Peer Review in Canvas: Tool Quirks & Workarounds

In working with instructors more closely this term on implementing peer review in their new Canvas courses, we are starting to get a better sense of what issues and errors are most likely to crop up, and how to manage those. At the same time, we are learning about the quirks of the Peer Review tool in Canvas (what it works well for, and what it does not) and some situations in which going another direction might be preferable. This post will cover what we’ve learned recently, and share some tips and resources for designing peer review activities in Canvas (either with or without using the dedicated “Peer Review” tool).

Background Info

Our colleagues at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning have recently shared a couple of very helpful blog posts that I recommend you check out:

    • Leveraging Peer Feedback in an Online Environment: this post offers a broad overview of the benefits of peer review, as well as the pedagogical and logistical (i.e., classroom management) questions you should ask yourself early on, if you are thinking about using peer review in your course.
    • Utilizing Peer Feedback in Canvas: this post offers guidance on creating activities that use the Canvas Peer Review feature, as well as a helpful video that will walk you thorough the setup and distribution of Peer Review tasks to students.

As always, I also recommend you familiarize yourself with the relevant links from within the Canvas Instructor Guide, or at least know how to find them if/when you get stuck. In this case, the following pages will help, depending on if you are using the Peer Review tool as attached to an Assignment or a Discussion:

For Assignments:

For Discussions:

Important: Guidance for Students on using Canvas’ Peer Review Tool

The following links from within the Canvas Student Guide can be shared with your students to help your students navigate using the Peer Review tool in Canvas (I’d recommend posting them right within the description of your Peer Review activity) . Again, the directions differ a bit, depending on if you are using the Peer Review tool as attached to an Assignment or a Discussion:

For Assignments:

For Discussions:

Quirks of the Peer Review Tool in Canvas (and some reasons why another tool might be better)

There are a few odd things that pop up with using the Peer Review tool in Canvas that you should watch out for, and in some cases, might make it necessary for you to use a workaround, or use another tool altogether. Note the following:

    1. Peer reviews using the Canvas tool is a one-to-one experience. A student receives some work to review, and sends back their comments/feedback directly to the student who did that work (either with their names attached, or with a double-blind Anonymous setting). While this setup can be desirable, there are also other situations in which you want the peer review activity to be a more open, collegial, flexible, and interactive experience. In this way, students can benefit from seeing a wider array of student work and peer feedback, and also learn from each other how to give better feedback. Another tool (i.e., the Discussion board) would work better for that type of activity, particularly if the instructor wants a bit more freedom to jump into the Discussion and provide guidance along the way.
    2. When applied to Group Assignments, the peer review will only be assigned to individuals. As such, it doesn’t work for Group Assignments if you want 1 group to collectively or collaboratively review the work of another group.
    3. Peer reviews cannot be graded in any direct way. There is no direct way to grade the quality of a peer review or feedback that a student has provided, and any peer-given grade is not tallied into the Gradebook. You’d have to manually input something into the Canvas Gradebook for each peer review if you wanted to do either of these things.
    4. Peer reviews on late submissions must be manually assigned by the instructor. This is a bit of a pain, and one to plan for if you use the “Automatically Assign Peer Reviews” option when you are setting up the activity. Any student work submitted after the deadline won’t get assigned, so you’ll have to do it yourself. This also can mean (especially if you are only asking each student to do 1 review) that some students don’t get any peer reviews assigned to them! So it can be quite confusing for students, if the instructor doesn’t provide an explanation.
    5. There is a system delay for automatically assigned peer reviews. Eager students might complain that their assigned peer reviews aren’t showing up; tell them to expect to wait up to an hour.
    6. Peer reviews must be manually assigned for On Paper and No Submission assignment types. Something to watch out for if you are using an Assignment that was handed in in-class, or perhaps for Assignments based on oral or webinar presentations with no accompanying file or text submission.
    7. The External Tool submission type does not support peer review assignments. You’ll need a different tool or a workaround if using this submission type.
    8. The Canvas DocViewer does not support anonymous comments. It cannot be used for annotated feedback on assignments with anonymous peer reviews. You need to be OK with students showing their names to use this feature.
    9. Setting peer review due dates or To Do tasks in your students’ Canvas calendars is a bit finnicky. Unlike with a regular Assignment or Discussion (whose due date will appear in the students’ calendars), having calendar reminders show up with peer review tasks takes a bit more work. Best practices and a suggested workaround are outlined in this Peer Review Tips document from Canvas. As always, make sure your are communicating with your class and outline all important dates in your Syllabus.

Other Options: Peer Review without using Canvas’ Peer Review Tool

If anything in the previous information made you think “hmm, this Canvas Peer Review tool isn’t going to work for me,” the good news is that there are plenty of other ways to make peer review activities work in your course without it. Some examples:

    • Groups. Set up Groups for your students (2-5 students) in which they will be sharing work with each other. These groups can change over the term, or be used consistently to build more of a supportive team community or studio/critique atmosphere.
    • Discussions: Ask students to share their work (perhaps in a draft stage) via the Discussions, and comment on each other’s person’s submission to provide feedback. Especially when combined with Groups, this is quite manageable for students. A rubric or some other form of structure (e.g., a checklist) can be provided to guide the feedback a bit more.
    • Assignments. Ask students to use the Commenting feature in Word to annotate someone elses’ work and offer feedback. Or, give them a rubric / feedback form to fill out for the purposes of peer review (e.g., to complete following a classmate’s webinar presentation).
    • (Classic) Quizzes. These can be used to create a Survey that has students submit their feedback and/or peer review in a very targeted, structured way (e.g., Likert scale questions), or for more open-ended responses. A survey in this manner could also be built using your USask Survey Monkey account (although this would take a bit more work to track and/or grade the results). A survey is also not a terribly easy way to share feedback with the students who are being reviewed, but it could be manageable if you had a smaller class, or it was split into groups.

These tools might also be combined (e.g., using Groups with Discussions is a great way to have students give feedback to each other towards improving draft assignments). Generally, these tools in Canvas are malleable enough to make an approach that works well for your particular peer review plans, and still be easy for students to navigate.

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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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