Teaching at Pitt: Fostering student well-being in the Canvas learning environment | University Times


The COVID-19 pandemic brought massive shifts to instructional practices in colleges and universities across the country, and Pitt was no exception. The 18-month shift to online learning 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 in a time when in-person contact was not possible.

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

Pre-pandemic many in academia felt that online learning did not provide the same benefits or support as traditional face-to-face learning. However, throughout the pandemic, many in our academic community found that the online learning environment could be a place of community, connection and support. Research continues to be published on the importance of considering emotional well-being in supporting student learning (Kim et al, 2021, Zandvliet et al, 2019).

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

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

1.     Utilizing a Transparent Course Design

2.     Encouraging Connection and Presence

3.     Connecting Students to Institutional Resources

4.     Considering All Needs


Actions instructors can take to support student well-being

Offer simplified course design (theme 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

  • Post course policies in the syllabus and link to them

Offer consistent communication (2)

  • Weekly announcements or videos

  • Mid-semester or post-assignment/exam announcements

  • Consistent response to discussions

Include  informal opportunities for connection thru live online sessions or on a discussion board (2)

Provide clear guidance on assignments (1)

Consider needs in grading policy (1, 4)

  • Transparency and ease of grading through rubrics

  • Grace periods or tokens on assignments

  • Involve students in assignment guideline creation

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

Peer-to-peer activities and assignments (2)

Design with access and accessibility in mind (4)

Be explicit in offering well-being practices (2)

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

Take Advantage of Teaching Center Resources: Canvas @ Pitt – Resources. (1, 2, 3, 4)


1. Utilizing a Transparent Course Design

Providing a transparent and consistent course structure empowers students to navigate both the structure and content in predictable ways (Villalobos & Jessup, 2021). The online environment is multi-layered and complex, navigation relies on the structure of your course and student interaction. If students know where to find what they need to be successful and the why behind an assignment and how it will support their overall success, they will be motivated to engage with it.

Be clear in why you are offering an assignment and encourage student choice to boost motivation. A dependable structure in each module will signify to students what to expect, and students can then predict how to navigate. Additionally, be clear to students about how you will be assessing them through a straightforward grading schema and be consistent throughout your course. 

2. Encouraging Connection and Presence

Instructors can support student well-being by fostering community and connection across their courses (Kim, et al, 2021). Interactivity is important to students and instructors alike and supporting connection allows students to sense that they matter in the academic environment (Schwartz, 2019). With practices such as audio or video introductions by both instructors and students and the availability of prerecorded lectures or end-of-unit overviews, instructors can humanize their learning spaces, promoting dialogue and connection. We can 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 classroom community and cohesion. Encouraging the creation of a learner profile allows students identities to be present and a chance to get to know their fellow peers. Consider offering unstructured writing or study sessions in which students can meet virtually. Discussion boards where students post images of their happiest moment that week or their pets can offer chances for students to connect in informal ways.  

3. Connecting Students to Institutional Resources

Students’ well-being is increased when they are connected to and have knowledge 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 engage with the variety of wellness activities Pitt offers and have students reflect on their experience through writing or a discussion board. 

By reflecting on each step of an assignment including how to navigate the online Canvas environment, instructors can coordinate resources for students to be successful. Consider if students have access to the software needed (do they know where to get that access), do they have a reliable device, do they have high-speed internet? Do they know how to use the software needed? It may be helpful to survey students (perhaps anonymously) to see what their needs are. Students may also need resources specifically connected to well-being, including the Office of Disability Resources and Services and the University Counseling Center.

4. Considering All Needs

To ensure you are supporting all your students, consider the variety of students and situations in your courses. Here at Pitt, you will teach a wide range of students with different backgrounds, mental health and medical conditions, living situations, financial considerations, and family lives, etc. As you build your course, weave in options to cater to different students’ needs. It is helpful to include a variety of sources and content creators, make information available to students in multiple ways (including captions and transcripts, for example), and to use the UDOIT accessibility checker. 

However, all of these considerations do not work if you are not also designing with your own needs in mind as well as students’ needs. 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 the experience of increased effectiveness in your teaching (Lucas, et al., 2021). 

As we learned over the pandemic, supporting students and faculty is not only necessary but also very possible in online learning environments. Integrating supports in the online environment benefit all, in that these reinforcements provide opportunities for increased engagement, and stronger peer-to-peer and faculty-student connections. When we are intentional in our course design, considering transparency and accessibility, providing opportunities for connection and presence and connecting students to resources, our online environments can be a space that bolsters 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, at Pitt, in particular. The Teaching Center is here to support you in implementing these methods.

Additional resources

Lex Drozd is a senior instructional designer and Christina Frasher is a 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, D. K., Ha, S., Carroll, S., … & Kim, J. (2021). Formative education online: Teaching the whole person during the global COVID-19 pandemic. AERA Open, 7, 23328584211015229

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

Schwartz, H. L. (2019). Connected teaching: Relationship, power, and mattering in higher education. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

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

Zandvliet, D. B., 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). Innovative Higher   Education, 44(4), 283-297.

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