Using Canvas to teach – 8 reasons why it’s a helpful tool

Using Canvas to teach French

My district has used a variety of methods for teachers to share information electronically, but I have to say that my favorite one is Canvas. When we first went online during the Covid pandemic, we made the switch to Teams and OneNote almost overnight (and I still use Teams on a daily basis), but as far as organizing information and sharing assignments, I find that Canvas is the easiest.

Benefits of using Canvas

There are quite a few benefits to using Canvas. Some of them aren’t all that necessary and nice to have, but others are gamechangers. If you teach the same courses each year, you may really want to try it out. Here are the things I like the most about using Canvas, in no particular order.

Using Canvas to teach - 8 reasons why it's a helpful tool

It’s easy to reuse materials in year after year.

Once you build your course materials and assignments, it’s super easy to reuse them for other classes and other years. A quick import/export will bring EVERYTHING over for you to use. It takes a bit of time in the beginning to build the course materials, but once it’s done you can adapt, add, and edit as necessary. I taught French 1 and French 3 last year and spent the time building my courses.

This year I only teach French 1 – and everything is already there for me. My planning time is minimal. Each week I look at what I did the same week last year, plan out what I’ll do each day, and set up the module to publish. Easy peasy.

It’s easy to organize your materials

While you could just add a bunch of pages and assignments in no particular order, I would definitely suggest organizing things in modules. You can set up the modules to be weeks/months, or you could go by unit. I do weeks – each week I can see what we’ll be doing, and students have everything organized on a weekly basis. The modules can be collapsed on the screen to save scrolling. I close the past modules as we move through the semester. I also organize the modules the same way – notes, then the song of the week, then the assignments in the order that we do them.

More importantly, it’s super easy to move things around. Sometimes you don’t get to everything in the week that you had planned. You can easily drag materials between the modules. You can also add new pages and assignments when necessary. This is SO different from OneNote, when there aren’t a lot of organizational options. You can also set modules to publish automatically on a certain date – so if you like to release modules weekly, you can set it up ahead of time to become visible to students whenver you like.

Things update immediately

One of the things I absolutely hated about OneNote was that updates didn’t show up immediately. If I noticed an error on a page, I could change it – but students wouldn’t see it right away. And I had to wait for new things to publish to students – if I added a page to a notebook, I had to distribute it to my students before it would show up. Canvas shows edits right away.

I only have to do things once

The way my district set up Canvas (and I think most schools do this) is they built a course (French 1) and then added different sections to it. I only have to build my modules, assignments, and pages once in order for all of my students to see it. I can of course divide things into the different sections when I need to – I can send announcements to one section, or view one section in the gradebook. But only having to build and share things once is amazing.

Forcing students to work in order

If you like, you can set up your modules so that students must do certain things before they move on to the next activity. I have many students who love to just click on the assignment and try to do it without looking at the notes or being in class to learn the material. If I wanted to, I could set it that students MUST read the “notes on introducing yourself” before doing the “Introduce yourself” assignment.

Grading in Canvas

I have a love-hate relationship with the Canvas grading system – but honestly, it would just be a love relationship if just one thing would change. When I open my dashboard each morning, I can see a list of the things I have to grade. It’s very easy to use – I can click on the items of the list and it will open the speed grader right to the kids who turned it in.

Grading the assignments themselves is really easy. I can use a rubric, points, complete/incomplete, etc. Grades assigned in the speedgrader go into the gradebook in Canvas automatically. I can also reassign thing and leave comments for students. The gradebook also allows me to set my policy for missing assignments (do nothing? give a 0? give 50%?) and late assignments (half credit? partial credit based on how many days late?). The color coding shows me when assignments are late, excused, or missing.

Using Canvas to teach - 8 reasons why it's a helpful tool

The one thing that has driven me crazy is that this year, I have been unable to successfully sync the grades in Canvas with the gradebook in Synergy. Last year it worked perfectly – each night at 9pm, the grades would be sent over to Synergy and all assignments and marks would be copied. I could also force a sync if I wanted to. This year…it constantly times out and gives me failure notices. It will sync 80% of the grades and not the other 20%. If it’s a new assignment, it will sync fine the first time, but not after that.

The district tells me that they are working with Canvas to fix the issue, but it’s been 7 weeks. After trying many times, I sort of gave up and started copying things over manually. Yes, it’s more work for me. But my ten-key skills are strong and I don’t have too much trouble doing things as they come up. But adding 6 weeks of 5 sections’ worth of scores when I gave up was a pain and a time suck. I still plan to use Canvas and if they get the issue fixed, I will be ecstatic. It’s not just my district having this issue either.

Targeting students for help, remediation and retakes

I really LOVE this feature! My district is really pushing towards frequent formative testing and remediation. You can use the gradebook to send messages to groups of students based on their scores very easily. I can send a message to all students who haven’t turned an assignment in, or to any student who receives below a certain score on an assignment.

Using Canvas to teach - 8 reasons why it's a helpful tool

You can also assign things to specific students, or change the due date for specific students. This is great for differentiation. After the last test, I made a test retake prep assignment only for those students who needed to do a retake of one or more sections of the test. A student might receive one, two, or all of the assignments – or none at all! In the gradebook, students who didn’t receive the assignment are grayed out. Those who need to do them can receive a numerical score, or just complete/incomplete. I tell my students they can’t do a retake until they’re done with the assignment, so this makes it easy for me to keep track.

Mastery paths

You can also build “mastery paths” for students – with information and assignments based on student scores. If students show mastery, you can give them an enrichment assignment, or just tell them “good job!”. If a student gets a score of 40-69% (or whatever you choose) you might give them a short review and then a quick practice activity. And if a student gets below 40%, you could give them a complete explanation and several practice activities. It does take time to build mastery paths, but once they’re done they can be reused indefinitely.

Other benefits of using Canvas

One big benefit that I’ve found is that more universities and colleges use Canvas. So getting students used to it is a big upside. I wish more of my colleagues were using it, because it would make it easier for students to have all of their classes in one place. Some of our classes are still using Teams/OneNote, and teachers may not want to spend the time copying things over. Yes, it took some time but once it was done – it’s done! My daughter’s classes in college are all done in Canvas, so it’s definitely a consideration when we are preparing our students for being college-ready.

Do you need to assign speaking activities to your students? If so, Canvas is amazing! I’ve tried using Flip in the past, but it’s just one more thing for studentsto figure out. Instead, you can assign a media upload from within the regular assignments, and students can record right on their phone or computer! I’ve found that students are more likely to complete these assignments when they don’t have to go to yet another website.

How can I try Canvas?

If your district isn’t already using it, you can get a free teacher account. It won’t have all the bells and whistles (gradebook sync, for example), but it will give you a good idea of what it’s about.

Using Canvas to teach - 8 reasons why it's a helpful tool

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