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Once you have established what students need to learn and provided them with learning materials, the next step is to add activities to support them in learning and assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they have learned.

There is overlap between “activity” and “assessment” in an online course, as the activities that support student learning can also be used as low-stakes assessments.


As with lectures, online class discussions can be synchronous or asynchronous.

Enhancing discussions with technology

Use the following Zoom features to keep synchronous sessions interactive:

Canvas Discussions also have features that can add new dimensions to the conversation:

  • Use the Rich Content Editor in Canvas to format the text of your discussion prompt, add links (to other parts of the Canvas site or to other webpages), and embed videos.
  • Encourage students to use these formatting tools as well.
  • Embed a media prompt (a diagram, video, etc.) for students to respond to.
  • Give students the option of using the media tools in the Rich Content Editor to post responses.
  • For learners who are more comfortable speaking than writing, this provides a means for them to respond more fluently. In a language course, this allows you to assess students’ pronunciation, grammar, etc.
Designing discussions for conversation, reflection and critical thinking

Regardless of modality, plan discussions that students enjoy participating in—and that you enjoy assessing.

Make sure discussion prompts don’t have right answers. If all students can post the same “correct” response to your prompt, this is not actually a discussion.

Ask students to respond to assigned readings. They can share their takeaways and how they might apply what they learned to future research or practice. They can share any questions that remain or any “ah-ha!” moments that occurred. If appropriate, they might even share emotional responses—did the reading inspire them to some action, or anger them?

In Fall 2020, the UM System conducted a pilot of, a social annotation app that can be integrated into Canvas. Asking students to share their notes over a reading can support them in understanding challenging material. You could also use in conjunction with any of these 10 Activities to Foster Deep Reading in Digital Environments.

Present a case study and ask students how they might respond. You could even create a case that unfolds over the course of the semester.

Have students “test” each other over the material. One student starts the discussion by posing a question. The next student answers the first question and then poses a new question. The first student follows up by giving feedback on the second student’s response, providing references as appropriate.

Visit Project Zero’s Thinking Routines (from Harvard University) for many more creative ideas.


From short essays to multi-page research papers, writing assignments are often at the heart of a university class syllabus.

Using rubrics with written assignments can help clarify expectations for the assignment. For instructors, rubrics streamline the grading process and help ensure objectivity. See Rubrics in the Canvas Guides to learn more.

Provide feedback in SpeedGrader. SpeedGrader is the Canvas tool for viewing student assignment submissions and providing feedback. You can read written submissions in the DocViewer and use the annotation tools to provide feedback within the document. Then, give feedback comments—written, multimedia, or as a file attachment—on the student’s work as a whole.


Giving an effective presentation is a critical academic and professional skill—planning the content of the talk, designing slides or other visual aids, and speaking to an audience.

Asking students to present in a live Zoom session offers the most authentic experience and allows classmates to respond in the moment.

VoiceThread provides an opportunity for students to present asynchronously. They still must prepare and give a talk, but there is less pressure than doing so in front of a live audience.

You could also ask students to screen cast their presentations in Panopto, or even record themselves in Zoom. Those recordings can easily be shared with you (as an assignment) or with the class (embedded in a discussion reply).

The presentations could follow a format, such as Ignite or Pecha Cucha that constrains the length and the number of slides permitted.

Electronic portfolios

Gathering course work into a portfolio can be an opportunity for students to reflect on their growth and learning during the course. For example, you could ask them to create a portfolio of their discussion contributions during the semester and ask them to find patterns, identify ideas that have evolved since the original posting, and so forth.

Students can submit the portfolio as a document, or you could ask them to create an ePortfolio in Canvas.

Other assessments

See the Alternative Assessments page for more ideas on how to assess your online students.


If your syllabus includes exams, see the following Keep Learning articles for guidance:

Academic integrity

Many faculty are concerned that online students are more likely to cheat. See Promoting Academic Integrity in Your Online Class to learn about teaching practices that can minimize the risk of academic dishonesty.

Website to be retired

The Keep Learning website will be retired on January 31, 2022. Please update all of your bookmarks and links to point to our new website,

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Workshops & seminars

Faculty/instructors are invited to register for a workshop or seminar that is designed to help deliver quality learning experiences.

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