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Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Designing and Teaching Short Courses

This post originated as a presentation given to faculty on November 13, 2020.  You can view the recording of that session here

In this post, we will present some considerations and strategies to help you design and implement an effective short online or hybrid course. For the purposes of this post, a “short course” is one that is equivalent to a semester-long course in terms of credit hours but is condensed into a shorter amount of time (for instance, a course that would normally be 15-weeks long is instead 5-weeks long).  Sometimes called “compressed”, “intensive”, or “accelerated” courses, they present unique challenges to both students and teachers, especially when all or part of the course takes place in an online environment.

Don’t Merely Condense

For instructors accustomed to teaching semester-length courses, particularly those converting a course they have taught during a whole semester into the short-course format, the first temptation to guard against is expecting to be able to just condense the longer course into the smaller one.  This is often inadvisable for several reasons, and it’s important to reflect on these reasons so you can make wise choices about what to include or leave out. 


First, for many students, some activities cannot be sustained for the long periods of time that would be required to complete them in the shorter time frame required in a short course. Examples may include reading a challenging text, doing complex mathematical exercises, or listening to a lecture. Suppose, for instance, you assign students a challenging article or book chapter.  The average student may be able to spend a half hour or an hour at a time on the reading before their concentration drifts and they start to lose the focus required for deep comprehension.  With several days to complete the reading, this may not be much of a problem, but what if they only had a day to do it, or had to complete several such readings over a few days?  Students with less capacity for long periods of sustained concentration may not be able to complete the readings, or may only be able to do so with diminished benefit. 

RunnerWe can liken this to endurance athletics training.  If a running coach has her athletes run 5 miles a day over 6 days, can she just have them instead run 15 miles a day over 2 days and expect the same kind of performance and benefits?  Obviously not.  Something similar holds for many academic activities, which likewise require a kind of endurance and stamina. 

Processing and Internalizing

Secondly, and relatedly, it’s important to consider the time needed to not merely “get through” material, but to process and internalize it. A rapid-fire encounter with a bevy of topics, ideas, information, arguments, and the like, may allow a student to check off a requirement if she’s clever enough to perform well on exams, but she will be likely to forget them as quickly as she learned them.  And courses that involve critical thinking need to give students the chance to think critically, which requires time to ruminate and digest material. 

Instructor Overload

Third, consider yourself, the instructor, here.  Short courses are not just time-intensive for students but for the instructors as well. As a general rule, to ensure that students complete the activities assigned to them there needs to be an associated assessment (a quiz, grade, etc.), and as we will discuss later in the post, a crucial component of short courses is timely feedback. Are you prepared to provide a meaningful assessment – and feedback – for (nearly) everything you assign?  Are you going to be engaged in all of the online discussions you assign?  Teaching short courses online is frequently much more work than instructors realize, and so you want to avoid overloading yourself. This isn’t about laziness or making things as easy on yourself as possible; it’s being realistic about the fact that good teaching takes time, and you want to be thinking carefully about where you want to be putting in your time so that it’s being used most effectively. 

Clarify Course Goals

Having discussed why you usually shouldn’t just condense semester-length courses into short courses without encountering significant problems, the question now is how to make decisions about the material, activities, and organization of a short course. 

The first task is to think carefully and be explicit about the course goals. Those of you who’ve participated in our course design workshops or who’ve worked with instructional designers in building out a course will know all about the importance of setting out the course goals or outcomes right at the beginning, or at least as early as possible in the process.  As important as that is in designing a normal course, it’s especially important for a short course given that a lot of decisions will have to be made about what material and activities are essential and what are not. 

Similarly, if you have tended to focus on content delivery, you want to think about how to translate that into outcomes.  Why is it important for students to read a particular text?  Can the outcome of that be achieved by substituting a different, shorter text, a combo of text and lectures, etc.?  If you’re working from an existing course but haven’t spent the time to carefully articulate the outcomes or goals, this would be a good time to do that, and the instructional designers at STELAR would be more than happy to help as it can often be challenging to pin that down. 

Next, you want to think about how you would prioritize those goals or objectives, because that’s going to help when it comes time to deciding what content and activities may need to be cut or pared down.  This can be quite challenging in cases where an instructor may have a range of goals or content that she would like to include yet would be too much to fit into the course.  But bear in mind that what seems indispensable to a content expert with command of the subject, years of experience and study, etc., may not, in fact, be as necessary for the student to know.  There’s a temptation among academics to design courses as if they’re training up other academics.  It’s how they were trained up, at least those who went through graduate school, earned advanced degrees, and so forth. So they’re accustomed to teach as if they were training up people like them, thinking about the major theories, arguments, etc., that one needs to know to be an expert in the field. 

Short courses force one out of that mentality, and in doing so it’s helpful to think less in terms of comprehensiveness or breadth and more in terms of depth or “meatiness”.  A soup metaphor may be apt (Kops, 2009).  If you’re transferring soup from a larger container to a smaller one, some will inevitably spill over, but you will want to ensure that it’s only the broth that spills rather than the heartier bits.  One commentator has suggested, as an exercise to help make those distinctions, to consider what you would do if you had to teach a course in only 3 hours versus several weeks (Lee, 2002).

Along those same lines, you may consider refocusing your course a bit more radically, making a more minor or secondary goal into one of the primary ones.  For example, if a semester course aims to provide a wide survey of a particular topic, such that a subtopic is comparatively minor, you may decide to focus the short course on that subtopic; in other words, to make the course much narrower. Students may not get the survey you would normally provide, and there may be many gaps in their understanding of the subject, but they may come away having given quite a bit of thought, attention, and discussion to a few subtopics in a way that has shaped their capacity for skillful and critical reasoning far better than a cursory examination of a wide range of issues would. 

Course Design

When you’ve done the work of articulating the course goals and prioritizing the aims and content, it’s time to think about how to design the course.  Again, there are reasons to avoid automatically designing it as a shortened version of an existing course, and material may need to be rearranged.  In the next section, we will present some common challenges students face with short courses, which will then inform a series of design considerations in the section following. 

Holding the Wheel

Consider that in a high-intensity course, late-course fatigue may be more of a factor than in normal courses; even the most dedicated and determined students may find it harder to sustain their concentration or think creatively.  Moreover, students may have a more difficult time catching up if they fall behind, and because of that there’s a greater danger that they will fall behind more precipitously than in a longer course, or give up altogether

Sophie P., CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The endurance athletics analogy is apt again here. As to the first point, a major endurance or skills test – like a hill or a technical part of a course – is far more difficult later in a stage than earlier.  But the more interesting analogy pertains to the second point.  A phenomenon commonly-known among participants and observers of endurance events, such as marathon running or cycling, is that when an athlete in front gains a gap – even a small one – on the athlete behind, the psychological effects can be profound.  So long as the trailing athlete “holds the wheel” or “the heel” of the athlete in front, she can produce the energy required to keep up, even if it’s far more than what her body would normally produce.  But once the leading opponent opens a gap, her motivation is quickly sapped, and not only can she not sustain the pace of the person in front, the pace drops considerably more, even less than she might produce on her own due to the impact of discouragement.

Similarly, in a high-intensity environment, falling behind even by a small amount can quickly give way to complete abandonment. As the student struggles to catch up, she is aware that more and more is piling up, like game of Tetris gone bad, and this feeds a sense that no matter how much effort she puts in she’ll never be able to get back on track, so it’s better to just abandon and eat the costs. 

One more consideration needs to be kept in mind.  Students have different learning styles (viz., visual, aural, verbal, logical, social, and solitary).  While it’s important to acknowledge this in the design of any course, the fast-paced and intensive nature of a short course make it much more difficult for a student who favors one learning style to adjust or accommodate herself to a course that emphasizes a different style.  For instance, an aural learner may be able to adapt to a course with a heavy reading load if she’s given plenty of time, but that’s precisely what she’s not given in the short course. 

Design Choices

For reasons like these, a few design choices are worth considering.  Some of these are not ideal, and some may not be possible for a particular course.  That’s why they’re considerations rather than “best practices” (and that’s why we spent time discussing their grounds above, so you can determine whether they apply to your own particular course).  

  • If possible, arrange more difficult, complex material and topics to be earlier in the course so students can tackle them when they are fresher and have a bit more time. (This may not be as easy in courses where the difficult, complex material requires a solid foundation to be built first.)
  • Include shorter, more frequent assignments in lieu of longer, less frequent ones. This keeps students active and engaged, and gives them more opportunity to catch up if they miss something.  For instance, divide up an essay assignment into shorter parts that scaffold onto one another, which can help them avoid the blunder of starting too late on the assignment.  Include several quizzes comprised of questions that you would normally include together on a larger exam.  And so on.
  • Schedule the first assignments as early as you can, even if it’s just a quiz on syllabus, a survey, an initial outline or abstract for their assignment or something like that. With such a short time frame students will need to jump right in, and scheduling assignments early can help with that.
  • Vary the activities they will be engaging in throughout the day, as well as the modes of presentation and engagement: readings, video, audio; academic as well as popular pieces; individual writing assignments, group discussions, collaborative assignments, media production; quizzes and journals, etc.
    This can be important for three reasons:
    • Varying the activities and modes is a way to keep things fresh, which is important to avoid burnout.
    • It’s a way of responding to the differences in learning styles mentioned earlier, which, again, becomes much more important in this intensive format. If everything is designed for one type of learner, a student who is a different kind of learner is much more likely to fall behind or be unable to cope.
    • It can give students an “out” if they fall behind, especially when it involves alternative modes of presenting or engaging with similar kinds of themes, such as an article or book chapter as well as a short video presenting similar ideas. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving students different options for achieving the same goal (although you could do that), but it can mean the difference between a rudimentary engagement versus no engagement at all.   
  • Finally, look through your material and consider whether there is something, especially something that involves listening, that they could do while working out or jogging, doing laundry, eating lunch, etc. If they don’t need to have a text in front of them or necessarily be taking notes, but just need to listen and absorb, you build that into the course and designate it as a “listen” video or something like that.

Course Delivery

In this final section, we will consider some strategies to optimize the delivery of your course. As before, many of these are ones that are important to consider for semester-length as well as in-person short courses but become especially important when a course is delivered in a condensed online format. 

Leverage groups

Dividing students into smaller groups for discussions, activities, and assignments can have numerous benefits in the short-course format. 

  • You can have students conduct peer reviews of assignments, or early drafts of assignments, as a way to facilitate critical thinking and take some of the burden off you, the instructor, to be the sole source of feedback.
  • In the short-course format, in which students may be less inclined to read through many of their classmates’ posts and will instead choose to respond to the first post, the shortest post, the post of their friends, etc., smaller group discussions can help ensure that they’re engaging with a wider variety of perspectives (you could even require them to respond to everyone in the group).
  • Create collaborative assignments, such as group presentations, that allow them to divide up time and responsibilities.
  • Students have often reported that relationships develop better in these environments – just as they tend to do when people share intensive experiences – so you can think of groups as providing opportunities for that kind of bonding.


  • For most students, the short course will require significant adjustments to their study habits, and communicating time expectations can help quite a bit, especially in the early days. *resource.  Indicating how much time should they plan to devote to various aspects of the course can help them plan their days as well as prepare them mentally for the effort involved. 
  • You should also provide resources for time management if those are available. At St. Thomas, all students are enrolled in Tommie Tech, which includes a page on Success Routines and Time Management.  If a student contacts you because he or she is having a hard time keeping up, you can point him or her to this resource, or better yet, include a link to this page in your Canvas site. 
  • It also may be worth checking in with students a week or so into the course to ask about the pace. Are they finding it too fast, or even too slow?  This can be a way for you to adjust if necessary, and at the very least it reinforces to the students that you are concerned about pace and workload rather than just wantonly piling things on. 

Be a Resource

  • Since students are often having to traverse a large territory in a short amount of time, reading and study guides are especially important to help them know what is essential for them to know and remember. 
  • When providing instructions for assignments, discussions, and the like, be as clear and explicit as possible.  Remember that in the intensive environment, students won’t have as much time to ask you questions, get clarifications, etc., nor will they have as much time to work out details on their own. 
  • Providing regular, timely feedback helps them stay focused, motivated, reminds them that you’re present and that they’re not just taking a correspondence course or the like.

Be available

  • Hold office hours regularly. 
  • Provide a Zoom link that serves as a “office door” – if you’re available (at your computer working, for instance), you can open Zoom like you might open an office door, even outside of regular office hours, in case students may want to pop in. 
  • Check email on a regular schedule, and communicate that with students.
    • For instance, you can communicate to students something like, “I’ll check my email every day at 8am, noon, and 4pm M-F.  So if you send me an email, you can expect a reply within 30 minutes of those times.”
      This is a great way to ease their anxiety and help them budget their time. If a student only has a small amount of time to complete an assignment but needs a question answered, knowing when to expect that answer greatly reduces stress and gives the student the freedom to wait on the answer before trying to proceed. 

Be flexible, supportive, and understanding

  • As we mentioned before, we have to be attentive to different learning styles and how it’s harder to adapt to a mode of delivery that favors a different learning style in such a short time frame.
  • Be ready to accommodate contingencies and off days. Everybody has the experience in which something unexpected comes up that draws you away from your work, or you’re simply having an off day in which you can’t focus or your body woke up but your brain slept in.  In a normal course a student can usually afford that, but an intensive environment, this can be disastrous. Once they fall behind a little bit, it’s not only hard to catch up, it saps your motivation and energy as we discussed earlier.  The question we instructors have to ask ourselves is, what do we want to have happen to a student who experiences that?  Do we want them to be left in the lurch or do we want to make sure they are able to be reintegrated with the class?  Assuming everyone prefers the latter option, as we design and deliver our courses we have to keep in front of us that student who will get sick, have to contend with a family crisis, have an off day, etc., and how we will help ensure that student will be able to finish the course successfully despite that. 
  • There’s also the anxiety and pressure, some of it due to the intensity of the course but much of which is due to the students being aware of everything we’ve been discussing – the fact that she has a different learning style, that he’s at home with his family, that if she has an off day or an unexpected demand she’ll fall behind and be unable to keep up. So being aware of and sympathetic to that in the way you design and execute your course can be very consequential. 
Canvas: Did you know...?, Technology Tools

New Rich Content Editor in Canvas

You might not know what it’s called, but you have used the Rich Content Editor multiple times. It’s the ribbon of tools at the top of the frame when you edit pages, discussions, assignments, etc. in Canvas.

St. Thomas is enabling the new Rich Content Editor on January 5th, 2021. However, faculty can switch over to the new editor at any point. Keep in mind that when you switch to the new editor, all users in that class (including students) will be switched over, too. Read more below to learn about the new features and how to try it out.

The original Rich Content Editor featured two rows of editing tools and a sidebar for accessing Links, Files, and Images.

Original Rich Content Editor

The new Rich Content Editor is much more compact and eliminates the right side-bar menu:

New Rich Content Editor

Advantages of the New Rich Content Editor:

  • one hour of auto save (no more losing your work when your browser crashes or you accidentally click Cancel instead of Save)
  • more space on the screen for your work
  • less scrolling when you building quizzes and syllabi

Where did Everything Go?

All the items currently in the menus at the right side of your screen have been split into different icons in the new Rich Content Editor:

  • Course Links (A)
  • Course Images (B)
  • Course Media (C)
  • Course Files (D)

External tools (including Panopto, YouTube, and library materials) are now in the “plug” icon. (E)

The Accessibility Checker (F) and HTML/Text Editor toggle (G) are on the bottom right.

Note: You can also use the menu (H) to do your editing. Click each of the menus to find some additional functionality, such as: undo/redo, inserting a horizontal line as a visual break, additional options for formatting text, and more.

see Canvas tutorials for accessible images of new rich content editor



Can’t find what you’re looking for? Canvas has updated tutorials for faculty and students. Plus, Canvas Support is available 24/7 to help you.

How to Get the New Rich Content Editor

The new Rich Content Editor is available now, but it’s optional. The New Rich Content Editor will be enabled for all users on January 5th, 2021.

Want a sneak peek or to take advantage of the auto-save feature? Enable the New Rich Content Editor in your course(s) by Going into Settings > Feature Options and turning on RCE Enhancements.

This post was written by Nancy McGinley Myers, Instructional Designer with the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about what STELAR can do for you, please visit STELAR’s website or email us at

Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks, Technology Tools

8 Tips for Launching Your Canvas Course

Each semester, consider these 8 tips for launching your Canvas course.   

  1. Hide unused buttons.  Eliminate confusion and streamline the student experience by hiding any unused left-navigation buttons. You can also reorder the items in the left navigation to suit your needs. 
  1. Post your Syllabus in Syllabus. In the Fall 2018 semester, more than 80% of St. Thomas students clicked on Syllabus in Canvas, expecting to find their course Syllabus. Make finding your Syllabus easy for students by posting your syllabus in Syllabus (found in the left navigation). You can upload a Word document or PDF or copy/paste the text directly into the page’s rich content editor. 
  1. Organize your course chronologically in Modules. Organizing your course chronologically in Modules creates a natural progression through course materials and activities each week and eases navigation. It also helps students manage their workload because the modules can be one-stop shop for everything they need—an overview page to provide context, a list of assigned readings, videos, or links, and assignments. 
  1. Stream course videos through Panopto. Uploading or recording new videos in Panopto (St. Thomas’ video streaming and management system) gives you the ability to embed/link that video directly in Canvas, so students won’t need to download the video to view it, and you won’t need to worry about running out of space with large video files. 
  1. Send course updates via Announcements. The best way to send a message to the whole class is to post an Announcement. Doing so triggers an email, a Canvas app push notification, and a text notification (depending on how students set up their notifications) all of which tell students a new announcement exists. All announcements are also saved in the Announcements tool for future reference. 
  1. Turn files into Pages. Using Canvas Pages instead of files makes your content easily accessible on any device or operating system. Instead of presenting a series of files (handouts, documents, and PDFs) to students, you can use Canvas Pages to present the same information. The power of Pages is that you can present short instructions, long articles, hyperlink to websites, as well as link to multiple documents, all on a single page. You can also increase the visual appeal of your content with page headings, images, color, and much more. 
  1. Publish, publish, publish.  Courses, by default, are not available to students until you publish them. For students to see your course content, you must publish the course, the modules, and the items. Use Student View to make sure that the content you choose to share with students is available. (The Syllabus is automatically available as soon as the course is published.) 
  1. Check your dates. Check your start and end dates in Settings to make sure your course is scheduled to open and close when you want. Students will see the course in a “read-only” version until the start date passes. They will not receive notifications and they will not be able to participate in discussions or submit assignments. Also make sure the dates in your Syllabus match the dates built into your modules, assignment descriptions, Canvas calendar, and announcements.  

This post includes contributions from Katherine M. Nelson, St. Thomas Innovation & Technology Services Communications and Training Manager, and was slightly modified from a Dec 4, 2018, blog (Point Tune-Up) first contributed by STELAR Instructional Designer Darcy Turner. To learn more about the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn, visit STELAR’s website or email us at

Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Starting a New Semester in Canvas?

So, you’re getting ready for the spring semester and you want to make sure all the plans and content that were there last semester, (or last year!) are showing up in Canvas just the way you’d expect so you’re ready for a new batch of students.

The good news is that you can transfer the content and assignments you had in Canvas a previous term to your spring section of the same course – you just have to take a few important steps first. We call it “Refreshing Your Canvas Course” so it’s ready for the new term and new students. Doing certain tasks ahead of time will ensure you and your new students are off to a good start in the new semester.  You’ll want to take some time over the next few days to review and refresh your course site.

If you’re copying your course from a previous term, most of the content and activities will transfer over just fine, but other apps, like Panopto and Library Resource Lists, may need to be reconnected so they work with a specific course term and section number. STELAR provides the following checklist to help you think through some of the obvious (and not-so-obvious) course refresh tasks.

  1. Import course content from a previous term or from a Canvas template.  Find many STELAR provided templates in the Canvas Commons (Filter on the University of St. Thomas).
  2. Confirm the course start and end dates under “Settings.”
  3. Refresh and update Assignment due dates. For quick due date changes, use the Calendar feature, accessed by clicking Calendar in the purple navigation menu on the left.
  4. Verify Panopto videos are linked and properly closed captioned (if used).
  5. Use the “Validate Links in Content” tool under “Settings” to check all internal and external links since the source of the online content may have changed since last linked.
  6. Verify links to eReserves and Library Resource Lists (if used). Contact your Library liaison to re-associate your Resource List to your new course term.
  7. Copy (without student comments) and re-connect any VoiceThreads (if used).
  8. Un-publish any Modules you don’t want students to see yet.
  9. Refresh Announcements using the “delay posting” feature and adding a future date for when you’d like them to be made visible.
  10. When everything checks out and you’re satisfied with how your site looks and functions, be sure to click on the “Publish” button at the top of the home page.

To learn more about how to do many of these course refresh tasks, check out the Canvas Instructor Guides. There, you’ll find tutorials and step-by-step instructions for every task in Canvas. And don’t forget about the 24/7 Help Line. Canvas Support is ready to help you with any Canvas related issues via phone call, chat, or email.  Simply click the Help button at the bottom of the purple Canvas menu.

Taking a few pro-active steps to refresh your Canvas course site will go a long way in getting you and your students off to a good start in the new semester.

This post was written by Michael Wilder, an Instructional Designer for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at or email us at

Technology Tools

OEC Studio Updates Benefit Content Creators and St. Thomas Community

The HD Multimedia Studio located in OEC LL2 has recently been upgraded to include several new functions that are useful not only for original educational material/content creators but also for the broader St. Thomas community to produce content in a highly controlled professional media production environment.

In addition to the multi-camera HD production capabilities, recent updates to the OEC multimedia production studio include:

  • The most fully integrated high-end media production SMART board on campus
    • 75″ screen
    • Display content and allow for content markup
    • Multi-color markup and highlighting
    • Individual screen capture or integrated into multi-camera production switched content
    • Recorded or live to web broadcast functionality
  • Live “Zoom” meetings integrated into the high-end media production facility
    • Take advantage of a highly-controlled production facility with staff support
    • Hold live web meetings with multiple remote participants
    • Record remote presenters
    • Useful for experts or presenters that are not always able to be in-person on location
  • “Panopto” multi-session recording capabilities
    • Individually capture SMARTboard as one source and professional cameras as another source
    • Fully utilize Panopto’s capabilities in your course using the studio’s high-end production cameras and gear

You can even view a 360-degree tour of the OEC studio!

These additional features add a whole new dimension to your content creation possibilities!  Stop by any time to the OEC Multimedia Studio located at OEC LL2 or email us at to reserve a time to get a demonstration of the facility or to schedule a time to meet with studio staff to discuss your next project.

We look forward to working with you!

This post was written by Dan Lamatsch, a Media Services Senior Engineer for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.  To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at or email us at