Brendan Lake, D.M.A., M.Ed., is an instructional designer with ASU Online and an instructional professional with the ASU School of Music.

As instructors, we’re all looking to help our students deepen their learning in ways that make the content “stick,” or in other words, make it memorable and meaningful.  Cognitive and educational scientists have discovered that strategies such as reflection, retrieval practice (opportunities to recall content), making predictions/hypotheses, and other active learning strategies can have a significant impact on the depth and durability of student learning (Lang, 2016 and Brown, Roediger III, & McDaniel, 2014) but there are practical barriers to implementing these strategies.  For instance, how can you confirm which students completed the activities? How can you find time to collect and grade these activities? How can you get students to do these activities?

Photo by Christopher Sardegna on Unsplash

Fortunately, Arizona State University faculty already have a free and easy-to-use tool to promote these types of non-punitive learning activities that requires no grading or tracking time by instructors, and as an added bonus, compiles all of the entries in a spreadsheet.  This versatile tool is Canvas surveys.  Canvas surveys were originally created to elicit feedback from students and to reward students for participation, but this same functionality can be used for a wide variety of activities for your students.

What are Canvas surveys?

Canvas surveys are essentially identical to quizzes in Canvas, except instead of awarding credit based on correct answers, all students are given automatic credit for participation.  Open-ended survey questions don’t require any instructor grading, and the instructor can write automatic feedback for when students respond, such as the correct answer, where to find the answer in the materials, or other guiding questions or encouragement.  Additionally, for any activities that may warrant personalized feedback, instructors have the option of providing personalized comments in Speedgrader. Key benefits to instructors are that in most cases, these active learning activities require no instructor time to manage after the initial set up, and all student responses can be easily collected and compiled in a spreadsheet.  Key benefits to students are the ability to reflect on or practice the content in a straightforward and non-punitive way.


How do I create and review responses on Canvas surveys?

If instructors or students have used Canvas quizzes before, fortunately the experience is very similar to Canvas surveys. Here’s the Canvas guide on creating surveys.  To view students responses, here’s the Canvas guide on viewing survey results, and you can use the Student Analysis button to view all responses in an exported .csv spreadsheet. 

How can I use Canvas surveys for active learning?

Here are some examples of how Canvas surveys can potentially improve your course:

  • Knowledge self-checks: Instead of using multiple choice quizzes for your formative knowledge checks, consider using surveys, which can elicit open-ended responses from students similar to flash cards, which is a more effortful and effective form of knowledge practice (Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel, 2014, p. 87), without any of the instructor time required to grade.  Students get immediate feedback with the correct answer or source, and are rewarded for their effort without the unnecessary anxiety of a punitive knowledge check.  Additionally, these open-ended questions are often quicker to create compared to traditional quizzes because there’s no need to craft distractor answers.
  • Content reflections: Surveys can be a great fit for reflections due to the automaticity of grading and the difficulty of assigning and using rubrics for what should typically be a very personal and open-ended activity.  Removing the punitive aspect of a reflection assignment can help students reflect on the material in a personal and authentic way rather than focusing on or being limited by the instructor guidelines or expectations for the assignment.  Consider asking students questions such as:
    • How might you use this week’s material in a real world setting, either now or in the future?
    • What did you find interesting?
    • What part of this week’s activities challenged you?

For maximum student value, consider editing or mixing up the questions you ask as the term progresses to promote engagement and reduce repetitiveness or predictability.

  • Exam reflection: Two major obstacles that students face in successfully completing a course is the metacognitive challenge reflected in the following questions:
    • Do I understand the material at a sufficient level to adequately complete the assignments?
    • Can I successfully estimate the time, effort, and activities required to meet this sufficient level?

One strategy to help learners improve their ability to answer these questions is to ask them after each major assignment or exam about how much time they spent studying or preparing, which strategies they used, what their final grade was, and how they think their preparations impacted their final grade or assignment quality.  Surveys are a great tool to facilitate this reflection. For added impact, instructors can export the responses to a spreadsheet, aggregate the data, and share averages with future students, such as “Students who received an A studied an average of 6 hours, and 95% of them completed the knowledge self-checks.”

  • Pretests/predictions/hypotheses: Consider presenting a survey before learning materials asking students to complete a pre-test, pose a hypothesis about a theory or topic, or predict the outcome of a certain scenario related to the content to promote higher engagement and knowledge retention.  As Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel (2014) write, “Unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing of the answer when it is later supplied, creating fertile ground for its encoding, in a way that simply reading the answer cannot” (p. 88).
  • Exit Tickets / One-Minute Papers: Consider asking students to complete quick summaries/takeaways of the course content after lectures, videos, or readings, which are often referred to as “Exit Tickets” or “One Minute Papers.”  Once completed, instructors can quickly review the entry spreadsheet for a compilation of major student takeaways or potential misunderstandings.

How do I get students to engage with these activities?

The last step in promoting active learning strategies through Canvas surveys is to ensure that students find value in completing them. Here are some ideas and variables to explore to improve student engagement:

  • Consider adding low point incentives (perhaps 1 point or 1 percent per activity) as an extrinsic motivator
  • Instructors can set “Canvas requirements” to require students to submit a survey before advancing into the next module, which can be particularly effective for online courses.  Here’s the Canvas guide on setting module requirements (what students need to do to complete a module), and the Canvas guide on setting module prerequisites (what previous modules students need to have completed before accessing a later module)
  • Share information about the learning benefits, like a summary or statement of how the activity helps students remember and retain knowledge
  • Demonstrate to students that their activity is read and valued, perhaps by sharing interesting and valuable responses through announcements
  • If any particular activities like knowledge checks present a strong correlation or practice opportunity to an exam or project, be sure to explain the correlation to further share the value to students.
  • Consider attaching eligibility for “grade bumps,” such as bumping students with an 89% to an A, to whether or not they completed all or most of your activities.

Lastly, be mindful of the response effort required by your learners.  A quick response, such as a sentence prediction or a short paragraph summary of a lecture will likely yield more participants than a longer response requiring multiple paragraphs.  If a longer response is warranted, consider increasing the extrinsic benefits like points.

How can surveys benefit your course?  Do you have any other ideas on how to use surveys or promote engagement among your students?


Brown, P.C., Roediger III, H.L., & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of  Successful Learning. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Lang, J.M. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.  Jossey-Bass.