General Guidelines for Evaluating Courses
Whether you are providing feedback for a peer or using the checklist to self-evaluate your own course, 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 Checklist for Online Courses is primarily intended to initiate course revisions that lead to greater student success.
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.
If you are evaluating your own course, be honest about the effectiveness of your course, and use the 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.
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 Collaborate Ultra (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, 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
- Identify how the instructor asks students for feedback about the course, and look for the instructor’s response to that feedback
- Use the Evaluation Checklist for Online Courses to identify anything else you need to look at to provide effective feedback
The ★★★ System
The 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.
This resource provides additional information for instructors using the Evaluation Checklist for Online Courses for self- or peer-evaluation purposes. A ⇨ icon appears next to each item in the Word document version of the checklist and directly links to the help information listed below.
Click on the any of the five categories below to access the help information for the checklist items within that category.
Assessing Your 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. Learning objectives connect to real-world experiences
Students can be more motivated and more successful in online courses when their learning is connected to realms of experience beyond the course or the university. Learning objectives should indicate how course content and disciplinary thinking will impact or inform students in practical, real-world settings.
3. Instructor articulates the purpose of each activity and its benefit to students
When students know why they are completing an activity and how it will benefit their learning, they are more likely to invest their time and energy into being more successful. Prompts for activities and assignments should include a clearly stated purpose in student-friendly language that helps students connect their learning to their lives. Explicitly aligning an activity to one or more learning objectives is another way to indicate the activity’s purpose and benefits.
4. Instructor assigns frequent, low-stakes assessments
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.
5. Instructor scaffolds summative assessments
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.
6. Assignment and activity prompts use clear, student-friendly 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.
7. Instructor uses rubrics 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.
8. Workload is appropriate for the course type and 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.
9. Instructor uses strategies to promote academic integrity
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..
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. Content is designed to prepare students to complete assessments
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.
13. Instructor adds expertise and examples that contextualize readings
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.
14. Disciplinary content and examples are current and relevant
Students can better grasp disciplinary content, knowledge, and ways of seeing when their instructor provides examples that are current and meaningful. To illustrate key disciplinary concepts and to facilitate learning, instructors should incorporate content and examples that are up-to-date and relevant to students in the course.
15. Disciplinary 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.
16. Disciplinary content includes opportunities for engagement
Students can better understand and retain key disciplinary concepts and knowledge when they actively engage with content in an online course. Instructors should provide low-stakes graded exercises, guiding questions, or in-video quizzes to help students process course content as they read or view it.
17. Content uses effective visual design to communicate 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.
18. Content is delivered in 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.
19. Videos and presentations are brief, typically no longer than 15 minutes
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.
20. Videos are captioned, and transcriptions are accurate
Some students require closed captions on videos to fully understand the material, and other students may prefer to use captioning features to suit their learning style. Instructors should provide captions for video content, especially content that will be reused in future semesters, and should make sure that the captions are 100% accurate. Videos uploaded into Canvas can be automatically captioned and edited for accuracy through the My Media tool.
21. Open educational resources are used, when applicable
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.
22. Borrowed content uses open licensing and meets fair use guidelines
Using free, open educational resources can help students be more successful, but it is also important to make sure that all provided content adheres to fair use guidelines. Instructors should include attribution on all borrowed content, should use Creative Commons licensing when possible, and should comply with fair use limitations when incorporating articles and book chapters in the course.
23. Instructor adds content in response to student needs and/or 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.
24. Students have opportunities 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.
25. Online discussion prompts encourage fruitful 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.
26. Expectations are set for how the instructor will facilitate 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.
27. Students are required to respond to their peers in online discussions
Without clear guidelines and grade-related incentives, students may not respond meaningfully to their peers in online discussions. 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.
28. Students have opportunities to share their knowledge and experiences
Students tend to be more engaged, more successful, and more connected when they can bring their life experiences into an online course. Instructors should incorporate activities—such as online discussions, reading responses, personal reflections, and major projects—in which students can share their backgrounds and expertise with their instructor and their peers.
29. Students engage in collaborative learning or peer feedback
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.
30. Instructor includes guidelines for respectful and constructive participation
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.
31. Synchronous tools are used for group projects and virtual office hours
Synchronous tools like Collaborate Ultra provide opportunities for students and instructors to connect with one another in real time. Instructors should use Collaborate Ultra for regularly scheduled virtual office hours and, when relevant, for providing space for students to discuss or collaborate on group projects. Synchronous tools should rarely be used for lecture, although they may be used for classes or optional review sessions in which real-time engagement is necessary for learning.
32. 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 respond to multiple students in each of the online discussions, then post a summary of key points in a course announcement or within the discussion itself.
Supporting Your Students
33. 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.
34. Instructor provides student success strategies for online learning
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.
35. Canvas modules are organized and named in a student-friendly manner
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.
36. Instructor orients students to the structure of 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.
37. Instructor uses Canvas To-Do dates 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.
38. Instructor uses supportive language in all 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.
39. Instructor provides preferred contact info and expected response times
Students need to know how to contact their instructor when they need help in an online course. In the course syllabus and in other relevant areas of the Canvas course site, instructors should provide their preferred methods of contact and should indicate how promptly students can expect to receive a response, typically within 24-48 hours.
40. Instructor provides help resources for Canvas and course technologies
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, in addition to student self-help resources and links to guides for using required technology tools.
41. Instructor highlights campus resources relevant to their specific students
Many students are unaware of the available campus services that could help them be more successful in their online courses. In the course syllabus and in other relevant areas of the Canvas course site, instructors should provide links to and information about campus resources that pertain to their students, which might include support offices, campus-wide events, and discipline-specific organizations.
42. Instructor uses technologies appropriate for the course
While all online courses rely on educational technologies to facilitate learning, students can become overwhelmed when faced with too many technology tools or tools difficult to use. Instructors should make Canvas the primary hub for their online courses and be mindful to selectively incorporate only those technologies that will positively impact student learning, preferably tools that are supported at UWM.
43. All documents, pages, images, and links 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.
44. Course contains no broken links, typos, or 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.
45. Instructor communicates changes to due dates, assignments, and grades
To support student performance and success in online courses, instructors must sometimes make revisions to assignments and due dates, and they must communicate course changes to students in a timely manner. Instructors should post an announcement in Canvas when such changes occur, and they should make sure that all course materials consistently reflect the new policies and deadlines throughout the entire Canvas course site.
46. 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.
47. Instructor offers recurring virtual office hours
Office hours are both required by the institution and critical for student success. In addition to offering virtual office hours by appointment, instructors should maintain regularly scheduled virtual office hours in Collaborate Ultra or Microsoft Teams so that students can ask individual questions and receive direct feedback on assessments. In the syllabus and in other relevant areas of the Canvas course site, instructors should identify how and when students can access virtual office hours.
Evaluating Your Course
48. Instructor solicits student feedback about the course early and often
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.
49. Instructor asks questions that invite meaningful feedback about the course
Both quantitative and qualitative feedback from students can provide valuable insights about an online course. In their online evaluation instruments, such as Canvas surveys, instructors should include Likert statements or other survey questions that solicit quantitative feedback, as well as 1–3 open-ended questions that allow students to express their ideas about the course or suggestions for change.
50. 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.