities to reflect and assess their own learning?

Reflecting on your answers to these questions can help you prioritize where and how to include alternative assessments in your course.

Alternative Assessment Examples

The Five-Point System

The five-point system is a compromise between students wanting everything graded and instructors who know that grades can distract from learning. Students earn five out of five points for every assignment, big or small, as long as they do three things:

  • Submit it on time.
  • Follow the directions.
  • Do the work completely.

The work doesn’t have to be correct or high quality; it just has to be done. Students receive not just points, but feedback in multiple ways throughout the term: peer review, instructor comments, self-reflections, and comparing their work to models and examples. This helps students learn from their effort and progress. Points averaged over the term are the “effort grade.” At the end of the term, students write a final reflection letter to the instructor explaining what they’ve learned and making the case for the grade they think they deserve. Their proposed grade is averaged in with their effort grade, and that is the grade they earn for the class.

Contract Grading

Popularized by Danielewicz and Elbow (2009), contract grading clearly lays out — at the beginning of the class — the tasks students must complete and the behaviors expected of them. The instructor attaches a grade to the contract so students know exactly what to do to earn that grade.

Peer Reviews

Asking students to give feedback to their peers gives them an opportunity to learn from one another and think critically about their work. Consider giving students specific elements to focus on during peer review and model what good feedback looks like. It helps to provide students with a rubric, checklist, or series of questions to answer as they examine their peers’ work.

Student Self-Assessment

Possibly the most radical of alternative assessment methods, student self-assessment requires a paradigm shift for both the instructor and the student. It requires students to truly believe they have the freedom to determine their own grade and the instructor to truly believe that students are capable of doing so fairly. Students can self-assess in large or small courses when they are taught how, and doing so deepens their learning and motivates them to keep learning. Self-assessment can happen in a variety of formats:

  • Exam wrappers
  • e-Journals
  • Blogs
  • Weekly reflections/check-ins
  • e-Portfolios

Implementing Alternative Assessments

Any use of alternative assessments is likely to be new for at least some of your students. As you implement alternative assessments in your course, it can help to prioritize clear communication around students’ process and progress, and your expectations — even when you and students have designed those pieces collaboratively.


Give students regular feedback on their process work that is not linked to points or grades. Students are more likely to remember feedback and incorporate it into future work if it is not paired with a grade. Check out these research-based tips for giving students meaningful feedback. Low stakes, formative assessments that give you and your students feedback about their learning come in many forms:

  • Practice quizzes
  • Zoom polls during presentations
  • Follow-up surveys
  • Google Doc reading quote and question collection
  • Discussion-forum-based, student-led Q and A
  • One-on-one check-ins


Give students clear guidelines, examples, and rubrics that describe the desired learning outcomes for a given assessment. Allow time and flexibility for students to ask questions and make suggestions about how they might meet the learning outcomes in more than one way. Employing a Universal Design for Learning strategy will serve a diversity of learners.


Danielewicz, J., & Elbow, P. (2009). A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching. College Composition and Communication, 61(2), 244–268.

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166.

Learn More Elsewhere


Website (blog post)

Building an Effective Syllabus

An effective syllabus is both relevant and accessible for all students. Along with complete information, it needs organization and formatting that works well in assistive devices.

To help you get started, OAI has an accessible syllabus template with PSU policies and other common elements. It’s organized with Microsoft Word’s heading structure and uses accessible formatting. Keep the structure and formatting to maintain accessibility, but add and delete information to make it relevant for your course.

Note these elements:

  • Headings: Use text formatted as a heading to identify sections of your syllabus.
  • Lists: Use the list tool (bullets or numbering), not dashes, to identify lists of items.
  • Links: Make them meaningful. For example, instead of click here, use a more descriptive link: OAI+ Tech Tutorials.
  • Tables: Use column and row headers on every table.
  • Images: Add alternative text that describes the image for visually-impaired students.
  • Font: Make sure the text color you use has enough color contrast to be legible. Also, don’t use color or underlining to convey information or meaning.
  • Layout: Use adequate line spacing (1.15 or greater) and a large enough font size. (Nine points is the minimum, but 12 to 14 is better.)

It’s also important for a syllabus to be culturally inclusive to all our students. The PSU Library has a guide to making your syllabus — and your whole curriculum — more culturally responsive and inclusive:

Important notes for building your syllabus:

  • Talk with your department or college about any additional syllabus requirements.
  • Be sure to check dates and links before use.
  • Post the syllabus in the content area of your online course so students always know where to find it.

Beyond the Basics

Video Introduction

Particularly in online courses, it might be helpful to also create a video screencast introducing the course syllabus. Consider, for example, this Syllabus Builder Video from UDL on Campus.

Naming Access Needs

Consider adding a statement to your syllabus that invites students to share their access needs throughout the term. An example:

I encourage you to name your access needs in this class and ask that you please communicate as your needs change. Naming your access needs can be asking a presenter to speak slower, or turning your camera off for a moment and letting the class know that you will participate via chat, or keeping your camera on but letting the class know that you may fidget, stretch, or move during class time. Naming your access needs is an important part of how you communicate with the class.

The Negotiated Syllabus

A negotiated syllabus is constructed collaboratively with students, giving them choices about what, how, when, and with whom they will meet learning objectives.

One way to build a negotiated syllabus is to start with what’s required for students to pass the course. Outline those requirements, then allow the class to determine some aspects democratically — such as readings, grade scheme, class activities, major assignments, etc.

Students are often much more invested in classes where they are making decisions and building the class with the instructor and their peers.

Cultivating Student Motivation

Fostering Student Choice and Decision Making

Those who do the work do the learning. If this maxim is true, how can we structure our classrooms so students have the power to make important choices about their learning without creating unnecessary chaos? How can they do more of the work while still relying on us for guidance?

When we give students the opportunity to make decisions about their learning process, they are more likely to form deep connections and practice higher-level thinking skills. According to Deci and Ryan as cited in Stefanou et al. (2004), students need “autonomy, competence, and relatedness…in social contexts” (p. 98) to learn and achieve self-determination. Students must actively construct their learning within intentional, social contexts. Students who feel they have some freedom over their learning are more likely to set “realistic goals, [determine] appropriate actions that accomplish goals, and [assess] progress toward the goals” whereas students who feel powerless to make their own decisions “lack volitional strategies and behaviors” (p. 98).

Choice alone does not guarantee student motivation. Students need the freedom to make choices that relate to their own lives and clearly connect to their immediate goals. Motivation theorists Patall et al. (2010) explain:

... choice may only be effective when it successfully satisfies fundamental needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. As such, having choice or the act of selecting alone is not enough to support motivation. Rather, choices need to be relevant to students’ interests and goals, provide a moderate number of options of an intermediate level of complexity, and be congruent with other family and cultural values in order to effectively support motivation (p. 898).

Because the types of choices we present to students significantly affect their level of motivation, consider how students might contribute to the choices provided in your class. Perhaps you provide two or three choices with an option for students to create their own proof of learning with your approval, for example.

Promoting Student Autonomy in Your Class

When examining the structure of your course, how might you incorporate one or more of the following approaches to promote student autonomy and greater motivation? Your answer may depend on your goals for the class and how you want students to transfer knowledge from your course into other contexts. Don’t feel you need to redesign your whole course or use all these ideas. Try out one or two, then make adjustments.

  • Assignment and Assessment Choices: Students can demonstrate their learning through writing essays or reports, creating videos or podcasts, curating a portfolio, taking tests and quizzes, building models, giving presentations, etc. Provide a menu of choices for students to decide how they’d like to demonstrate their learning.
  • Student-created Tests, Rubrics, and Reflection questions: Students learn a lot from considering criteria to evaluate their work. Creating their own assessment criteria helps students think critically about the content they’re learning and how to illustrate that learning. Use student-created test questions, rubrics, or reflection questions when making your assessments.
  • Peer Teaching: Studies have shown that students retain less than 10% of what they hear during a lecture. By contrast, students retain 75% of what they learn by doing and 90% of the information they teach to others (Duderstadt, 2002, pp. 64–65).
    • Peer-to-Peer Teaching: when an expert student teaches a novice student. Peer tutors, teaching assistants, and mixed-skill cooperative learning groups are all examples of peer-to-peer teaching.
    • Peer Instruction: a “research-based teaching method that leverages the power of social interaction to drive learning” (Schell, 2013). Peer Instruction works best when students have been exposed to the content before class. Class time is spent clarifying the concepts through a seven-step process:
      1. Deliver a mini-lecture about an important concept.
      2. Pose a question.
      3. Give students time to think individually.
      4. Collect responses privately.
      5. Have students turn to a neighbor and try to convince them of their answer.
      6. Ask students to commit to a final answer, and collect those responses.
      7. Reveal the responses and the correct answer (if one exists), and facilitate a class-wide discussion about the answer and the reasoning behind it.
    • Jigsaw Teaching: a cooperative learning technique where each student studies one segment of the course content and teaches that segment to the other members of their peer group. The Jigsaw Classroom defines all ten steps.
  • Open Pedagogy: Open Pedagogy is the practice of teachers using Open Educational Resources (OER) and students completing openly shareable, non-disposable assignments. Non-disposable assignments live on beyond the course and can be used by others in the future. They have an authentic audience and purpose beyond meeting the requirements of the course.

Implementing Flipped Learning

What is a flipped classroom? Flipped Learning moves content delivery such as lectures, readings, and other forms of information to students’ individual learning spaces so classroom time is spent engaging with the material in more active, applied ways. Students come to class with at least an introduction to the concepts they can use in creative ways, with their peers and instructor there to support learning. This interactive class time may take the form of group work, experimentation, debate, project work, scenario analysis, in-class presentations, service-learning, problem solving, etc.

According to the Flipped Learning Network, The Four Pillars of FLIP are as follows:

  • Flexible Environment: Group work, individual study, and project-based learning are all supported in a flexible learning environment.
  • Learning Culture: Learner-centered, the flipped classroom includes students in the active construction of knowledge through active, applied practice using new skills and concepts.
  • Intentional Content: The instructor carefully selects content and curates it in text, video, and other formats “to maximize classroom time in order to adopt methods of student-centered, active learning strategies.”
  • Professional Educator: In a flipped classroom, the instructor is a reflective practitioner, examining their own practices with the aim to improve them. The instructor observes students at work in order to provide feedback and guide them toward greater understanding of the content.


Duderstadt, J. J., Atkins, D.E., Van Houweling, D. E., & Van Houweling, D. (2002). Higher Education in the Digital Age: Technology Issues and Strategies for American Colleges and Universities. American Council on Education.

Patall, E. A., Harris, C., & Wynn, S. R. (2010). The Effectiveness and Relative Importance of Choice in the Classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 896–915.

Schell, J. (2013, August 26). The 6 most common questions about using Peer Instruction, answered. Turn to Your Neighbor.

Stefanou, C. R., Perencevich, K. C., DiCintio, M., & Turner, J. C. (2004). Supporting Autonomy in the Classroom: Ways Teachers Encourage Decision Making and Ownership. Educational Psychologist, 39(2), 97–110.

Active Lecture and Discussion Techniques

Research has long found that students often don’t retain most lecture material. For example, Donald Bligh reported that when students were not quizzed until three weeks after a lecture, they retained less than 10 percent (1998, pp. 46–47). Even more problematic is evidence that while all students learn better in an active learning environment (a classroom that replaces lecture with discussion, group work, and other forms of student-centered interactivity), lectures favor students who are “white, male, and affluent” (Paul, 2015). The challenge to create an active lecture is really the challenge to help students connect with the material in a meaningful way so they remember it and can use it in future contexts.

Creating a successful, engaging lecture requires:

  • A plan: What specific objective do you want to meet during this lecture? How does this lecture build from past and into and future lectures?
  • Focus: What three to five points will help to break the objective into manageable concepts or skills? How is this lecture unique, breaking away from their reading and other learning materials?
  • Engagement: How can you transform your lecture from a passive experience to an active one for students? How might they participate in the lecture?
  • Visuals or props: Which images, videos, or physical specimens will help students connect with the material?
  • Breaks and check-ins: How much time will your lecture require with breaks for questions and check-in periods for understanding?

Activating Your Lectures

When planning your lectures, consider how you might incorporate one of these active learning strategies to help students make meaningful connections to the content:

  • Capture students’ attention: Use questions, stories, or problems to engage students in the lecture. If students perceive the topic as a problem to solve, a story they can relate to, or a question to find the answer to, they are more likely to pay attention.
  • Connect content to students’ experience: If students are able to relate course material to their lives or their community, they will be more likely to remember and transfer these concepts to future situations. Develop questions and scenarios that help students make these connections, or ask students to develop them as part of class participation.
  • Encourage participation: About every 10 to 20 minutes, when students’ minds will naturally begin to wander, build in ways for students to participate. Ask students to turn to each other and discuss, answer questions, or create models of what they’re learning in text or image form. Have them move around, go to the board, and create examples of what they’re learning. (Wiersma, 2012)
  • Flip your classroom: Instead of using class time for lecture, faculty teaching flipped classes engage students in active learning assignments during class sessions and assign lecture material for homework.

Creating Active Discussions

How can classroom discussions be focused, engaged, and productive? Finding relevant ways to encourage student engagement without it feeling like wasted time can sometimes be a challenge. These techniques can help organize effective discussions:

  • Assign roles: Sometimes discussion happens as a full class, but often it’s a good idea for students to work in pairs or small groups. This ensures that every student has an opportunity to fully engage with the course content. It also allows students who may not otherwise participate (such as introverts or students who are new to the subject matter) to connect with the content and their peers. An effective group size is no larger than four students, but it’s okay if groups are slightly larger as long as every student has a specific role to play in the group. Roles may include notetaker, presenter, researcher, timekeeper, facilitator, artist, mathematician, summarizer, Devil’s Advocate, etc. (Barkley et al., 2014, p. 52).
  • Use guiding questions: Keeping the objectives of your class session in mind, what open-ended questions might guide students to reaching the goals of the session so that discussion is a process of discovery for them? For example, if an objective in a Pacific Northwest geography class is to understand patterns of human migration to the west, a guiding question to help spark discussion might be, “What factors are currently motivating people to move to Portland?” Questions like this promote critical thinking and encourage curiosity, so that even if students don’t know fact-based answers to that question, they will be willing to explore possible answers as they seek out facts to shape their understanding.
  • Use liberating structures: Liberating Structures are highly structured activities that promote relational coordination and trust. Liberating Structures are especially useful to establish class cohesion and a positive learning climate. The website Liberating Structures provides a detailed explanation of what Liberating Structures are and how to use them in your classroom with small or large groups to encourage team decision-making and leadership.

Checking for Understanding

When using lecture or discussion in the classroom, it’s often difficult to tell what students have learned without testing them. Quick and easy formative assessments can gauge what students know without burdening you or them with a formal test. Edutopia’s Todd Finley outlined 53 techniques for engaging students during a lecture or class discussion while checking for understanding.


Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

Bligh, D. A. (1998). What’s the Use of Lectures?. United Kingdom: Intellect.

Paul, A. M. (2015, September 13). Are College Lectures Unfair?. The New York Times.

Wiersma, A. (2012, September 6). Crafting an Engaging Lecture. Inside Higher Ed.

Course Design Essentials

This guide applies to a range of course design or revision techniques. You might use the Rule of 2’s: Simple Course Design Template to make notes and capture ideas as you work through this article. This article and the Rule of 2s template follow a backward design flow, where you start planning with student learning outcomes in mind. (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Identify Course Goals

You may be familiar with student learning outcomes, also sometimes called learning objectives or course goals. Your course may have preset outcomes already determined, or you might need to identify outcomes. In either case, you want to make sure you have a set of student learning outcomes that are accurate and reflect the purpose of the course. Good student learning outcomes are observable and measurable — so you can observe student work and measure whether it meets the goals of the course. Outcomes might address content knowledge, skills, or even dispositions that you intend students to acquire. For a guide to writing effective student learning outcomes, check out the OAI+ article on assessment methods.

Imagine that a large box arrives at your house. It’s full of parts to assemble but has no instructions and no pictures of the final object — so you are stuck trying to make sense of all the parts without understanding the end goal. This is how students often feel when they enter a course without student learning outcomes or clear goals.

Once you’ve identified the outcomes for your course, they form the foundation, blueprint, or roadmap that everyone in the course is working toward. As you design or revise your course, keep coming back to these outcomes to ensure your planned assessments, assignments, learning activities, and teaching strategies align with your intended learning outcomes.

Build Assessments around Course Goals

Think back to that mysterious box that arrived at your house. What if the box had instructions, but they didn’t match the parts? What if parts were missing or the instructions skipped big steps?

This is analogous to what happens when assigned work doesn’t align with the course goals or when assessments don’t match what has been taught in the class. It’s difficult for students to understand why the work is necessary or relevant or how their assessments reflect what they are learning. (This article uses assessments and assignments interchangeably as ways to externalize student learning, to better observe and measure it.)

Some assessments are intended to help you and students perceive how much progress you’ve all made toward meeting the course goals. Other assessments are meant to measure whether students are ready to move on to the next stage, whether that’s the next topic in your course or another course altogether. Not all assessments need to be graded. Some can be used as practice that helps you adjust your expectations and helps students know what to focus on as they progress through the course.

On assessments meant to serve as learning tools for future work, it’s often helpful to give students opportunities for peer review, self-reflection, and suggestions rather than a letter or number grade. Research shows that grades are often demotivating for students and can be confusing when students try to improve their grade in future assignments. While we often look at grades as inevitable and ubiquitous, they are relatively new as a standard practice in higher education (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).

Some questions to consider when creating assessments and assignments:

  • Do assessments measure what you mean for them to measure?
  • Are assessments aligned with your Student Learning Outcomes?
  • Which assessments absolutely need grades and which need a different kind of feedback?

Scaffold for Student Success

When asking students to complete large assessments such as term papers, presentations, group projects, lab experiments, final exams, or research studies, it’s helpful to break these assignments into smaller tasks that “scaffold” the work and support the final product.

  • What steps do students need to take to complete the large assignment?
  • What kind of accountability and feedback will help them complete the large assignment? (It often helps to require that students turn in outlines, proposals, and drafts because it keeps them accountable and assists them in breaking their work into parts.)
  • How long will each part likely take, and how can you schedule one or two check-ins with students as they are completing the parts?
  • How long will you need to give students meaningful feedback where appropriate?
  • If planning a group project, what roles do you expect students to take to complete the project together, and how might a group contract or project proposal help to outline those roles and responsibilities?

Another important aspect of scaffolding is ensuring continuity between synchronous and asynchronous aspects of the class. For example, if students are assigned readings and discussions to complete on their own time, class time should relate to those readings and discussions. Maybe that means scheduling time for Q&A about the asynchronous work before moving on to new material, or providing the new material in advance of the class session so students are ready to discuss it in real time.

Design Active Learning Experiences and Plan Teaching Strategies

One of the most common mistakes in course design is assuming the material is the course. Rather, the material is merely one tool of the course. The learning experiences, relationships, and teaching strategies you plan should align with your course goals and students needs. “Those who do the work do the learning” (Doyle, 2011) — so the more students have opportunities to interact with the course materials, their peers, and you, the better. When considering what activities to design for your course, ask yourself what students can do to connect with the course skills, dispositions, and concepts.

For example, if one of your course goals is to have students evaluate different perspectives on global development, your learning activities and teaching strategies should give students the chance to do such evaluation. Instead of just listening to lectures, students could be invited to:

  • Share examples espousing different perspectives from global development organizations.
  • Engage in class role-playing scenarios based on different perspectives.
  • Apply case studies to global development scenarios.

These experiences give students more active involvement in learning about and evaluating perspectives. The wide range of teaching and learning approaches includes:

  • Flexible teaching strategies that emphasize teaching and learning across course modalities (online, in-person, or blended)
  • Community-based learning that invites students and community members to participate toward mutually beneficial goals and projects in well-planned and structured partnerships
  • Open education focusing on using free learning materials that allow students to co-create alongside their instructors, building nondisposable assignments and encouraging agency
  • Universal design for learning that emphasizes student choice, access, and agency in assignment and course design to reduce/eliminate barriers to learning

Get Student Input during Design

Whether you use feedback from last term’s students or suggestions from this term’s students, inviting your students to give design input will do a lot to help the course run smoothly.

  • Student input encourages student motivation, participation, and agency.
  • Course co-creation helps to meet student needs by encouraging a diversity of ideas and choices.

A few ways to encourage student input as you plan the course:

Ask: Send out a poll about a week before the course begins asking about technology access, communication mode preferences, and assignment type feedback. Students might be most interested in devoting some class time to ask questions while working on video projects rather than term papers — but as instructors, we won’t know that unless we ask.

Brainstorm: Give students three or four learning outcomes on the first day, and ask the class to brainstorm other outcomes they would like to include on the list. Work to include one or two of their suggestions on the final list of student learning outcomes.

Offer: Offer choice in how students complete some assignments. This might mean a choice of assignment formats, collaborations, or due dates.

Negotiate: Create a negotiated syllabus with your students during the first week of class. Give them a say in the course goals, assessments, assignments, and activities. You don’t have to make everything negotiable. A critical part of planning is to identify the scope of choice. This is a great way to build community and get student buy-in around course requirements. “The Negotiated model is totally different from other syllabuses in that it allows full learner participation in selection of content, mode of working, route of working, assessment, and so on. It should by this means embody the central principle that the learner’s needs are of paramount importance” (Clarke, 1991).

Student-Faculty Partnerships in Curricula has additional details and strategies.

Plan Regular Communication and Feedback

Even before you meet your students, it’s important to think about how you can engage with them, give them feedback, and check in with them regularly. Building community and a sense of instructor presence goes a long way in helping students feel supported and part of a learning community.

Some ways to stay in touch with your students:

Post a weekly announcement or send a weekly email. This message can include due dates, recommended practices, campus resources, and/or something fun, human, and non-academic to lighten the mood. The goal is to stay present with your students and build a regular communication pattern.

Hold regular student office hours in-person or via Zoom. Even if it’s just 30 minutes twice a week, being available to answer questions and build connections can be a big support for students. If your students are shy about attending student hours, consider having them sign up for at least one check-in of 10 to 15 minutes during the term.

Make weekly feedback videos of two to three minutes each for the whole class. Giving every student individual feedback can be time prohibitive. Instead, when students are doing those scaffolded assignments, send out a quick video to the whole class with your impressions of their work-in-progress and any tips about how they can improve it. Video feedback can be particularly effective in an online or blended course where you may not have as much visible presence.

Contact students individually when you notice they have not been participating regularly. Students are juggling a lot, and sometimes they might drop the ball. Having an instructor reach out to check in on them can make all the difference between a student who fails a course and one who persists and succeeds. Such outreach can be most effective when framed as an invitation to participate or an expression of care instead of a punitive reminder.

Reflect and Iterate

Despite all the planning you’ve done, each time you teach a course you and your students will have different needs and outcomes. It can be helpful to keep a running log of changes you’d like to make or strategies that worked well. Then when you prepare to teach the course again, you have an idea of where to focus your efforts. An OAI course consultation or a student-centered course review can also give you feedback and ideas to continue refining your course.


Clarke, D. (1991). The Negotiated Syllabus: What Is It and How Is It Likely to Work? Applied Linguistics, 12(1), 13–28.

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.