Good Learning Principles in Canvas

TEiC logoI’ve been asked how a course framework (e.g. a course site in a Learning Management System such as Canvas) can encourage better learning. This is an early/simplified attempt at explaining and identifying what those indicators might be, and how they can increase learning. This is work inspired in part by Gee’s identification of 13 principles of good learning in good games.

General Principles of Learning

We are sensing and social animals.

  • Embodied: we learn most powerfully through direct interaction with our environment, through our senses (Abrahamson & Lindgren, 2014; Alibali & Nathan, 2012; Glenberg, Gutierrez, Levin, Japuntich, & Kaschak, 2004; Goldin-Meadow, 2009, Lindgren & Johnson-Glenberg, 2013).
  • Situated: our experiences are powerfully affected by our specific environment (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Gallagher, 2005; Wilson, 2002).
  • Social/Personal: we each have unique wants, needs, identities, families, tribes, and cultures that deeply affect our interests and values. These drive our motivations to learn, and we use them to connect to content .
  • Metacognitive: our brains automatically categorize items according to perceived needs; alternative training (education) is required to overcome this.

An effective course will provide for embodied, situated content, personalized/social learning opportunities, and metacognitive reflection.


An effective course site minimizes cognitive interference of the LMS infrastructure so students most directly interact with content. Indicators may include:

  • embedded simulations, models, and other interactive content.
  • organization of face-to-face and virtual interactions with others (experts, peers, novices) around course content using tools that students are already familiar with, such as Google Docs, Calendar, etc.

In Canvas this looks like:

  • use of default Canvas infrastructure (without HTML customization), so students see same infrastructure across all classes, and it effectively disappears.
  • use of Syllabus and Calendar tools
  • hidden unused menu options
  • directed learner process with clear way-finding elements
  • profile pictures and biographies to humanize participants (instructor and students)
  • active learning opportunities outside of Canvas


An effective course site forefronts discipline-specific tools, cases, tasks, and learning environments. Indicators may include:

  • authentic discipline-specific assignments, cases, stories, and tools.
  • fieldwork and other real-world experiences of course content.

In Canvas this looks like:

  • links to, or embeds of, discipline-specific resources and tools
  • authentic stories/cases/assignments from discipline
  • collaborative work/workspaces, similar to professional work/workspaces
  • opportunities to discuss and collaborate with professionals


An effective course site honors the prior knowledge, interests, and needs of learners to connect them to content. It taps into, and facilitates development of student and professional identities, for greater peer-to-peer learning. Indicators may include:

  • Universal Design: flexible assignments to allow individuals and groups to draw on their own expertise and interests.
  • public-facing assignments (more authentic audience).

In Canvas this looks like:

  • opportunities for students to “try on” different identities in the field to develop one that fits personal skills and interests.
  • modules and pages for “cross-disciplinary” teams to control and share projects.
  • profile pictures and pages that share how learners connect course content to their lives.
  • small group discussions and chats.
  • use of Blackboard Ultra, Google Hangouts, or similar tools to connect to experts in field, creating “mini-mentorships.”
  • shared, reflective, low-stakes assignments.
  • peer review and grading opportunities.


An effective course site helps develop effective habits of learning. Indicators may include:

  • files and links to research on how learning works — especially specific to course content.
  • student-created quizzes, tests, rubrics, and pages as study-resources. Refine the best for future classes.
  • peer grading, with reflection to identify their biggest challenges.
  • class-wide sharing of learner challenges with current and future classes.

In Canvas this looks like:

  • immediate, question-level feedback on quizzes for both correct and incorrect answers.
  • opportunities to re-take quizzes, and re-submit assignments for some (but lesser) credit.
  • shared instructor-and-student-created rubrics
  • rubric-guided assignments and grading (by instructor and student peers)

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