2. Supporting Students

Recommendation 2.3: Course Orientation
Provide resources that help students orient to your course successfully.

Synopsis from Self-Review

Including an orientation module in your Canvas site is one of the best ways to organize introductory information. Your homepage or syllabus are also good alternatives, which an orientation module can reinforce.

How to Put Into Practice

Developing a structured orientation to your course pays ample dividends. You will save time fielding basic questions, and students will embark on the semester feeling confident that they are on a solid foundation with course logistics, technology, rhythms, and routines. A course orientation reduces the cognitive load associated with navigating new environments and schedules. Many instructors publish a course orientation module a week or more in advance of a semester, building interest, and allowing students to work at their own pace to engage with the course.

While many students are accustomed to navigating a range of digital tools and environments for a variety of purposes, the Canvas environment is distinct as an instructional space. It is therefore an important practice of equity and inclusion to treat your course’s structure and its particular use of Canvas or other technologies as something students will need to learn, together with course-specific content and skills. A course orientation module offers a low pressure opportunity for students to practice important Canvas skills, such as completing a quiz, posting to a discussion board, or submitting a (zero points) assignment.

What follows will outline what to consider including in a course orientation, whether it is housed in the syllabus or in a Canvas Module or Canvas Page linked to the Home page of your Canvas site. Existing templates and resources are outlined so that you don’t have to start from scratch.

Conceptualizing the course orientation

When conceptualizing a course orientation, it can help to start with the basic questions of “Why, What, When, Where, and How?”

  • Why should students care about the course topic and learning outcomes? Why might these be important and valuable to them?
  • What does the course ask students to do? 
  • When will they do this? (What is the rhythm of key activities and due dates?)
  • Where will they access the information and tools needed to do this? (For example, where to log on for any synchronous sessions or virtual office hours?)
  • How will do they do this? (What technology tools or study strategies do they need to know how to use?)

A course orientation can be understood as an expanded syllabus that includes the commentary that you might introduce if you were talking to students about your course and syllabus face-to-face.

What elements to include in a course orientation module

A course orientation module organizes introductory materials in your Canvas course: where to ask questions, how to get help, when to expect communication from the instructor, what format the course takes, when major assignments are due, and other essential information. Consider offering a variety of media—text, visuals, videos, activities—to help students engage. For instance, you might include: 

  • Course overview and welcome. An overview of the course might include a brief introductory text, photos, short biography, contact information, and welcome videos from the teaching team (See Recommendation 3.1: Welcome Message for what to include in a welcome video or message)
  • The syllabus (See the latest version of the UW-Madison course syllabus template). Note that it is often helpful to repeat or elaborate information from the syllabus in the orientation module as well as other relevant locations on the Canvas site (for example, including directions for assignments in Canvas Assignments). Repetition helps students receive key messages, even if they may feel redundant to you.
  • A schedule or weekly course rhythm map, showing recurring due dates and what you expect students to be focused on each day (including attending any synchronous course elements). Here is a template course rhythm map with examples from L&S.
  • A walk-through video or demo of how to use the Canvas site. A walk-through video is typically a screen-capture video in which you introduce the course Canvas site and demonstrate how to navigate to key resources and activities.
  • A communication policy that outlines how and when you will communicate with students and interact with them in virtual office hours (See Recommendation 3.2: Expectations for Communication)
  • Directions to the course Q&A forum (See Recommendation 3.2: Expectations for Communication on why and how to create forum for asking and answering course-related questions)
  • Instructions for using any course technology. For prefabricated, customizable orientations to campus-supported tools, see Learn@UW’s student tech modules. You can upload these modules to your Canvas course in order to familiarize students with key technology tools and skills. You might follow your course orientation module with a tech-focused module. (See Recommendation 2.6 Selecting & Explaining Technology)
  • A student technology access survey. This sample survey asks students to confirm their access to necessary technology and provides an opening for you to initiate communications with students with particular needs for access. Communicating with students about technology is critical during periods of disruption. You can continue to use this type of non-graded quiz or survey as your course progresses to continue to assess your students’ evolving situations and ability to participate in the course. 
  • Academic and student support services information. (See Recommendation 2.5: Academic & Learning Support)
  • A syllabus quiz that highlights the most important information or most frequently asked questions about your syllabus or course. (For sample questions for a syllabus quiz, see “Using a syllabus quiz to reinforce course expectations” from Portland Community College.)
  • Community building activities such as a student self-introduction forum. For broad sample prompts for a self-introduction forum, see this guide to Course Introductions from UNC-Charlotte; a Survey Marketing course at UW-Madison offers a discipline-specific example.
  • A course FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on Canvas Discussions or Piazza can include answers to questions such as: Can I switch sections? What is the policy on absences? How many grades do you drop? Can you explain my grade? Can you round my grade up? Add questions as they come up over the semester, and remind students to look there for answers.

How to create a course orientation module

Course orientation module materials can be created quickly using customizable Canvas templates. L&S offers a series of templates for creating a home page and a template student orientation module. Note that while these templates were created by L&S, they are general templates and structures that can be customized to any course/school/college context. Additional Canvas templates are available from DoIT and the Division of Continuing Studies that include additional home page design, module layouts, and a variety of discussion, quiz, and rubric templates. Before using these templates, check with your School/College since they may have others they recommend you use.

Additional Resources 

The Division of Continuing Studies offers additional templates, including “Start Here” Course Orientation Module Template pages. To access, self-enroll in this Canvas site and go to Modules to find the Orientation module: https://canvas.wisc.edu/enroll/Y9JR7N 

Download a syllabus checklist that uses Quality Matters standards. (Quality Matters is a widely recognized, research-based framework and program for the development and assessment of online courses.)

Background Information

What is this?

An introduction that welcomes students and familiarizes them with the structure of the course as a whole, including the course site, technologies, and other key resources and tools for student success.

Why is this important?

Clear, accessible orientation materials help students get started with minimal frustration. Early positive experiences navigating the course can translate into improved student confidence and trust in the instructor.

Where is this?

Course orientation materials may appear on your Canvas homepage, in an orientation module/Module Zero, or in the syllabus. This is often provided to students before the semester begins. It helps to indicate these resources to students by including a “Read me first” or “Start here” icon or link.

Success Factor 2: Supporting Students

An inclusive learning environment is established when all students are supported in adapting to the structure, schedule, expectations, and technologies used in the course. Supporting students requires thorough communication about how their course is set up, what they have to do, how the course is run administratively, and what resources and services are available to help them succeed.