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

Creating a Custom Course Template: A Canvas Commons Case Study

Program administrators often desire a feeling of commonality and a cohesiveness of the learning experience across the various courses of their program. However, when each course might be designed, developed, and taught by a different instructor, this can be tricky to achieve. This post will offer an example of how Canvas Commons can be used for building shared elements across the different courses of a program, and how even entire online courses might be built in a similar manner through this tool.

Note: Make sure you are logged into http://canvas.usask.ca/ to check out all that Canvas Commons has to offer!

At a Glance: Specific Program Needs

In Fall of 2020, a new fully-online Health Professions Education (HPE) program was launched by the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Education. It consists of the Masters of Education (M.Ed) in HPE, and two related graduate certificate programs (the Certificate in Quality Teaching In HPE and the Certificate in Improving Teaching and Learning in HPE). In these related program streams, the M.Ed and certificate students learn alongside each other, and a student may begin studies in either of the certificate programs and then later ladder into the full M.Ed. degree.

A big part of the vision for the various courses (13 in total) of the HPE program, according to the members of the interdisciplinary steering committee, was a “common look and feel” (something that Instructional Designers hear a lot!). In addition, a major assessment strategy of using longitudinal ePortfolios, meant to demonstrate student achievement in an established set of competencies, was identified at the program proposal stage.

The College of Education reached out to the Distance Education Unit (DEU) early in their program planning for help designing both program-specific elements and  also individual courses that would help them deliver on these goals. As an Instructional Designer working on this program, this meant designing a solution for the following program needs:

  • Regardless of which course they begin their program with, students should experience similar on-boarding, and see the same orientation materials to help them understand not just the individual course-level requirements, but also the program-level requirements.
  • At the course level, students starting in either the M.Ed or the Certificate programs will have a common experience regardless of their program stream.
  • The longitudinal ePortfolio needed to have consistent requirements across all of the courses, to ensure students were collecting their work (projects and learner reflections) in a similar way with each subsequent course, so that students would exit their programs with a cohesive and well-organized ePortfolio, aligned to program competencies.
  • A common layout and arrangement of the online course materials would help students navigate each new course quickly, so that they aren’t stuck with learning a unique course layout for every course.
  • Shared visual elements, such as banners, headers, and images should be used, as they will contribute to a consistent, polished, and professional-looking aesthetic experience.

Designing a Program-Level Course Template

One part of the solution to the above program needs lay in the creation of a program-specific Canvas course template. This takes the approach used with the generic USask Canvas Course Template — providing the initial “framework and just-in-time instructions to guide you through your basic course structure” — and takes it to the next level, by customizing it specifically for a particular program.

The template was built first in a Canvas “development shell” (a working space with no students). It included the following features:

  • A common landing page, with program-specific images and branding.
  • Several pages of program-specific information (e.g., a page describing ePortfolio requirements that students in all courses will need to see).
  • Spaces for instructors to customize the template by adding their own course info and welcome messages.
  • Empty (but structured) “module shells” for instructors to start building their actual course content.
  • Optional elements that instructors can choose to use, or to adapt to fit their needs, if they want to (e.g., a rubric for assessing Discussions).

When the template was ready and approved by various program-level stakeholders, I was then able to take the course template and “Share to Commons“; The following link offers more guidance on that step:

Once it was made available in Canvas Commons, anybody from USask who goes into Canvas Commons and searches for “HPE template” (or something similar) will find the template there. I could also link instructors directly to the template in Canvas Commons. Now, any future instructors or course developers working in this program can “Import” the template into their own course, and are ready to hit the ground running by adding their own customizations and course content. They have the choice of importing the entire course template, or just pieces of it, to suit their needs.

Going forward, the template can be updated as needed (e.g., to reflect program changes) and the new version updated in Canvas Commons. (However, note that those same updates still need to be made in individual courses;  i.e., updates are not pushed through to courses that copied the template).

Need Help Developing a Course Template?

If your program or college is wanting to develop your own custom Canvas course template, the Instructional Designers at the Distance Education Unit (DEU) can help! This is a great step to take early in the design/development of a new program, or during the current transition period while your entire program/college is working to move into the new LMS (Canvas). Message deu.support@usask.ca to set up a consultation and get some guidance and help!


Photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels

The New LMS is here! The New LMS is here!


Copyright Dr Neil Clifton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License. CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s official! USask is moving away from the Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS) to Canvas by Instructure! But what’s the hubbub? Why did the University choose to make this change to the Learning Technology ecosystem? In the 10 years since Blackboard was first launched at USask, university teaching and learning has evolved, and so too has the learning technology marketplace. Institutional research, institutional priorities in learning and teaching, and feedback from faculty, instructors and students indicated that Blackboard was not meeting our needs. The decision to begin a review process was also prompted by our current contract with Blackboard being up for renewal. The version of Blackboard we are currently using was almost at the end of its life cycle, and replacement was necessary. You can visit the Learning Management System Renewal project pages for more details on how and why the LMS review took place at USask on your own time, but for now, let’s take a look at some of the major upgrades this LMS has to offer under the hood!

5 Reasons to be Excited for Canvas

When reviewing the LMS RFP’s the review committee used the 8 principles, research supported characteristics of effective digital learning spaces that prepare students for work and life that are aligned with Our Learning Charter, to help determine the best fit for our learning technology ecosystem. Below are several principles where Canvas excelled and the features that support that excellence.

1. Designed for Accessibility

Accessibility Checker – Insuring equitable access to online course materials has not always been an easy task. Knowing all the standards for accessible web design is not an option for most faculty. With Canvas Accessibility Checker building compliant content within the pages of your course is all part of the process. The Accessibility Checker will not only identify elements within your page that do not follow Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1), but will allow you to fix the issue within the same Accessibility Checker window. This just-in-time tool ensures all your students are gaining equitable access to course materials with just a few clicks. See the Accessibility Checker in action in this video from the Distance Education Unit at Santa Rosa Junior College.

As a bonus here’s a link to a great little blog post outlining how to use the tools in the Text Editor to create great accessible content within Canvas.

2. Designed for reflection and growth

MasteryPaths – MasteryPaths allows you to customize learning experiences for students based on performance. You can enable MasteryPaths to automatically assign coursework based on the score achieved for a previous assignment. This provides multiple opportunities to show and achieve mastery in a course.

DocViewer – Canvas DocViewer is a tool that allows annotations on online assignment submissions in Canvas. You can use DocViewer to view files and assignments in SpeedGrader. You can view when students view annotated feedback in the assignment details section of the sidebar.

Video and Audio Recording – The ability for you and your students to record video and audio within Canvas as a form of Feedback, Response, Reflection, or Journaling makes it simple to increase the human presence within an online course.

3. Designed for students who are remixing and/or creating

Ideally, the role of a student within an online course is greater than a passive observer of content you’ve provided. Active and engaged learning activities require students to have some tools available that let them curate and share, remix and create. Aside from the video and audio tools already mentioned above, Canvas has several tools available to get students adding content to your course making them an active participant in the online learning community.

Groups – Many of the available creation tools for students can be found in Groups. Here students have the ability to create discussions, upload and share files, start an Office 365 Collaboration, create a conference, and create Pages. Pages allows students to create and collaborate on simple webpages within their groups to build content in a variety of ways.

ePortfolios – Simple ePortfolios are also available in Canvas and allow students to take control of their learning by organizing and reflecting on their progress.

4. Designed to enable connection

Enabled connection in a course has several meanings. First it’s about being able to connect to the course materials in a variety of ways and being able to connect what you’re doing in one course with what’s happening in another.

Features like groups and ePortfolios can all happen in a more global environment than an individual course itself. This allows students to create groups outside a particular class and connect with peers in their program or in cross disciplinary activities. The LMS is a hub that helps students and educators connect to the experiences, concepts, people, and ideas that they need.

5. Active and social

The active and social learning tools in Canvas provide a hub for learning constructed with others. It is an intentional, deliberate system that easily supports learners in connecting to others, and making sense of learning for themselves, within and beyond class groupings. Many of these tools have already been featured above, but here’s a few more.

Chat – The Chat tool can be used for real-time conversation with course users. Any user in the course can participate in a chat conversation. All content in a course chat can be viewed by anyone in the course.

Mobile Apps – The Canvas Mobile Apps’ functionality is impressive. Unlike the squished full size browser on your phone that we’re used to, Canvas has created responsive apps for both students and teachers allowing course participants to increase their access on the go. Available on both Android and iOS. Below are some links to the feature sheets of these apps and you can download them at Google’s Play stores as well as Apple’s App Store.

Teacher App features

Student App features

What tools are not available on the Canvas by Instructure mobile app?

  • Conferences
  • Collaborations
  • Outcomes

What features have limited or no support on the Canvas by Instructure mobile app?

  • Peer review assignments
  • View assignment annotations
  • Certain quiz question types (Essay, Multiple Choice, Multiple Answer, Fill in the Blank, or True/False questions are supported)
  • Certain quiz settings (one-question-at-a-time quizzes, quizzes with passcode restrictions, or quizzes with IP address restrictions)
  • What-if Grades (Android only)


Get up to speed fast with the new Canvas LMS

The new Learning Management System (LMS) is reason to celebrate. But transitioning to new learning technologies can also be a little daunting. Although DEU, GMCTL, and ICT will be working hard to develop professional learning plans that merge teaching and learning practices with technical skills, and will be designed to support a change in either or both within the new LMS, you may want to take some time on your own to orient yourself with the LMS update. USask training will take place throughout the summer for early adopters and into the fall and beyond for those transitioning for winter term. Keep an eye out on https://training.usask.ca/ for these and other opportunities as they come available.

In this post, however, the Instructional Design Team at the Distance Education Unit has curated a few resources from Canvas to get you familiar and even, up and running in Canvas, quickly and easily.

Set Up Your Canvas Course in 30 minutes or Less

Fortunately, Canvas offers lots of great self-help resources along with their LMS to get you up to speed no matter your level of familiarity. One of the great collections of resources they offer is a 5 part video series designed to get you started with an overview of Canvas, how to build and manage a course, and how to create and manage course content. Follow the link below for these introductory videos.

Set up your canvas course in 30 minutes less

Instructor Guide

Another great resource from Canvas is the Instructor Guide which provides an alphabetical table of contents (TOC). Each topic/tool in the TOC links to a database of FAQs. Each FAQ takes you to the full documentation and guide which answers that question. When you’re not sure what questions to ask this type of resource can be very useful in helping you navigate your learning. Follow the link below.

Canvas Instructor Guide

Canvas Community

Finally we’d encourage you to explore the wider Canvas Community. Canvas Community is a forum for Instructors, Designers, Students, and Administrators who all share knowledge and support one another across the globe. The common thread is that they are all Canvas users and they all started out knowing nothing. Lot’s of great conversations, but also links to videos, guides, and samples available here.

Follow the link and find the Canvas Community.

Canvas Community

USask Updates and Opportunities

For more support and information about the transition to Canvas keep an eye out on the following sites for updates and opportunities.

LMS updates, training, project and technical details are all available online.

deu.support@usask.ca is always a great option if you just need to talk to an instructional designer whose been there before.