Gaming the System – Part 1: Making It All Add Up

At the Information School (iSchool) at the University of Washington we have been using the Canvas Learning Management System by Instructure since 2011. Recently a number of faculty members mentioned that they would like to “gamify” their courses. This is the first of two posts that talk about what I have learned over the last few weeks in regards to adding some simple game elements to Canvas courses.

We are looking at the game elements of choice, points, and levels as a method of motivating students to engage more in a course. I should note that for this project we are looking at ways we can use existing tools and processes native to the Canvas environment. We may also look at other game elements like leader boards and badges but these require some kind of external intervention in order for them to work.

This post focuses on a request from a faculty member interested in using a series of required assignments alongside a series of optional assignments, choice, to allow students to explore the content that is most interesting and relevant to them in their personal studies. I was asked to find a way to have the gradebook show student progress as points, showing current points out of the total possible for the course. Normally, Canvas only shows student scores as a percentage of the assignments submitted and not of the course total. So if only four assignments have been submitted, Canvas will calculate a grade based only on the scores attained on those 4 assignments. Using the four assignments just mentioned, we were looking for a way to have Canvas show the points earned from these 4 assignments and then show those points in relationship to the total possible points for the entire course.

Getting the total score column to show as points was the easy part. Go into your gradebook, find the total column and click on the small down arrow in the lower right of the total column header. I should note that there won’t be a small drop down arrow until you mouse over the header in the total column. After you click on the small arrow you will see the menu in figure 1.


To convert the total scores to points just click the “Switch to points” option. You can also use this menu to move the total column to the front of the gradebook. It should be noted that moving the total column to the front of the gradebook doesn’t affect the student view at all.

Unfortunately, when I tried this out in my demo course I didn’t have the option of switching to points. After a short period of research I found that you can’t use points in the total column if you have ticked the “Weight final grade based on groups” option. This option can be found on the assignments page by clicking the gear icon at the top of the page, figure 2:

or by accessing this same setting from the gradebook page by clicking on the gear icon at the top right of the page and selecting the “Set group weights” option, figure 3.


Awesome, I now have a grade book that shows students scores as points! This was great until I realized that Canvas will still only calculate the grades based on currently submitted assignments and not the overall total for the course. The reason for this is in the way Canvas deals with ungraded assignments, those with a “–“ in the score box. Ungraded assignments are not counted towards a final grade in any way and their “points” won’t ever be a part of the total points until a student has a score for that assignment. There are a couple of ways around this, one to manually create a list of the points required to attain a certain level and post it on a wiki or syllabus page and let Canvas calculate grades in the normal way. The second option is to get Canvas to do as much as possible automatically. We really wanted something like the second option.

The only way to get the results I was looking for was to assign a score of “0” to every assignment for every student. There are two ways to accomplish this task, both of which can be a bit time consuming. The first way is best if you only have a few students in your course and can be done relatively quickly. In this method, go into the gradebook and click in the first cell of the first assignment for the first student until you see something like figure 4. figure04
Once you get this image, press the zero key and then press the tab key. Repeat the “tab” “zero” process until you get to the end of the row. Do the same for each student. I did this in a course that had six students and 37 assignments and it took less than a minute to complete. If you have a lot of students and a fair number of assignments, method two, Set Default Grade, will be a bit faster. To use the “Set Default Grade” option go to your gradebook and mouse over the column header for each assignment. As soon as you mouse over the header a small triangle appears, click on the triangle to get a menu of options. From this resulting list click the “Set Default Grade” option as shown in figure 5.


Once you select the “Set Default Grade” option you will see the popup in figure 6.


Assign a grade of “0” in the grade value box and then tick the box if you want to overwrite existing grades and then click the “Set Default Grade” button. Now all scores for the assignment are set at zero. Do this for all assignments in the course.

Your course will now be configured to show students their grades in points out of total points possible. Figure 7 shows a screenshot of the gradebook now that things are configured. Figure 8 shows what a student will see on their grades screen.figure07


I should note that both instructor and student will see the percentage form of the grade if they mouse over the scores. For students, the scores show up at the bottom of their grade page and in the top right corner. The percentage only shows when they mouse over the score at the bottom of the page.

This ends part one and I hope you found it useful. Stay tuned for part two, “Leveling Up.”

Gaming the System – Part 2: “Leveling Up”

Welcome back to part two of Gaming the System! So you have your Canvas course showing student grades as points out of the course total. What next? One of the most popular game elements used to motivate players is “leveling up.” Players work their way through a game and at certain points along the way they complete a task that allows them to ascend to the next level. As I looked at designing game elements using Canvas I wanted to find an easy way to automatically signify when a student reached a new level in the course.

As I thought about the “leveling up” concept it occurred to me that I might be able to use a “grading scheme” to automatically assign a level to students when they attained a certain number of points in the course. With this in mind I started looking into what I could actually do with a grading scheme. I learned that setting things up can be a bit tricky if you are using choice as one of your gaming elements. Because students can pick and choose from a menu of optional assignments, the first thing I had to do was decide how many points out of the total possible would be required to get an A, or in the case of the University of Washington, a 4.0.

After deciding how many points is required to get the 4.0 I now had to convert all point scores into percentages so I could build a grading scheme that reflects the desired grades. The professor that I was working with set up the course so that the total points possible is 249. After a great deal of thought it was determined that in order for a student to attain a 4.0 they must receive a minimum of 140 points or 56% of the total possible. Based on this number I could now put together a grade scale. Because this course is a graduate level course, students get no credit below a 2.0 so I needed to put a scale together that goes from a 2.0 to a 4.0. The table below shows this scale as it sits at this point in the process:












































































You will notice that this scale has four 4.0 grades. The thinking here is related to the question regarding competition in the course. Will those students that are highly motivated through achievement type game elements, go above and beyond the first requirement for a 4.0 just to attain the highest level? Now I must be clear, I have not had a conversation with the faculty member about this kind of scenario and am just tossing it in here for the sake of discussion.

For those that haven’t played with grading schemes in Canvas, you can create and assign a grading scheme for the course and whatever you assign as the grade will show up in the gradebook after the total points or percentage accumulated, depending on which way you choose to show grades in the final grades column. So as an example, if Frank earns 95 points the total column in the gradebook would show “95 3.6” indicating that he received 95 points which equates to a 3.6 grade on a 4.0 grading scale. Read more about grading schemes on the Canvas Community site at:

Now for the fun part! When creating a grading scheme in Canvas you don’t have to just use numbers in the grade column. You can also add text to this field too! This opens up the door to the use of word based levels within your course. So you could use level names from your favorite game or create level names appropriate to your course. Taking the example of Frank from above, Frank’s grade could now show up as “95 3.6 | Titan” or could just show up as “Titan”. You can use whatever format you like but if you just put the text based grade you will want a page that lists the numerical or letter grade equivalents. An example of a level based grading scheme can be seen in the figure 9.


You can see an example of what the teacher will see in the gradebook in figure 10 and an example of what a student will see in figure 11.



In figure 10 you will notice that the final grade column doesn’t display correctly when using longer grade names. As far as I know this is a bug in Canvas and I have submitted a bug report to get it fixed.

There are lots of variations in the way you could configure the grade scheme. You could use fewer levels and only create a text based level every third or fourth row in the chart, leaving only the number or letter grade on the other rows. It’s only limited by your creativity.

To end this post, I should say that if you are interested in using badges in your course you can install the Canvabadges LTI integration and create badges that will align with your levels or create badges for specific accomplishments. If you do decide you want to use Canvabadges and have those badges show up on student profile pages you will have to have your institution’s Canvas administrator add some javascript to your main account’s javascript file.

Hopefully you found this post helpful.

MOOC Overload!

This week I started a MOOC called “Hybrid Courses: Best of Both Worlds” on the Canvas Network ( There are approximately 900 learners in this MOOC and many have already started to feel overwhelmed by the vast number of posts in the first discussion, many of them videos. Having been a Canvas administrator and helped design and support courses in Canvas for the past two years I thought I would toss up a quick post describing how I manage the volume of posts on a daily basis.

The first thing I do when I get to a large discussion is to click the “Collapse Replies” button at the top of the page. It looks like this: By clicking this button I can see a listing of all posts that reply directly to the original topic. Any threaded conversations around a single comment are collapsed within the original reply. Now I can meander down the list reading the first line of each reply and if something piques my interest and can click on the blue down arrow in the center of the white box containing the post. Now you won’t see this arrow until you mouse over the top center of the box containing the post you want to read. Click the “Expand replies” button, , to show all of the posts in full detail.

Before I begin reading though, I want to know how many new posts have been added since my last visit. This is easily done my finding the unread/read icon, , at the top right of the discussion page. The number in blue tells me how many unread posts there are and the number in grey tells me how many total posts there are. Now, if I use the “Collapse Replies” button mentioned above, each original reply will also have the unread/read icon out to the side indicating how many comments there inside that reply. Now it is easy to see which replies to the original post are generating conversations.

Now, how do I know which posts are read and unread? Well, when you look at a post that is expanded, all replies and comments will have a dot just to the left of the poster’s avatar. A grey dot signifies that the post has been read and a blue dot signifies that it is unread. See the pic below for an example:


Now, I have to remember that when I am in expanded mode and I can see all comments on a post, the blue dots will automatically turn to grey a couple of seconds after they appear on my computer screen, whether I have actually read them or not. All is not lost though, I can mouse over a dot and if it is grey I am given the option to mark it as unread, or if it is blue I can mark it read, .


So what if I only want to read any unread posts? That is easy, all I do is click the Unread button at the top of the discussion. Clicking this button only shows you unread posts. Note that they are not presented in any context so you have to dig deeper to find out which post they refer to. This is easy to do by clicking the “View in discussion” link at the bottom of the post. This will reload your page and take you to the place in the discussion where this post originated. What is nice about the unread posts button is that the posts don’t automatically get marked read when they appear on your screen. You just click the dot like the images above.

The last way to look at comments/replies is to use the search option. You can search by a persons name or by keywords. The results start to return as soon as you start typing! Once again, the search results are out of context so if you want to know where they came from you have to use the “View in discussion” link at the bottom of the post.

There is one more thing that I do that isn’t obvious given the way the discussion boards are configured in this course. On the list of discussions page, there is a setting that you can use that will make it so that you have to manually mark each post as read. This setting is global for the course and impacts all discussions from what I can tell. I access this setting by clicking on the gear icon, , at the top of the discussions list page. After clicking the icon, tick the box that says “Manually mark posts as read” and then click the “Save settings” button. Now I have to manually mark posts as read 🙂 You may ask, “how do I access this page in this course?” That is easily done by entering a discussion and then look at the navigation bar just below the top menus for the site. In this navigation bar you will see the current discussion as the last item in the list and the word “Discussions” just to the left. Click on “Discussions” and you will be taken to the list of discussions for the entire course. Now you too can set your global discussion settings if you like.

I hope this little post helps in managing the volumes of information presented so far in this MOOC! If you have any comments please add them to my blog!

Canvas Assignment Groups and Weighted Grading

Updated on 11/2/2014 to reflect the interface changes made to Canvas since the original publish date of this post.

We just finished the fall term grading period here at the iSchool and are headed into Winter quarter. The majority of faculty used the Canvas Learning Management System for the first time. As I poked around the various courses I noticed that many of the instructors weren’t using the weighted grading option within the Canvas assignments area. I saw some really interesting ways for folks to get their total grades to add up to 100, be it points or percentages.

With this post I hope to show instructors how they can use the weighted grades setting to simplify the grade calculation process. So to get started you need to actually turn on the weighted grading function. To do this, login to Canvas, select a course, and then click on the “Assignment” option in the left menu. At the top of this page click on the “Assignment Settings” icon, settingsgearicon, in the right, upper corner of the assignment pane and tick the box next to the “Weight final grade based on assignment groups” option and click “Save” . Now the fun begins.

 The next step is to categorize your graded activities into “Assignment Groups.” Assignment groups are similar types of assignments like all of the quizzes, projects or graded discussions. By adding similar activities to an assignment group you can easily give each group a percentage of the total grade. To create a new Assignment Group just click on the “Add assignment group” button, assignmentgroupbutton, at the top of the assignment pane . Give the new group a name and assign it a percentage of the total grade. Note: You can change these percentages at any time after you have created your assignment groups. For the purposes of this post lets use the following assignment groups:

  • Assignments – 20%

  • Discussions – 10%

  • Final Project – 20%

  • Group Project – 15%

  • Quizzes – 15%

  • Tests – 20%

 Make sure your percentages add up to 100.

In this scenario let’s say we have a weekly assignment that is always worth the same amount of points. In this case we can just assign the same value to each assignment and Canvas will calculate the total for assignments and then extrapolate that total to no more than 20% of the final grade. Discussions will work the same way. One discussion each week, each worth the same amount with the total extrapolated to a maximum of 10% of the final grade.

In the case of the final project and the group project, each of these assignment groups will only have a single activity associated with them. This is a great way to deal with a single assignment/activity that is worth a large percentage of the final grade.

Quizzes will be just like assignments and discussions except there will be a quiz every day and Canvas will make sure that the total score for all quizzes equates to no more than 15% of the final grade.

For the tests assignment group, we are going to mix it up a bit. In this course there will be three exams, two worth 50 points and one worth 100 points. By configuring the tests this way we can actually do some weighting within an assignment group but still ensure that tests will equate to no more than 20% of the final grade.

Okay, now we have all of our activities organized and we know how much each assignment group will contribute to the final grade. Let’s login to Canvas and setup our course with the assignment groups we created above. Once we are logged in and have selected a course:

  1. click on the “Assignments” link in the left navigation menu.

  2. Make sure that the “Weight the final grade based on assignment groups” box is checked. This box is found after you click on the “Assignments Settings” icon, settingsgearicon.

  3. Click the “Add Assignment Group” button, assignmentgroupbutton, at the top of the Assignment pane.

  4. Type “Assignments” in the Group Name box, type 20 in the “% of total grade” box and click the “Save” button at the bottom of the window.

  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the other assignment groups identified earlier.

  6. Now, if you have already created your activities for your course, just move your mouse to the left of the assignment name and drag it to the appropriate place on the screen. If you haven’t created your assignments yet, move your mouse over the title bar of an assignment group and click the plus sign that appears on the right side to create a new assignment in that group. Note: this post won’t cover how to create the different types of assignments.

You have now created your assignment groups and have added assignments to those groups. If you want to see a clean view of the settings you have just created or make adjustments to your category percentages, click the “Assignments Settings” icon, settingsgearicon, to view the window below that allows you to edit your settings.


Hopefully this helps as you become more familiar with the Canvas LMS. Please leave a comment if you have questions or want to point out something I missed.