Help Links for the Evaluation Checklists for Online Courses

General Guidelines for Evaluating Courses

Whether you are using either checklist to reflect on your own course or to provide feedback for a peer, keep in mind the purpose of the review process—to identify both the strengths and the areas for improvement in an online course. The evaluation checklists are intended to initiate course revisions that lead to greater student success.

If you are self-evaluating your own course, be honest about the effectiveness of your course, and use the Evaluation Checklist as a tool for identifying areas for growth. Remember that you don’t have to incorporate every item on the checklist to teach an excellent course.

If you are evaluating a peer’s online course, be sure to point out what works well in the course and make gentle suggestions for potential changes. Bring in your own experience as an online instructor to advise your peer, and share pedagogical resources or strategies if you have them.

Reviewing a Canvas Course Site

A fully-developed online course in Canvas includes a semester’s worth of content, assessments, feedback, and other information, so reviewing a peer’s course can feel overwhelming and time-consuming. However, it is not necessary to read every word or watch every video in the course to provide effective feedback. Instead, use random sampling of the course materials to identify patterns that reflect the instructor’s approach. It can be helpful to take notes as you review the course site.

In particular, when reviewing a Canvas course site, you might want to:

  • Read the entire course syllabus, paying special attention to the course objectives, the assessment plan, and the course schedule
  • Use the Student View in Canvas to review the layout and structure of the course
  • Click on Announcements to see how often the instructor posts, and randomly select a few announcements to review
  • Review all of the materials in one module/week early in the semester and one module/week later in the semester
  • Watch a random sampling of videos, including recordings from synchronous sessions in Zoom (if applicable)
  • Click on Discussions, and review the introductory forum and a random selection of other forums, paying special attention to the discussion prompt, to student-student interactions, and to instructor contributions to the discussions
  • Click on Quizzes (if applicable), and randomly select a few quizzes to preview
  • Read the assignment prompts for all major assessments, and randomly select a few student submissions, paying special attention to how and when the instructor responded with feedback and grades
  • Identify how the instructor asks students for feedback about the course, and look for the instructor’s response to that feedback
  • Use the (full) Evaluation Checklist for Online Courses to identify anything else you need to look at to provide effective feedback

The ★★★ System

The (full) Evaluation Checklist for Online Courses uses a three-star system to help reviewers provide effective and efficient feedback about an online course. As a reviewer, you should choose the number of stars that best represents how the instructor performed on that checklist item in general. While the three-star system appears to be quantitative in nature, there is in fact a good deal of subjectivity in how reviewers interpret items on the checklist. While the rest of this document is intended to provide some guidance, try not to become too preoccupied with individual choices, and instead focus on the most effective way to communicate strengths and areas for growth.

Help Links

This resource provides additional information for instructors using the evaluation checklists. Click on the any of the five categories below to access the help information for the checklist items within that category.

Assessing Students

1. Learning objectives are specific, measurable, and clear

Well-articulated learning objectives are critical in online courses because they convey to students what they need to know and be able to do by the end of the semester to succeed in the course. Learning objectives should use student-friendly language and plainly identify the particular goals that students need to work toward. Courses often have 5-10 course-level objectives with more focused objectives embedded within specific modules or units.

2. Frequent, low-stakes assessments are assigned to regularly engage students

Frequent, low-stakes assessments allow students to engage regularly in online courses and to receive feedback about their learning. Instructors should assign multiple activities per week or per module to maintain a rhythm in the course, and most individual assignments should not have a drastic effect on a student’s grade if they perform poorly.

3. Summative assessments are scaffolded

Summative assessments help instructors determine how well students can apply or synthesize their learning at the end of the semester, and students tend to produce higher quality work when these assessments are scaffolded. Prior to the final submission of summative assessments, instructors should assign check-in activities and assignments that provide students with opportunities to receive peer and instructor feedback and to revise their work.

4. Assignment and activity prompts include a purpose and use clear language

Because online students are less likely to receive immediate answers to questions about assignments, transparent assignment and activity prompts are critical to student success in online courses. Instructors should write student-friendly prompts that clearly communicate the purpose of the activity, the tasks involved, and the criteria for success.

5. Workload is appropriate for the discipline and course level

To meet or exceed the perceived rigor of their face-to-face courses, instructors sometimes ask students to do too much in their online courses. The workload of an online course, which can include a wide range of activities, should appropriately challenge students and help them meet the course goals without overwhelming them. Including time estimates for each task is one way to measure and communicate to students the course workload requirements.

6. Rubrics are used for grading and to clarify assignment expectations

Rubrics help students by clarifying the instructor’s expectations for assignments and detailing the criteria for success; rubrics help instructors by making grading fairer and more precise. Instructors should provide clearly written, student-friendly rubrics that are incorporated into the Canvas course site for both low-stakes and summative assessments.

7. Strategies are incorporated that promote academic integrity in the course

Helping students maintain academic integrity in online courses is a critical part of UWM’s mission and is vital to students’ long-term success. Instructors should stress the importance of academic integrity in online courses and use a variety of pedagogical and technical strategies to minimize cheating, such as setting time limits on quizzes, randomly selecting exam questions from larger question banks or groups, and developing writing assignment prompts that require student submissions that are unique to the course.

A. Instructor provides grades in Canvas in an appropriate timeframe

Students need timely and effective feedback to learn in online courses. Instructors should use the grade book in Canvas for all assignments and provide comments and grades as soon as possible after students submit. Typically, students should receive feedback within a week for shorter student submissions—like quizzes and reading responses—and within two weeks for longer student submissions—like essays and exams.

B. Instructor provides personalized feedback on assessments

Students need feedback that addresses their individual strengths and areas for growth in the course. For many low-stakes assessments and all major assessments in the course, instructors should provide personalized feedback to each student using the Canvas SpeedGrader or other means appropriate to the specific assignment.

Delivering Content

8. Content prepares students to complete assessments and activities

Content in online courses should work in conjunction with the specific assignments that students need to complete throughout the semester. Instructors should deliver content that helps students both meet the course learning goals and perform successfully on assessments. Instructors should eliminate extraneous content that is not directly tied to course activities.

9. Content is delivered using the appropriate medium for its purpose

Content can be provided to students in a variety of ways, including text, image, audio, video, and animation. Instructors should deliver content using the medium that most effectively facilitates student learning. Written text alone works well in many situations; narrated PowerPoints are best when students need to see an image and listen to the instructor’s interpretation of it; and videos or animations can demonstrate certain processes in efficient and meaningful ways.

10. Effective visual design is used to communicate the content clearly

The design of text, images, and PowerPoint slides can significantly affect how well students engage with and understand course content in online courses. To best facilitate learning, instructors should use effective visual design strategies, such as breaking up long passages of text within documents, incorporating only images that extend the meaning, and limiting the amount of text on each PowerPoint slides.

11. Instructor adds expertise and relevant examples to contextualize the content

Although online students can learn a significant amount from textbooks, readings, and other materials, they also benefit from the direct knowledge and expertise of their instructor. To facilitate greater student learning, instructors should provide some context for all readings and should incorporate examples and anecdotes drawn from their own disciplinary experiences; instructors can provide such contextualization using text, audio, and/or video. In addition, instructors should incorporate content and examples that are up-to-date and relevant to students in the course.

12. Content reflects diverse social identities and life experiences

All students benefit from inclusive teaching strategies, and students whose identities and experiences are represented in an online course are more likely to be engaged and successful in the course. Instructors should incorporate content, authors, images, and examples that reflect a diversity of social identities and perspectives.

13. Videos and presentations are generally no longer than 15 minutes each

When videos and presentations are short and segmented, students can stay more focused on learning the content, and they are able to more easily return to key concepts after viewing. Instructors should segment videos and presentations into focused topics that are each 15 minutes or less. Instructors may provide multiple brief videos within each module.

14. Open educational resources are used to promote student access and success

Many students cannot afford to purchase expensive textbooks or course materials that are required in their online courses, which can put them at a significant disadvantage in their learning. To reduce students’ financial burden and to ensure that all students have access to the resources they need, instructors should, when possible, provide free, open educational resources, including digital articles, open textbooks, and/or links to course-relevant websites and videos.

15. Videos, documents, pages, and images meet Universal Design standards

Universal Design is course and document design that benefits all students, including students with disabilities. Instructors should ensure that all content—including files, videos, pages, and images—is fully-accessible by using UDOIT and the accessibility checkers in Canvas and Microsoft Word. From a Universal Design perspective, the highest priority items include providing closed captions on videos, adding alt tags to images, and using PDFs that are readable by screen readers.

C. Instructor adds content in response to student needs and current events

Most disciplinary content can be developed and curated before the semester begins, but students also benefit from content that is added to the course during the semester in response to students’ interests, to identified learning needs, and to current events. Instructors should incorporate additional content into their online courses that connects with their specific community of learners within that particular semester.

Building Community

16. Instructor provides a welcome to students in the Canvas course site

Students tend to be more successful in online courses when they feel supported by their instructor, and a welcoming message early in the term can set a positive tone for the entire semester. Instructors should post in Canvas an inviting, student-friendly message using text, image, audio, and/or video to introduce students to themselves and to the course.

17. Students have an opportunity to introduce themselves to their peers

To build community in online courses, students need to have meaningful interactions with their peers starting early in the semester. In the first week of the course, instructors should ask students to introduce themselves to one another in an authentic and relevant way by posting to an online discussion forum using text, images, audio, and/or video.

18. Instructor describes their role in online discussions

Both student success and satisfaction tend to increase when instructors effectively lead online discussions and when students know what kind of participation they can expect from their instructor. Instructors should communicate in the syllabus and in other relevant areas of the course site how and when they will contribute to online discussions throughout the semester.

19. Guidelines are provided for constructive participation in online discussions

Students often need guidance on how to effectively engage with and challenge the ideas of their peers in productive and considerate ways. Instructors should provide guidelines and examples in the syllabus and in other relevant areas of the course that outline the expectations for participating in online discussions with care and respect; instructors may also develop these guidelines in collaboration with their students.

20. Online discussion prompts encourage meaningful peer interaction

To effectively participate in online discussions, students need detailed prompts that lead to meaningful peer interaction. Instructors should write prompts that encourage students to exchange ideas, share resources, and incorporate their own life experiences in ways that are relevant and conducive to student learning. In addition, instructors should require response posts and replies, and provide specific instructions in online discussion prompts that outline the expectations for engaging with other students’ ideas and contributions.

21. Students collaborate via shared documents, peer review, or group projects

In online courses, students benefit significantly from interacting with their peers in productive ways. Instructors should include collaborative activities, group projects, and/or opportunities for students to provide feedback to one another on writing assignments or major assessments in the course.

D. Instructor participates regularly and meaningfully in online discussions

Students benefit significantly from the deep disciplinary knowledge and perspectives of their instructors, and online discussions are an important avenue for instructors to share their expertise in online courses. Instructors should demonstrate that they are reading and responding to student posts in the online discussions. An especially effective form of instructor participation is to conclude an online discussion by sharing a summary of key points, either within the discussion itself or in a course announcement.

Supporting Students

22. Syllabus meets university guidelines and reflects the online modality

All syllabi need to meet the requirements outlined by the university, but for online courses, it is especially important for the syllabus to reflect the online modality. Instructors should therefore identify the course as an online course, describe their approach to online learning, and provide the preferred methods for how students should contact them. If revising a syllabus from a previously-taught face-to-face course, instructors should remove all language that references in-person meetings or requirements.

23. Canvas modules are well-organized and properly named for easy navigation

To be successful, students need to be able to quickly and easily find their readings, assignments, and other information in their Canvas course sites. Instructors should use Modules in the Home area of their Canvas course site to organize course materials chronologically, rather than by type, and should use consistent, clear naming conventions for modules, files, pages, links, and assignments.

24. Orientation is provided for how to navigate the Canvas course site

All students, including those with extensive experience using Canvas, benefit from a clear understanding of the organizational structure of their particular online course. Instructors should provide a text- or video-based orientation specific to their Canvas course site that describes where to find content, assignments, and other important information.

25. Student success strategies for online learning are provided

Students will come to online courses with varying levels of online course-taking experience, but all students benefit from learning about strategies that will help them be more successful. Instructors should include in their syllabus or in other relevant areas of the course site advice on what it takes to be a successful online student, which might focus on time management, making peer-to-peer connections, and other recommendations specific to that online course.

26. Instructor uses supportive language in their course materials

Students are more successful in online courses when they feel supported by their instructor. Instructors should therefore communicate their commitment to helping students learn by using positive, encouraging language in announcements, assignment prompts, online discussions, and the syllabus.

27. Canvas Due Dates are assigned for assessments and activities

Canvas due dates and to-do dates provide students with a clear roadmap for what activities need to be completed in the course and by when; activities and assignments that have these dates automatically appear in the Canvas course calendar and on students’ To Do lists. Instructors should use the date features built into Canvas Pages, Assignments, Quizzes, and Discussions to accurately communicate in one consistent place the deadlines for all assignments and assessments.

28. Academic and technology support resources are provided

When students have difficulty using Canvas or other course technologies, they often fall behind if they don’t receive help in a timely manner. In the course syllabus and in other relevant areas of the Canvas course site, instructors should provide contact information for the UWM Help Desk and for direct Canvas support, as well as links and information about academic support resources on campus, such as the Student Success Center, the Writing Center, and the UWM Libraries.

29. Canvas course site is free of broken links, typos, and outdated information

Students can become frustrated when links to resources do not work or important course information is out of date. Instructors should use the link validator in Canvas to verify all external URLs, and they should review all course materials copied from a previous semester to make sure that due dates and assignment expectations reference the current semester. Typos should be kept to a minimum.

E. Instructor posts frequent, informative, and supportive announcements

Students are more likely to seek help and to be more successful when their instructor develops a strong presence in their online course. Instructors should post announcements at least once per week through the Announcements tool in Canvas, using supportive language to remind students about upcoming events or due dates, to provide additional information or timely resources related to the course, to give summative feedback about particular assignments, and/or to communicate caring and encouragement.

Evaluating Teaching

30. Instructor asks students for feedback about the course early in the semester

Students who have the opportunity to provide feedback about their online course during the semester can benefit from the changes their instructor implements based upon that feedback. Instructors should incorporate online surveys or online discussion forums that invite students to provide comments about the course, ideally within the first few weeks in the term and multiple times over the semester.

F. Instructor responds to student feedback in the Canvas course site

When students provide feedback about an online course during the semester, they need to know that their comments have been read and seriously considered by the instructor. Instructors should make revisions to the course as appropriate, and should address students’ feedback in an announcement or a page in the Canvas course site.