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


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about massive changes in teaching practices at colleges and universities across the country, and Pitt has been no exception. The 18-month shift to online learning taught teachers, students, administrators, and instructional designers a multitude of lessons. One of the key lessons we learned was the need for holistic student support at a time when face-to-face contact was not possible.

From these experiences came Pitt’s “Year of Emotional Wellbeing” and an opportunity to focus on supporting student wellbeing in the online learning environment. This provides a pretext for designing and delivering online courses on an as-needed basis, rather than virtual courses designed for emergencies. Below are helpful reflections and specific tips to support student well-being in your course in Canvas, the university’s learning management system.

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

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

The list below provides a practical reference for designing online courses, including the ability to revise courses with student welfare in mind. For each of these ideas, we identify the relevant issues discussed below. These interactions correspond to four areas of promoting well-being:

1. Using a transparent course design

2. Foster connection and presence

3. Connect students to institutional resources

4. consideration of all needs

Actions teachers can take to promote student well-being

Offering simplified course design (Topic 1)

  • Delete start page and “start here” for your course

Humanize course entry (2)

Offer multiple options for office hours (2, 3)

Present a predictable structure (1, 3)

  • Common components and requirements for each week or module

  • Publish and link to course policies in the syllabus

Provide consistent communication (2)

  • Weekly announcements or videos

  • Announcements in the middle of the semester or after term papers/exams

  • Consistent reaction to discussions

Contain informal ways for connecting through live online sessions or in a discussion forum (2)

Provide clear instructions on tasks (1)

Consider needs in classification policy (1, 4)

  • Transparency and easy grading through rubrics

  • Grace periods or tokens for allocations

  • Involve students in creating assignment guidelines

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

Peer to Peer Activities and Tasks (2)

Design with access and accessibility in mind (4)

Be explicit in offering wellbeing practices (2)

Include student support and student resources (Links to resources on the Oakland campus) (3)

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

1. Use of a transparent course design

Providing a transparent and consistent course structure empowers students to navigate both the structure and content in a predictable manner (Villalobos & Jessup, 2021). The online environment is multi-layered and complex, navigating it depends on the structure of your course and student interaction. When students know where to find them What You have to be successful and the why What is behind a task and how it supports their overall success will motivate them to engage with it.

Make it clear why you are offering an assignment and encourage student choice to increase motivation. A reliable structure in each module shows students what to expect, and students can then predict how to navigate. Also, make it clear to students how you will grade them using a simple grading scheme and be consistent throughout the course.

2. Promoting connection and presence

Teachers can support student well-being by fostering community and connection in their classes (Kim, et al, 2021). Interactivity is important for both students and faculty, and supporting the connection makes students feel that they matter in the academic environment (Schwartz, 2019). With practices such as audio or video introductions by both faculty and students, and the availability of recorded lectures or end-of-unit summaries, faculty can humanize their learning spaces and encourage dialogue and connection. We can also consider our tone in communication and assignment materials to instill respect and appreciation in students.

Not all assignments have to be based on course content, but can support class community and cohesion. Encouraging learner profiling allows students’ identities to be present and have the opportunity to meet their peers. Consider offering unstructured writing or study sessions where students can meet virtually. Discussion forums, where students post pictures of their happiest moments this week or their pets, can provide an opportunity for students to network in an informal way.

3. Connect students to institutional resources

Student well-being is enhanced when they are connected to and aware of institutional resources. Faculty can act as bridges between the university and its students by providing websites and contact information for Pitt’s wide variety of student affairs and student support services. Encourage students to engage in the variety of wellness activities Pitt offers and have students reflect on their experiences in writing or in a discussion forum.

By reflecting on each step of an assignment, including navigating the online canvas environment, instructors can coordinate resources for student success. Consider if the students have access to the software they need (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 required software? It can be helpful to survey students (possibly anonymously) to see what their needs are. Students may also need resources specifically related to well-being, including the University’s Disability Resources and Services Office and Counseling Center.

4. Consideration of all needs

To ensure you support all of your students, consider the diversity of students and situations in your classes. Here at Pitt, you will teach a wide range of students from a variety of backgrounds, mental health and medical issues, life situations, financial considerations and family life, etc. As you build your course, add options to meet the needs of different students. It is helpful to include a variety of sources and content creators, make information available to students in a variety of ways (e.g. including captions and transcripts), and use the UDOIT Accessibility Checker.

However, all of these considerations will not work if you do not also consider your own needs as well as the needs of the students. Not only are faculty better placed to support students when their own needs are being met, but increased well-being is possible through more engaged interactions with students and experiencing increased effectiveness of your teaching (Lucas, et al., 2021 ).

As we have learned during the pandemic, supporting students and faculty in online learning environments is not only necessary, it is very possible. Integrating support into the online environment benefits everyone, as this reinforcement provides opportunities for greater engagement and stronger peer-to-peer and faculty-student connections. When we deliberately incorporate transparency and accessibility into our course design, provide opportunities for connection and presence, and connect students with resources, our online environments can be a space that empowers everyone’s well-being. As you can see in the table above, support for students and teachers is possible in online learning in general and the canvas at Pitt in particular. The Teaching Center supports you in implementing these methods.

Additional Resources

Lex Drozd is Senior Instructional Designer and Christina Frasher is a Teaching and Learning Advisor at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.


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

Kim D, Wortham S, Borowiec K, Yatsu DK, 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 teacher interactivity in the online classroom.

Schwartz, H. L. (2019). Connected Teaching: Relationship, Power, and Meaning in Higher Education. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Villalobos, J., & Jessup, L. (2021). Adapting to distance learning during COVID-19 with transparent assignment and course 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). Innovative higher education, 44(4), 283-297.