Canvas Discussions for Collaborative Learning

Jessica Helfand

Senior Critic, Graphic Design, School of Art
Lecturer, Yale College, School of Management

Canvas user since: Fall 2016
Courses on Canvas: ART 003, MGT 653, MGT 654, MGT 670, MGT 675

“I love that the Discussions tool lets students see and weigh in on each others’ writing ONLY after posting their own work.”

Students may not have frequent opportunities to see and learn from their peers’ approach to problem solving. Homework assignments are typically done individually, and shared only with the instructor. In contrast, consider the group critique method that is common in studio art classes: students’ work is shared alongside the work of their peers, and forms the basis for a general discussion about different ways of approaching a problem. In this spotlight, Jessica Helfand explains how she leverages the Canvas Discussions tool for this type of collaborative learning activity in her Yale classes.

Can you tell us how you’re using the Canvas Discussions tool for class assignments?

I ask my students to submit their work to the class discussion board so they can all benefit from seeing how their peers approach a shared challenge. In my freshman seminar I alternate between written and visual assignments and I love that the Discussions tool lets students see and weigh in on each others’ writing ONLY after posting their own work. When I assign short writing assignments, I post my comments individually on each student’s submission. Once the others submit, they can read their classmates’ work as well as my comments on them. For freshmen new to seminar style discussions, this can be a real ice breaker—they see how criticism is expressed, and are therefore willing to be more engaged in class discussions.

Maybe it is because I am a visual person, or the fact that at the core of what we are doing is encouraging them to understand how to articulate—both verbally and visually—their thoughts and the process that led them to have those thoughts, but I find posting online to be a huge benefit to students. The class itself should feel safe and supportive—there should be no ridicule, and while competition is a normal part of any educational endeavor, I really think this generation of students understands in a natural way what it means to be a team player.

So part of your goal is to turn a solitary homework activity into a collaborative learning opportunity?

Yes: the more the work exists in a focus accessible to all, the better. Also, as the semester progresses, Discussions give students the chance to go back and review what they did earlier, as well as what their classmates did. Finally, the online site can expand to include resources that they can use between classes—database suggestions for research, gallery exhibits they might consider seeking out—which makes the whole thing even richer as a community platform. It keeps interest in the class high between classes, and I try to make it a point to add announcements on a pretty regular basis to keep them hopping! (This is particularly the case with my freshmen, who are obviously new to Yale and benefit from the regular check-ins.)

Prior to Canvas I used CoursePress (WordPress) and had a class blog—and loved it. I like Wordpress templates as they have more customizable features including the ability to manage the type, grid and layout. Controlling the template and using images/film clips, typographic nuances and other ways of tweaking the template were, to me, more visually compelling with WordPress and thus appropriate for the kinds of classes I teach (on art and design). I wish Canvas had better tools for this.

What are some benefits of having students share their assignments with one another, taking the blog or shared posting approach?

My classes at SOM are all too big to get through everyone’s work in the class time we have together, and because I want them experiencing what it means to make something (as opposed to quizzes, writing papers, etc.), I am experimenting with putting them in teams. I love the way Canvas lets you grade them individually, or as a group, or let them grade each other. For grad students, particularly here, to work in teams is a great asset: it puts them all on high alert (I am fortunate that there are some wonderful faculty here in organizational behavior who have cultivated a smart curriculum around teams and team-building, so there is already a precedent for this). This coming term, I’m going to give a series of individual assignments that will be posted collectively online for next year’s students. I’ll be eager to see how Canvas helps facilitate a process that includes students from different classes, different semesters, ultimately different parts of the University.

How much time did it take you to learn how to use Canvas?

I’m still getting the hang of it and now, heading into my second round for the Spring ‘17 semester, I confess I need a refresher course! The Center for Teaching and Learning support staff have been a big help. Now that I do have some experience, I suspect I will be able to reuse curriculum materials from last term with a bit more efficiency than I have in the past. And that is a good thing for everyone (especially my TAs).

Do you have any tips for colleagues who might want to explore the Discussions tool?

I like having assignments due at the end of the day, with a few hours grace period for slowpokes. I then go through, one by one, and write in short comments. As with CoursePress, I think regular interaction with students online helps create a kind of connective tissue between class meetings, especially for seminars that meet only once each week. (Bonus: students think you never sleep, which is a fallacy but makes them realize you are on top of things, and ahead of the curve a little.)