Applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to Your Canvas Course

Universal Design is the design of products, environments, and communication to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation. To practice Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is to design a course that is useful by default to students with visual, hearing, or other challenges. By doing so, your course becomes more useful to ALL students. For example, captioning a video helps English language learners, students who are watching while on a bus, and students who need extra help to reviewing unfamiliar terms.

UDL is especially helpful to students using mobile devices. By taking steps like providing your syllabus in Canvas and creating assignments with due-dates that populate the Canvas calendar, you facilitate mobile users’ ability to view and interact with your course’s content.

In September 2022, there were 2,749 Emerson students actively using the Canvas student mobile app. Keep these students in mind when building your course!

This guide covers:


Customizing Course Navigation

Customize your Canvas course’s navigation menu—the vertical menu on your course’s left side—to include only the tools that are relevant to your course.

The Course Navigation Menu is indicated on a screenshot of a Canvas course; it is the vertical, left-hand menu.

You can customize this menu by going to Settings and clicking the Navigation tab. Here are some tips:

  • If you’re not using a tool, hide it. This allows students to easily find what they need, which benefits all students but especially those who have challenges with executive functioning or cognitive overload.
  • Hide tools to steer navigation. For example, if you leave the Files tools visible, students will go there to look for files, even if you’ve placed links to them elsewhere in the course. If you’ve created pages that link to files and provide more context about those files, you may wish to hide the Files tool, so that students will instead locate them in the environment you intended.
  • Avoid redundancy! Say you’ve created modules in your course to organize the content for each week or unit, and you’ve placed links to pages within each module. Hide the Pages tool in the navigation menu so that students can’t access the entire list of pages and get confused. If Modules is the tool available, that’s what students will use.

See this guide for more detailed instructions on managing the course navigation menu.

Effective use of Assignments and the Calendar

As of 2019, 82% of active Canvas courses at Emerson use the Assignments tool and therefore have populated calendars.

The Canvas Calendar consists of due dates from all of your assignments, discussions, and quizzes created in those respective tools, and also events. Create this content in Canvas so that it populates your course's calendar, making important dates easy for students to find.

Creating assignments using the Assignments tool in Canvas, and adding due dates in your assignments' due date fields (NOT in their prompts), is one of the best ways you can help your students manage their time.

Here is where the due date field appears at the bottom of the assignment editor:

The Assign box at the bottom of the Canvas assignment editor, with the due date field indicated with an arrow.

For example, say you wish to create an assignment that appears on your course's Calendar:

  • If you upload a Word doc with the assignment’s description to your Canvas Files and list its due date in that doc, nothing will appear on the Calendar. Canvas cannot pull data from Word docs.
  • However, if you instead create an assignment directly in Canvas using the Assignments tool—typing the assignment’s description into the text editor and entering its due date in the due date field within the "Assign" box at the bottom of the editor—this due date will automatically appear on the course's Calendar, at the bottom of the Syllabus section under Course Summary, and on students' To-Do lists. This is much more convenient for students than searching for a date in a Word doc!

By using Assignments and the Canvas Calendar effectively, you will help students who struggle with time management, attention deficits, and cognitive overload.

See this guide for more detailed instructions on using the Canvas Calendar.

Effective use of the Syllabus

As of 2019, 91% of active Canvas courses at Emerson use the Syllabus tool.

Students appreciate it when a course’s syllabus is available in Canvas. Your syllabus targets the brain’s affective networks and sets the tone for your course. It ensures students know how to request accommodations, find other resources, access your office hours, and communicate with you.

Use the Syllabus tool to make your syllabus easy to find for students and easy for you to update. This helps students who struggle with time management and executive functioning—they know where they can find the syllabus, and it interacts with the calendar and assignments if you’ve created those in Canvas (vs. your static paper syllabus that might be misplaced or become outdated). Providing your syllabus in Canvas also helps visually impaired students, since digital texts can usually be read by a screen reader.

The Syllabus is the default home page for Canvas courses. To use it, click Edit at top-right. This provides you with a text editor exactly as if you were editing a Canvas page or assignment. Copy and paste the text of your syllabus into this editor, or type it in directly. Use the formatting toolbar above the text editor to approximate the original document’s formatting, being sure to use header tags and lists to add structure.

Although the version of the syllabus you enter into the text editor will be the most accessible and mobile-friendly, keep in mind that it’s also sometimes necessary to keep a separate doc or PDF version for departmental retention.

Please bear in mind that if you have your syllabus on Canvas both in the text box and also as a Word document or PDF, any changes to one will have to be made manually to the other. 

The Course Summary section

The top half of the Syllabus page allows for text-entry and is for your syllabus; the bottom half of the Syllabus page is called the Course Summary.

Uploading your syllabus file to Canvas or typing it in does not auto-populate the Course Summary section. Instead, the Course Summary automatically lists any due dates you’ve given to Assignments, Discussions, Quizzes, and Calendar in Canvas. Unfortunately, there is no way for Canvas to pull information from your syllabus Word doc or PDF. That’s why we recommend creating assignments directly in Canvas using the Assignments tool. Here’s how to create assignments and edit their settings.

Tips for Making the Most of the Syllabus

  • Consider adding a video to make your syllabus more personal.
  • Student feedback suggests that students feel belittled when professors gloss over the accommodation statement. Make this statement prominent in your syllabus, draw your students’ attention to it, and ensure they understand it fully before continuing. Not all disabilities are visible, so avoid assuming your class won’t need any accommodations.

Managing Notifications

Notification Preferences

In Canvas, each user chooses their own notification preferences. The instructor cannot change notification settings coursewide. Therefore, the best way to ensure that your students get the notifications you want, and to help them avoid anxiety from too many notifications, is to show them how to manage their notification preferences.

We recommend reviewing the following guide and then sharing it with your students: How do I set my Canvas notification preferences? Show them where to find their notification preferences, and let them know what the default settings are (find them on pp. 2-3 of this document).

The Canvas Student and Teacher apps can also send notifications. You and your students may wish to choose either push or email notifications. You can easily turn off push notifications in your notification preferences or from the app’s settings on your mobile device.

Tips for using notifications effectively

  • If you’re using the Canvas Calendar as intended (see above), Canvas will nudge students for you. Adding or changing a due-date on the Calendar or directly from an assignment triggers a notification (by default, this is sent to students in a weekly digest).
  • Create your assignments in Canvas before the semester begins, even if they’re just placeholders that you fill-in later. That way, students won’t be continuously getting notified about new assignments being created during the semester. Since the only way to generate gradebook columns is by creating assignments, creating them ahead of time also ensures that your students always see an accurate calculation of their grades.
  • If you’re grading a series of submissions and wish to only release the grades when they’re all done, rather than notifying each student as you submit their grade, use the Manually Post Grades policy in the gradebook settings. When you’re done grading, you can post the grades from the assignment's dropdown menu in the gradebook. All students will gain access to their grades at the same time.

Posting Announcements

Posting a Canvas announcement is the quickest way to send a message to your entire class with reasonable certainty that they’ll see it, even if they’re using mobile devices. This can be useful for announcing homework, alerting students to optional events, or sending reminders.

When an instructor posts an announcement:

  • Canvas sends a notification with the text of the announcement to all students’ Emerson email addresses and/or sends a push or text to their mobile devices, depending on what each student has selected in their notification preferences (see above).
  • The message will also remain posted in the course’s Announcements section for students to view.

To create an announcement, go into your Canvas course, then click Announcements in the left-hand course menu. Once there, click the + Announcement button at top-right.


  • You cannot designate specific students to receive announcements, though you can designate sections. For private exchanges, use Canvas Conversations.
  • Students aren’t meant to reply to announcements. There is an option to allow students to comment on announcements, but this is off by default; students won’t think to look here for discussion. If you’re looking for interaction, create a Canvas Discussion.
  • If you import announcements into your course from a previous course, they will appear posted in the new course’s Announcements section. However, they will not be sent to students via notification. If you want to send an imported announcement to students via notification, you have two options:
    • Copy the text from the imported announcement, delete it, and paste the text into a new announcement. When you post the new one, it will be sent to students.
    • OR, set the imported announcement to post at a later date/time (even if that time is only minutes away). At the designated time, it will be sent to students.
  • An announcement posted in an unpublished course will not be sent to students via notification, even when the course is later published. If you’re creating announcements before publishing your course, use the Delay posting setting to make them post on a date after the course is published.

Read more about how to use Canvas announcements.

The Dashboard

The Dashboard isn’t just a portal to courses. It’s also a powerful organizational tool that both instructors and students can use.

Click on the vertical ellipses at top right of the Dashboard to toggle between Card View, Recent Activity, and List View.

  • Card View (default) displays your Canvas courses as colored cards on your Dashboard.
  • Recent Activity is a global version of the Course Activity Stream, combining recent activities for all of your courses.

Both Card View and Recent Activity will display a right hand sidebar containing To Dos (all items with due dates), Coming Up (events and items with approaching due dates), and Recent Feedback (recently submitted grades/comments).

  • List View displays all of a user’s To Do items as a list arranged by date and by course. This helps students easily manage tasks across all of their courses. The To Do list contains all announcements, assignments and discussions with due dates, and events:
    The List View of a Canvas Dashboard, with due dates listed for each course in chronological order.

    Users can also manually add personal To Do items from the List View and from the Calendar.


    To Do items that instructors or students manually create will only appear on that user’s personal To Do list and Calendar. For example, if an instructor creates a To Do item called “Grade half of the papers” on May 15, this item will only appear to the instructor. This allows you and your students to privately track your day-to-day responsibilities in each course.

    If you wish to create an item that appears on all students’ To Do list and Calendar but isn’t an assignment or discussion, use the Calendar to create an event.

List View is a great tool for students (or instructors) who struggle with time management! See this guide to learn how to use the To Do list in List View. You can share this guide with your students.

The Gradebook

The Canvas Gradebook allows instructors to track students' scores on assessments and calculate final grades. For instructors, the Gradebook appears as a grid. It is automatically populated with a row for each of the course's students. A new column is added to the Gradebook whenever the instructor creates a graded assignment or discussion.

For students, the Gradebook appears as a chronological list of their personal scores. Students can only see their own grades in the Gradebook.

To learn how to use the Gradebook, see this guide and video tutorial:

Getting Started with the Canvas Gradebook

Creating Accessible Content

An accessible course provides all students the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services with substantially equivalent ease of use. Canvas as a platform is 508-compliant, with homogenous color schemes, clean designs, and tab-navigable menus. However, it’s up to you to ensure that the content you create using Canvas is accessible. Here are the best ways to do so:

  • Structure your textual content with header tags and lists
  • Add alternate text to images
  • Use descriptive links
  • Make accessible color choices
  • Use captioned videos
  • Use accessible documents

For a detailed explanation of each of these topics, see Creating Accessible Content in Canvas.

Multiple Means of Participation

According to UDL, good teaching provides the following:

  • Multiple means of representation present information in different ways to target the recognition networks of the brain.
  • Multiple means of action & expression provide different ways for students to express what they know to target the strategic networks of the brain.
  • Multiple means of engagement stimulate interest and motivation for learning to target the affective networks of the brain.

You can learn more about the UDL framework and the neuroscience research behind it at National Center for Universal Design for Learning’s website.

Tips for providing multiple means of representation

In addition to readings and lecture, you can…

Tips for providing multiple means of action and expression

In addition to papers or exams, you can…

Tips for providing multiple means of engagement

In addition to office hours, you can…

If you would like to brainstorm additional ways to incorporate UDL into your courses, schedule a consultation with ITG ( We can also train you to use any of the tools mentioned here.

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