7 Tips for Setting up Group Projects in Canvas

Are you looking to set up a Group project in your Canvas course? Canvas Groups offers a “small version of a course” and can be used as a collaborative tool where students can work together on projects, such as Assignments, or to split a large class up for smaller, more digestible Discussions. Using Groups to assign projects to students can also help you give shared feedback and grades back to Group members more efficiently.

The Groups tool in Canvas is quite flexible, so this post will offer tips for using Groups in the most commonly applicable ways I have seen. There are some best practices, and also links for further help.

For an overview of Canvas Groups, see the following video:

Canvas how-to links:

Tip 1: Make your “Group Set” first.

In Canvas, a Group Set is what you will use when you want to divide your class up into multiple Groups (with each student being a member of just one Group). Once students are distributed, the Group Set can then be used in your course for a specific purpose (such as a Discussion or an Assignment).

From within your course, select People on the Course Menu. From here, you can see all enrolled students (under the “Everyone” tab) and also see the existing Group Sets. On the image below, you can see that my test course has two Group Sets with their own tabs (one for Discussions, and one for a Poster Project).

To set up a new Group Set, click on the +Group Set button. You will get a popup to allow you to make the settings you need from there (e.g., Group Set name, Group size, enrolment type).

As instructor, when you set up a new Group Set you can:

    1. Make the Groups and then allow the students to join a Group of their choosing;
    2. Make the Groups and have Canvas split the students up randomly; or
    3. Make the Groups and then manually sort students into each Group by their name.

Anyway you go, you should set up the Groups within a Group Set first!

Then, you’ll need to instruct students clearly on what to do next. See Tip 5 (below) for some suggested instructions for students.

Tip 2: Name your “Group Set” very specifically.

Note that students might be placed in to Groups in several of their courses (not just yours), and all of those various Groups are collected together in the “Groups” link on the student’s Global Navigation Menu.

If you use a very generic Group Set Name, such as “Final Project” or “Project Team”, a student looking through the list of their Groups might have no way of telling which Group goes with which course. This could get very messy and confusing!

To avoid this, just add your course code to the start of your “Group Set Name”, and a brief descriptor of the Group purpose, and then Canvas will generate the Groups and add numbers (1, 2, 3) to each one from there. For example:

    • Group Set Name: “CRSE XXX Discussion Group”
    • Canvas generates the following Groups:
      • CRSE XXX Discussion Group 1,
      • CRSE XXX Discussion Group 2,
      • CRSE XXX Discussion Group 3, etc.

Note that you can edit and re-name individual Groups after making your Group Set (i.e., you don’t have to stick with what names Canvas auto-generates). If you do more specific naming to differentiate Groups further, it can assist students with self-enrolment and help them to find Groups relevant to their interests or needs (e.g., to sort students by their project topics, majors, or program streams). For example:

    • Edit and rename your Groups:
      • CRSE XXX Discussion Group 1 (Psychology majors),
      • CRSE XXX Discussion Group 2 (Sociology majors),
      • CRSE XXX Discussion Group 3 (English majors), etc.

Tip 3: Make sure you assign your project to the correct “Group Set”.

If you’ve made your Group Set (and the Groups within), there is still an additional step required to pair that Group Set to a specific project (i.e., to an Assignment or a Discussion; the setup is similar in either case).

To do this, follow the directions at either of the following links to Edit the relevant Assignment or Discussion. Make sure that under the Group Assignment or Group Discussion option that you are selecting the correct Group Set:

Tip 4: Watch out for the “Assignment Group”, as it is something else entirely!

Here’s something tricky! When you Edit the settings for an Assignment or a Discussion, you’ll see an option called “Assignment Group”; note that this does not actually relate to Group Sets or Groups as used for student collaboration.

“Assignment Group” instead refers to the clustering of graded components of your course in order to alter the weighing of those clusters. For example, you might want to weight Assignments at 15% of the course grade, Discussions at 10%, a Research Paper at 20%, etc. The selected “Assignment Group” tells Canvas which weighting cluster to sort a graded project into.

See the following links for more information:

Tip 5: Give clear instructions to students on how they access their Groups.

Once you’ve set things up, it’s important to give clear directions to students. Otherwise, they might be confused on what to do next. One of the following options (A or B) should apply, so here are some directions you could share with your students. You could add these directions right into the description for the relevant project (e.g., Assignment or Discussion).

A: For Instructor-made Groups, with Manual (Instructor) Enrollment:

To complete this project, your instructor has enrolled you in a Group. For more information on accessing your Group, see the following link: How do I view my Canvas groups as a student?

For general help with communicating and collaborating with your Group, see the following link: Student Guide: People and Groups

**Note: You DO NOT need to create your own Group for this project (i.e., under the “People” area of the course, DO NOT click the “+Group” button).

B: For Instructor-made Groups, with Student (Self) Enrollment:

To complete this project, your instructor has set up Groups for you to join. You can join any 1 Group that still has room for additional members. For more information on joining a Group, see the following link: How do I join a group as a student?

For general help with communicating and collaborating with your Group, see the following link: Student Guide: People and Groups

**Note: You DO NOT need to create your own Group for this project (i.e., under the “People” area of the course, DO NOT click the “+Group” button).

Tip 6: Student-created Groups cannot be assigned to graded Group projects.

For specific graded projects (Assignments/Discussions), I advise you to discourage students from clicking the “+Group” button to create their own Groups, as it can get quite messy and confusing if students scramble and generate a bunch of extraneous Groups (hence the **Note I added into the directions for students above). It is also not possible to assign student-created Groups to any of your course projects (e.g., graded Assignments or Discussions), which means you lose a lot of the grading features that allow you to mark Group projects more efficiently.

Instead, this student-controlled option is best suited for when students want to independently create study groups, collaborate informally (rather than on assigned projects), or if they want to host their own discussions.

Optionally, you can disable this feature to have a more instructor-controlled environment in your course; see the last Tip 7!

Tip 7: You can disable student-created Groups.

The default option in a new Canvas course will allow for students to create their own Groups, but if you want to turn this option off in your course, you can do that (and potentially avoid some of the possible confusion I mentioned previously). The steps to do this are:

    1. In Course Navigation, click the Settings link.
    2. Click the Course Details tab.
    3. Click the more options link (at the very bottom of the page).
    4. De-select the Let students organize their own groups checkbox.
    5. Click Update Course Details to save your changes.

See the following link for more information:


Note: Any student names shown in these images are fictional.

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