UNF Center for Instruction and Research Technology

Instructional Design

Engaging Students in Canvas


One of the biggest challenges in online education is student engagement. Students in online courses may become disengaged with the content and the community due to a number of reasons. While some students thrive on the autonomy often present in online learning, others may struggle with factors like self-motivation and self-discipline. Additionally, feeling isolated or disconnected to a tangible learning community may cause students to lose interest or drive when approaching new content and assignments in an online course. To address these concerns and decrease the potential for disengagement, instructors can meet this challenge by exploring engagement and strategies to optimize online learning.

In Practice

To overcome the obstacles associated with student disengagement, instructors can apply a variety of strategies within the Canvas Learning Management System to attract student attention and promote active learning. While socially and cognitively connecting students online can be a challenge, there are five essential strategies instructors can employ to ensure student engagement in an online Canvas course: foster community, promote collaboration, encourage expression, infuse creativity, and make content relevant.

The first step is to consider the question: What does engagement look like? When considering whether students are engaged in a course, look for three signs: the level of student interest; interactions between students and content, instructor, and peers; and motivation to complete tasks and participate throughout the course (Briggs, 2015). Instructors can gauge the level of student interest by analyzing participation and the depth of expression in assignments and discussion. Student interaction within the course is also a key component of promoting engagement, and it is important to consider the extent to which students are interacting with the content, their instructor, and their peers. Showcased in a number of the activities listed below, discussion forum assignments are great tools that encourage interaction by challenging students to articulate responses related to the content and allowing them opportunities to share and explore ideas with their instructor and peers. Lastly, it is important to consider how motivated students are to complete tasks and participate throughout the course. To inspire motivation and increase engagement, instructors can emphasize authentic assessments and provide prompt feedback to students regarding their progress within the course.

Foster Community

Instructors who foster community in their online courses pave the way for student engagement throughout the course by socially integrating students and reducing the risk of disengagement caused by feelings of isolation (Briggs, 2015).

Activities that foster community in Canvas:

  • Ask students to introduce themselves by submitting an introductory post or video in Discussions.
  • Encourage students to respond to and like each other’s posts in Discussions.
  • Invite a guest speaker to present relevant experiences in Zoom.
  • Provide prompt feedback to student posts in Discussions and to assignments in SpeedGrader.

Promote Collaboration

Collaboration drives engagement by encouraging students to play an active role in the learning process. Canvas optimizes student collaboration by enabling groups established in People to communicate through their own group-designed sites within Canvas – complete with pages like Announcements, Discussions, Files, and Conferences (Dice, 2014). Canvas also enhances collaborative efforts by offering Google Doc and Microsoft365 integrations in Collaborations.

Activities that promote collaboration in Canvas:

  • Assign groups in People to enable students to manage their project materials and correspondence through their own group-designated Canvas sites.
  • Have groups present an artifact – image, concept map, or slide – in Zoom to explain and apply a concept or skill.
  • Ask students to post 1-2 minute videos showcasing their major projects in Discussions, and have students provide feedback to their classmates.
  • Create a wiki by integrating a Google or Word doc in Collaborations for students to compile resources relevant to course topics.

Encourage Expression

Students should have opportunities to express their perceptions and ideas, and they are more likely to feel engaged in an online course if they have chances to interact with their peers regarding course content and assignments (Dixson, 2010).

Activities that encourage expression in Canvas:

  • Have students post their work in Discussions for peers to conduct reviews.
  • Construct a blog for students to express reactions to content by creating a space for students to edit in Pages.
  • Group students into pairs in People, and prompt them to debate opposing sides of a topic in their group-designated Discussions.
  • Assign a weekly reflective journal entry for students to reflect upon their learning in their ePortfolios.

Infuse Creativity

Rather than building an online course upon traditional lectures and quizzes, instructors can further engage students by infusing creativity into their courses with multimedia.

Activities that infuse creativity in Canvas:

  • Supplement text resources in Modules with images, videos, or graphs to showcase ideas in a variety of formats (Briggs, 2015).
  • Have students post a video or audio file in Assignments to showcase a concept.
  • Ask students to submit an image with a brief explanation of how it symbolizes or represents a theory in Assignments.
  • Encourage students to share knowledge by having them each submit an instructional video that narrates the process taken to solve a problem in Discussions.

Make Content Relevant

Authentic assessments and real-world scenarios engage students by challenging them to apply concepts and skills learned in the course to solving problems and forging solutions (Yang, 2011).

Activities that make content relevant in Canvas:

  • Chunk content – as in 5-7 minute videos – and challenge students to react or apply the information in their ePortfolios (Briggs, 2015).
  • Have students create a conversational script related to a course topic in a Google or Word doc in Collaborations to reflect real-world contexts.
  • Incorporate case studies in Modules to encourage students to apply concepts and processes to solve real-world problems (Dixson, 2010).
  • Ask students to each create a post in Discussions at the end of each unit featuring one concept or skill they learned and how they could apply it in their fields of study.

Additional Resources

To learn more about Canvas features, visit the Canvas Guides.

To speak with an instructional designer at CIRT about integrating these strategies into your course, schedule an appointment.


Briggs, A. (2015, February 11). Ten Ways to Overcome Barriers to Student Engagement Online (Academic Technology: At the College of William and Mary). Retrieved from www.onlinelearningconsortium.org

Dice, M, Jr. (2014, November 13). Groups in Canvas. The Canvas Post. Retrieved from www.lmsblog.it.northwestern.edu

Dixson, M. (2010, June). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging?. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1-13. Retrieved from www.iupui.edu

Yang, Yu-Fen. (2011, March 22). Engaging students in an online situated language learning environment. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 24(2), 181-198. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09588221.2010.538700

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