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.

Photo by fauxels from Pexels

Promoting Peer to Peer Participation

Remote Teaching and Learning does not need to be a self isolating experience for your students. Although we’re all working from home and keeping our distance there’s no reason we can’t work together. In this post we’ll give you few ideas and tools to get students interacting with peer to peer activities and supports.

Peer Support Discussion Forum

Often students’ questions about class get answered in the informal moments before and after class when students run into each other in the hallway or out in the bowl.

“Hey aren’t you in my History class? Do you know understand what we need to do for the second writing assignment?”

But without that physical opportunity for happenstance, you may find one of two things happening:

  1. You’re either fielding a LOT more emails than you’re used to (mostly about things that are in the Syllabus) OR
  2. Students are finding themselves in the dark and NOT asking the question at all, which is far worse.

At the Distance Education Unit we simply create a digital space for happenstance in the Discussion Forums of the Learning Management System. Creating a “Questions Lounge” forum of some sort allows students to have a place to ask those general questions about the course. This serves several functions in the online environment.

  1. It allows those eager and engaged students to jump in and support their peers. There’s always a few students who love this role. Having students support each other in this way means you’ll probably only have to monitor this feed and not answer every post. Just make sure that the answers coming in are correct and otherwise facilitate any questions that need your attention.
  2. By centralizing these responses, you’ll probably answer the question for more students than you think as their peers begin to build a FAQ of sorts that ends up helping more than just one student.
  3. It’s a good review process for your course design. If there are consistent questions about one assignment or aspect of your course perhaps it’s your explanation that needs to be addressed for next term. This forum can help identify aspects of your course that may not be clearly articulated.

Here’s a link to some help on how to set up a discussion forum in Blackboard.


There’s lots of ways to use groups in your remote teaching and learning class. It doesn’t always need to be a formal assignment. Think of all the ways you ask students to interact during class. Many of these opportunities exist online. Here’s a few ways to use Groups:

  1. Simple study groups – especially useful if you have a large class. Breaking students into smaller groups can mean that students can form a tighter group with whom to rely on when major assignments or exams are on the horizon. Building some type of learning activities early on in the term to encourage students to engage with peers is an important to the success of this type of peer group.
  2. Case-study – Giving students a specific case study to work through together can get them supporting each others learning. Have students discuss a case study with guided questions in the group discussion forums and give each group a summary question to formulate a response to. These responses can then be shared with the larger class in the main class discussion forum.
  3. Jigsaw – Jigsaws allow you to break up readings or other large chunks of content and assign them to groups of students. These groups then summarize the content for the rest of the class and synthesize how it relates to objectives and topics in that weeks learning materials. Presented back to the class, every students gets the benefit of the content and also a peer to peer interaction.

    Peer Reviews

Having your peers provide honest feedback on you drafts can be invaluable. You can set up a Peer Review system in your course in a number of different ways. The simplest way would be for students to post their drafts in a Discussion Forum (either the full class tool or within a group) and have their peers provide feedback through the replies on that post. There’s very little setup required for this method making it quick and easy.

Blackboard does have a Peer Review Tool that allows you to set up a more formal process where students can provide feedback similarly to how an instructor would do for a formal assignment.

For instructions on setting this up in Blackboard, follow this Link.

Class Communications at a Distance

Communicating with your students is the number one way to keep them on track and engaged in the topic of your course. But when the physical classroom is not an option how do we keep the lines of communication open between the instructor, the students, and their peers?

Here’s some tips and tools for making sure you’re keeping the communication lines open.

Before the start of class

  • Make sure your University email address is provided in a prominent place of the class syllabus. This will ensure students can message you with questions or concerns.
    • *Note: You can have your University email forwarded to another email address if your primary email is something else.
  • You might also provide a phone number and some “virtual office hours” when it would be appropriate for students to call.
    • *Note: You can have your office line forwarded to a cell phone or home line during campus closures which ensures you’re not sharing personal phone numbers.
  • Speaking of Virtual Office Hours, you may want to schedule a WebEx session each week where you are available for drop-ins and informal Q&A.
  • Create a FAQ in the Blackboard Learn Discussions tool and maintain it throughout the term.
  • Create and schedule Announcements in Blackboard for things like reminders, due dates and other planned events within your class schedule. This will save you time later in the term and ensure you don’t forget to send them.
  • Create a welcome video for the landing page of the course. This ensures that whenever students arrive to class for the first time they’re greeted by their instructor. This can just be a quick webcam hello with some instructions as to how to navigate the menu items or you might want to create a course trailer to really get students excited about being part of the learning community.

First Week of Class

  • Email students through the Email Tool in Blackboard at the start of class. You can welcome them to the class, set up expectations about how long they can expect to wait for a reply to their email questions and generally just say, Hi! This is more about confirming that there is in fact a live instructor facilitating and guiding this experience.
  • Setting up a who’s who chat inside the Discussion Forums can also get students interacting with peers and practicing with some tools before you get too deep. Have students post something interesting about themselves or something of interest to them and get people talking.

Throughout the Term

  • Discussion Forums can be vibrant exciting places to engage with peers and materials in an online class. They can also be a painful and often dreaded experience for students and instructors alike. The trick is to make the discussions purposeful. Follow this link to some resources around how to design interesting and engaging discussion activities.

Also here is a video you might use to show students the importance of online discussions.

  • Synchronous Activities are a great way to communicate with students throughout the year. Case studies, debates, open Q&A’s, guest lecturers and more can all participate together in web conferencing platforms like WebEx. See this link to find more ideas and tools to use for synchronous activities.
  • Announcements are a great way to share current events relevant to the class material, provide wrap-up or summary of discussions or activities, or provide student with other relevant information about job postings or extra curricular opportunities in your field of study. Keeping in contact throughout the term makes students feel more connected to their online learning community.


  • Providing Feedback for assignments and activities is always important in helping students know how their learning journey is going. It’s especially important that you not only provide a number of formative assessment opportunities for students throughout the term, whether it be review questions and answers or self check activities, but also that you provide them with personal feedback on major assignments. Although this can be done as written comments and track changes on a document, consider creating a short video that outlines your comments and recommendations to add a personal touch.

Audio and Video creations

  • Creating Audio and Video content is easier than ever and doing so shows off your personality in a way that asynchronous discussion forums and announcements just can’t match. Panopto makes is simple to record and share video files with your class and even embed quizzes and activities right in the player. Demos, interviews, wrap-up’s and more can all help students better understand the written materials with added context.
  • Students can create videos too. Use Panopto to create a video assignment for students. Design a poster presentation assignment or just have students take the class through a webtour of an online resource. There are lots of ways students can make use of video in class to better communicate with everyone.

In the end, communicating with your students is all about creating a healthy online learning community. Click this link to learn more about how to create a Healthy Virtual Learning Community

Additional Resources:

Developing Effective Online Communication Plans – https://openpress.usask.ca/ideabook/chapter/communication-plans/

Utilizing Social Learning in Online Courses – https://openpress.usask.ca/onlinelearning/chapter/chapter-11-utilizing-social-learning-in-online-courses/

Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning – https://openpress.usask.ca/humanmooc/