Encouraging Reflection, Practice, and Prediction through Canvas Surveys

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.

Best Practices for Large-Enrollment Online Courses, Part III: Managing instructor-student communication and presence

Whenever student enrollment capacity dramatically increases for an instructor, there are a number of common questions and concerns: How will the increase in grading load be managed?  How can instructors facilitate a discussion among 100+ students? How will students receive meaningful feedback? Here are some best practices and considerations for managing high-enrollment courses that have been successful in our ASU Online courses.

This article is the third in a three-part series:

Part 1: Managing student expectations, leveraging quizzes, and reducing grading load

Part 2: Managing groups, peer review, and other peer-to-peer interactions

Part 3: Managing instructor-student communication and presence

Building Instructor Presence

Online instructor presence takes many forms, but it can be roughly defined as the extent to which students feel that the instructor is present to support them on a personal level.  Supporting students efficiently and effectively in a high-enrollment course requires planning, leveraging analytics, and approaches that allow you to reach multiple students simultaneously or proactively meet their needs without instructor intervention.  Here are some best practices to maximize your impact and presence:

Offer Scheduled Office Hours using Zoom: This is one of the easiest ways to help students feel supported and to connect with students looking to engage and converse in real-time.  As an added bonus, even for students not able or interested in attending, it demonstrates the instructor’s willingness to take time to connect with and support students.  For large classes, instructors typically schedule two sessions at different times (for instance, on Tuesday evening and Saturday morning) to accommodate various schedules, plus the Zoom tool allows you to record your session for any students unable to attend.  If a large number of students attend, consider muting everyone, taking questions through Zoom’s chat window, and then unmuting as needed. Be sure to have interesting discussion questions on-hand to fill time if there’s a lull in conversation or ask students to prepare something specific for the conversation, for example, the topic they’ve chosen for their final course project.  

Preemptively handle student questions with a FAQ page: At the start of their course, some instructors create a Frequently Asked Questions page for:

  • Any questions frequently emailed to instructors/TAs or posted in a community forum
  • Any questions that students have answered incorrectly in the past for other students
  • Any questions instructors think students should ask

This can make for fewer student misunderstandings, lower response workload for instructors, and less frustration for students. Frequently, students may be waiting for an instructor response before doing work, and if the instructor needs more than 24 hours to respond, this can greatly impact a student’s ability to succeed in the course. Here are some good general questions to start with.  

  • What are the most common reasons students receive lower grades on assignments?
  • What’s the policy for late assignments?
  • How will this course be relevant for my career in [Insert major here]?

Even if these are mentioned in the syllabus, it’s not a bad idea to be redundant for higher visibility. You might even consider adding syllabus quiz questions based on the important FAQs.

Use analytics and tools to reach out to those most in need: Canvas offers a robust dashboard of statistics at the course level as well as statistics for individual students. When facilitating a high-enrollment course, more of your assessments may be auto-graded with less instructor evaluation of individual work and ideas, so in these cases it’s critical to use these statistics to identify under-performing students and reach out as early as possible to offer support and help them get back on track.

Use video introductions, video lectures, and weekly video announcements: Seeing the professor and hearing his or her voice helps students feel connected to the course when they may otherwise be feeling like an anonymous user in a sea of other students. When possible, mention specific students by name in videos, to show that it is a video made especially for that cohort. 

Student-to-Instructor Communications

How and why do students reach out to you? What guidelines, if any, do you ask them to follow? What do you currently spend the most time responding to?

Use a community forum for students to ask questions: For any questions not answered by the FAQ, use a discussion board for students to ask questions. This will reduce duplicate questions delivered by email, and students can read others questions to clear up misconceptions they may not have known they had. If instructors are discouraged by too many students posting in one discussion board, consider expanding the FAQ or dividing the board into groups of students.

Leverage forms for tasks that require specific information: To expedite and organize the process of receiving specific requests, such as a grade dispute or a letter of recommendation, consider using a Google form or other tool to request certain information. For instance, for a grade dispute, you could ask the student which assignment it was, when it was handed in, what grade they received, what grade they think they should have received, and a detailed explanation why. In the case of Google Forms, all requests are then sent to a spreadsheet log, and you can enable automatic email notifications when a form is submitted.

Student Presence

As enrollments increase, students aren’t the only ones who may be affected by the lack of communication and connection on a personal level. To increase instructor satisfaction and engagement, here are some simple supplements to your curriculum to consider that also benefit students:

Connect with Students via Office hours: In addition to the benefits of instructor presence when offering office hours, holding virtual office hours creates an opportunity for instructors to meet the people behind the names and submitted assignments and have natural conversations with the type of debate, humor, and compassion that is often lost in text-only communication.  Many face-to-face instructors describe the “aha!” moments as their favorite part of teaching, and this is a great opportunity for online instructors to experience these moments in real-time.

Include Opportunities for Reflection on Assignments: Consider adding a reflection prompt or two to an already-existing activity or assessment. This can make grading more enjoyable when you see how you’ve impacted your learners. Additionally, students are often more motivated to learn—and retain more information—when they understand how your content is relevant to their lives and connects to their personal and professional goals. This will help students connect to the content in a powerful way and make learning sticky. 

Create a Space for Student Introductions: To promote networking and a sense of community, many instructors add a discussion board where students introduce themselves, their interests, and their goals. To take your discussion board to the next level, ask students to share a favorite podcast, to take a picture with an inanimate object that reflects their feelings about your course topic, or other fun/interesting items that will motivate other students to read their peers’ posts.  Additionally, consider using media based tools like Flipgrid or the Canvas media recorder for a more personal experience. Additionally, Flipgrid allows you to set a timer for the recordings, limiting the amount of time you need to commit to catch-up on the conversations.  

Special thanks to Mary Loder, DeAnna Soth, Marisa Ruiz, and the instructional design team at ASU Online for sharing their thoughts and expertise on this topic.

Best Practices for Large-Enrollment Online Courses, Part I: Managing student expectations, leveraging quizzes, and reducing grading load

Whenever student enrollment capacity dramatically increases for an instructor, there are a number of common questions and concerns: How will the increased grading load be managed?  How can instructors facilitate a discussion among 100+ students? How will students receive meaningful feedback? Here are some best practices and considerations for managing high-enrollment courses that have been successful in our ASU Online courses. Continue reading

Engage your Students with the 6 C’s of Motivation

Imagine you’re an online instructor in the middle of a semester. Every week at the 11:59 pm deadline, students submit assignments that barely meet the rubric minimums. The discussion boards and virtual office hours are ghost towns, and you’re not convinced anyone is reading your feedback. What can you do to motivate your online students to engage with the content and go the extra mile with their assignments and studies? Turner and Paris (1995) identified 6 factors to consider in your own course design to improve student motivation: Choice, Constructing Meaning, Control, Challenge, Consequence, and Collaboration. Continue reading

9 Ways to Make Your Course Easier to Navigate

Easy course navigation is a critical component of a great online course.  According to Quality Matters (QM), an organization dedicated to improving online course quality, one of the requirements for a QM certified course is that the, “Course navigation facilitates ease of use” (QM Standard 8.1), adding, “Navigation throughout the course [should be] consistent, logical, and efficient.”  Reducing the amount of scrolling, clicking, and searching means your students can spend more time learning the content and they’ll miss fewer critical details like assignment requirements and due dates, resulting in a better overall experience for both students and instructors.  Here are nine ways to improve your students’ ability to get where they need to go. Continue reading