Teaching at Pitt: Fostering Student Well-Being in the Canvas Learning Environment | University time



The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive changes in teaching practices at colleges and universities across the country, and Pitt was no exception. The 18-month shift to online learning has taught instructors, students, administrators, and instructional designers a variety of lessons. One of the most important lessons we learned was the need for holistic student support at a time when in-person contact was not possible.

From these experiences came Pitt “Year of Emotional Well-Being” and the ability to focus on supporting student well-being in the online learning environment. This provides a pretext for need-driven online course design and deployment rather than emergency-driven virtual course design. Below are helpful considerations and specific tips for supporting student wellbeing in your course in Canvas, the University’s learning management system.

Before the pandemic, many academics felt that online learning did not offer the same benefits or support as traditional face-to-face learning. However, throughout the pandemic, many in our university community have found that the online learning environment can be a place of community, connection, and support. Research continues to emerge on the importance of considering emotional well-being to support student learning (Kim et al, 2021, Zandvliet et al, 2019).

Experiencing the emotional rewards of connection with others and the confidence of increased self-efficacy helps foster a more productive and engaging learning experience (Cavenaugh, 2016). We can support the emotional well-being of students in our online learning environments by designing with transparency and accessibility in mind, encouraging connection and presence, providing students with access to institutional resources, and designing for the needs of all students.

The list below provides a handy reference when designing online courses, including course review opportunities, with student welfare in mind. We identify relevant themes discussed below, for each of these ideas. These interactions correspond to four areas of promotion of well-being:

1. Use transparent course design

2. Encourage connection and presence

3. Connecting students to institutional resources

4. Consider all needs

Steps Instructors Can Take to Support Student Well-Being

Delivering a Simplified Course Design (Topic 1)

  • Clear homepage and “start here” for your course

Humanize entry into the course (2)

Provide multiple options for office hours (2, 3)

Present a predictable structure (1, 3)

  • Common components and requirements for each week or module

  • View course policies in the program and link them to them

Provide consistent communication (2)

  • Weekly announcements or videos

  • Mid-semester or post-assignment/exam announcements

  • Consistent response to discussions

To understand informal opportunities for connection via live online sessions or on a discussion forum (2)

Provide clear guidance on assignments (1)

Consider needs in rating policy (1, 4)

  • Transparency and ease of filing rubrics

  • Grace periods or tokens on assignments

  • Involve students in creating assignment guidelines

Offer multiple perspectives in your discipline. Consider diversity, equity and inclusion in your content and media (4)

Activities and missions between peers (2)

Design with access and accessibility in mind (4)

Be explicit in offering wellness practices (2)

Include student support and student resources (links are to Oakland campus resources) (3)

Take advantage of the teaching center resources: Canvas @ Pitt – Resources. (1, 2, 3, 4)

1. Use transparent course design

Providing a transparent and consistent course structure allows students to navigate both structure and content in predictable ways (Villalobos & Jessup, 2021). The online environment is multi-layered and complex, navigation depends on your course structure and student interaction. If students know where to find What they must succeed and the Why behind a mission and how it will support their overall success, they will be motivated to commit to it.

Clearly explain why you are offering an assignment and encourage students to choose to boost their motivation. A reliable structure in each module will tell students what to expect, and students can then predict how to navigate. Also, clearly explain to students how you will assess them with a simple grading scheme and be consistent throughout your course.

2. Encourage connection and presence

Instructors can support student well-being by fostering community and connection through their courses (Kim, et al, 2021). Interactivity is important for students and instructors and the supportive connection makes students feel like they matter in the academic environment (Schwartz, 2019). Through practices such as audio or video presentations by instructors and students and the availability of pre-recorded lectures or end-of-unit previews, instructors can humanize their learning spaces, fostering dialogue and connection. We may also consider our tone in communication and assignment materials, to convey respect and value to students.

Not all assignments need to be based on course content, rather they can support community and classroom cohesion. Encouraging the creation of a learner profile allows students to be present and get to know their peers. Consider offering unstructured writing or study sessions where students can meet virtually. Chat rooms where students post pictures of their happiest moment of the week or their pets can offer students the opportunity to connect informally.

3. Connect students to institutional resources

Student well-being is increased when they are connected and aware of institutional resources. Instructors can function as bridges between the University and their students by providing websites and contact information for the rich variety of student affairs and student support services at Pitt. Encourage students to participate in the variety of wellness activities offered by Pitt and have students reflect on their experience in writing or in a discussion forum.

By thinking through each step of an assignment, including navigating the online Canvas environment, instructors can coordinate resources for student success. Ask yourself if the students have access to the necessary software (do they know where to get this access), do they have a reliable device, do they have access to high-speed Internet? Do they know how to use the necessary software? It can be helpful to survey students (perhaps anonymously) to see what their needs are. Students may also need resources specifically related to wellness, including the Office of Disability Resources and Services and the University Guidance Center.

4. Consider all needs

To ensure that you support all of your students, consider the diversity of students and situations in your courses. Here at Pitt, you’ll teach a wide range of students with different backgrounds, mental and medical health issues, living situations, financial considerations and family lives, and more. As you build your course, incorporate options to meet different student needs. . It’s helpful to include a variety of content sources and creators, make information available to students in multiple ways (including captions and transcripts, for example), and use the Text Checker. UDOIT accessibility.

However, all of these considerations don’t work if you don’t also design with your own needs in mind as well as the needs of the students. Not only are faculty better able to support students when their own needs are met, but increased well-being is possible through more engaging interactions with students and experiencing increased effectiveness in your teaching ( Lucas, et al., 2021).

As we have learned during the pandemic, supporting students and faculty is not only necessary but also entirely possible in online learning environments. Embedding supports in the online environment benefits everyone, as these reinforcements provide opportunities for increased engagement and stronger peer-faculty-student connections. When we are intentional in designing our courses, considering transparency and accessibility, providing opportunities for connection and presence, and connecting students to resources, our online environments can be a space that strengthens everyone’s well-being. As you can see in the table above, supporting students and faculty is possible in online learning in general and Canvas, in Pitt, in particular. The Teaching Center is there to support you in implementing these methods.

Additional Resources

Lex Drozd is Principal Instructional Designer and Christina Frasher is Teaching and Learning Consultant at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.


Cavanagh, S.R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.

Kim, D., Wortham, S., Borowiec, K., Yatsu, DK, Ha, S., Carroll, S., … and Kim, J. (2021). Online formative education: Teaching the whole person during the global COVID-19 pandemic. AERA Open, 7, 23328584211015229

Lucas, G., Cao, G., Waltemeyer, S., Mandernach, B. Jean and Hammond, Helen G. (2021). The value of instructor interactivity in the online classroom.

Schwartz, HL (2019). Connected learning: relationship, power and importance in higher education. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Villalobos, J., & Jessup, L. (2021). Adapting to remote learning during COVID-19 using transparent course assignment and design. The Journal of Faculty Development, 35(2), 72-77.

Zandvliet, DB, Stanton, A. & Dhaliwal, R. (2019). Design and validation of a tool to measure associations between the learning environment and student well-being: The Healthy Environments and Learning Practices Survey (HELPS). Superior Innovative Education, 44(4), 283-297.


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