Help students manage the course workload in your class with Canvas features by reducing the need for reminders and making important steps more visible.

The demands on university students are extraordinarily high. Our students manage demanding course workloads, high-grade expectations, and career readiness tasks in the classroom. Yet, the expectations do not stop there. Students are attempting to balance academic expectations alongside jobs and social responsibilities. It’s a heavy burden to say the least.

COVID-19 has sharpened this problem for many students. A September 2020 study of undergraduates in a large public university system in Texas found that 71% of students indicated their stress and anxiety had increased due to COVID-19 (only 9% said it had decreased).

While it’s worth reconsidering the student course workload in your class, redesigning your requirements can be a daunting prospect. We’re here today to provide tips to help your course feel more achievable with Canvas features that help students manage their own tasks.

These features benefit both students and teachers. Your students can more easily see what they need to do in your course, and you can reduce the need for reminders and minimize the number of students who miss or skip important steps.

Course Workload Feature #1: Student To-Do List

The student to-do list in Canvas is a powerful way to help students know what they need to do in your course. While much of the to-do list is automatically populated by items with the Due Date feature set in Canvas, you can also control what appears there for your courses.

The to-do list is quite commonly used by students to manage their tasks. It’s prominently located in the right sidebar on desktops, and it has a dedicated button in the mobile app menu. (Don’t think your students use the app? It’s likely more than half of your students are using the app.)

Here’s what goes on the student to-do list from your course:

  • Quizzes are automatically added, even Practice Quizzes
  • Assignments are automatically added, even ones not requiring a submission
  • Discussion boards are automatically added if they are graded; ungraded discussion boards are not added unless you check the “Add to student to-do” box
  • Pages are not added unless you check the “Add to student to-do” box
  • Calendar events are automatically added

Adding a Page to student to-do lists will create a button at the bottom of the Page for students to “Mark as done.” There are no specific requirements for this other than checking the box. However, it’s a great way to indicate the importance of doing something for students, as they have an extra step to do before it moves off their to-do list.

Canvas buttons: Mark as done and Next

Here are a few tips for making the most out of the student to-do list:

  • For ungraded Discussion Boards, always check the “Add to student to-do” box. This ensures that contributing to the forum shows up on students’ radar.
  • On any Page that needs to be reviewed by a particular date, check the “Add to student to-do” box. For example, if you want students to review some model papers before class, create a Page titled “Review Model Papers,” upload the papers, and mark it on their to-do list.
  • Consider adding Calendar events for important dates in the course. For example, if students need to choose a partner by a particular date, add that to the Calendar and it will appear in students’ task lists. This is particularly helpful to highlight key dates in a semester-long project, as you might not necessarily have an Assignment created for every step along the way.
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Course Workload Features #2 and #3: Module Prerequisites and Requirements

Canvas modules are an excellent way to organize your course and structure a week or unit’s work for students. Two features in particular can help students ensure they are on track and know what they need to complete: Prerequisites and Requirements.

After you create a module, click the three dots to the right of the module and select “Edit.” This will bring up a pop-up where you can add Prerequisites and Requirements.

Prerequisites control the availability of a module to your students. They allow you to indicate which modules must be completed before the module you are editing is available to students. You can add multiple Prerequisites or have only one. Leave this area alone if you want the module to be available without restrictions.

Module prerequisites in Edit Module Settings screen in Canvas

Requirements, on the other hand, control what counts as “completing” the module. If you don’t have any Prerequisites set, the only thing Requirements controls is when the module shows as complete (green check mark) for students. The check mark is a powerful motivator for many students, and using Requirements allows you to make it crystal clear what students need to do.

Module Requirements in Edit Module Settings screen in Canvas

In the Requirements section, you select individual items in the module and indicate what students must do for it to be considered “complete.” These options include: 

  • View the Item: Students get a check mark for simply opening the item in Canvas, regardless of how long they spend on it. 
  • Mark as Done: This is used in conjunction with the “Student To-do” feature discussed earlier. When students select the “Mark as Done” button on the page, it will display a green check mark for the item in the module. 
  • Contribute to the Page: This is used for discussion boards and gives students a check mark when they have added to the DB. (Can also be used for collaborative, student-edited Pages.) 
  • Submit the Assignment: This can be used on Assignments, Quizzes, and Discussion Boards to show a check mark once submitted. 
  • Score At Least: This can be used on Quizzes to show a check mark once students have reached a particular score threshold. 

You can use any combination of these to clearly communicate to students what you expect of them. For example, consider a module with readings, videos, sample project reviews, discussion boards, a quiz, and an assignment. By configuring each of these items with the appropriate selection, you create a clear list of activities for students to complete in the module. As they go, the module shows their progress and indicates what they have left to do, helping them to manage their overall course workload. 

Student View of module shows checkmarks on completed items and empty circles on uncompleted items

As you can see, using Requirements allows you to essentially turn each module into a dynamic to-do list for students, one that responds to what they have done. It also allows students to miss items but have a clear visual indicator of what they should go back to complete. 

One caveat to Requirements is that you should use them with Prerequisites cautiously. If you set Requirements on a module, then set that module as a Prerequisite for a later module, this can potentially lock students out of the later module. This is helpful if you absolutely want students to do something before a module being available. Not all students, though, follow the same path through the course, and combining Requirements and Prerequisites can cause frustration for students who don’t follow the path you’ve laid out exactly. 

Quick Recap 

Hopefully you’ve got some great ideas about how to help students manage the course workload in your class. Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve covered: 

  • Use “Add to student to-do” to give students an important nudge to complete ungraded items, such as Pages and ungraded Discussion Boards. 
  • Use “Prerequisites” under Module > Edit to lock a particular module until students have completed previous modules. 
  • Use “Requirements” under Module > Edit to turn a module into a dynamic to-do list that responds to students’ actions based on your configurations. 

How could you use Student To-Do and Module Prerequisites and Requirements to help your students manage the course workload in your class? Weigh in below in the comments!


Davidson, Cathy N. “Quantity Is Not Rigor.” Inside Higher Ed, May 13, 2020. 

Son, Changwon, Sudeep Hegde, Alec Smith, Xiaomei Wang, and Farzan Sasangohar. “Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study.” Journal of Medical Internet Research 22, no. 9 (2020): e21279,

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  • Eva Grouling Snider

    Eva joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in 2021. Previously, she taught professional writing courses in the English Department, including graphic design and web development. She launched Jacket Copy Creative (now known as Compass Creative), an immersive learning course in which students helped market the English Department (and now the entire College of Sciences and Humanities). She also served as a director of advertising at a social media advertising agency in Muncie. Her interests include UDL, digital accessibility, and design. She’s often busy “hacking” Canvas to do cool things.