Well-taught, well-designed courses can allow students to get to know each other and their instructors even better. Interaction is the key because online communication focuses less—or not at all–on body language and tone of voice.

Communication tips for an inclusive classroom

  • Share your communication response plans in advance. Clarify your anticipated response times and weekend availability for questions to promote a healthy work/life balance. For example, you plan to check emails twice daily [minimum] to respond within a certain time parameter and when on the weekend before a project/exam. Also, let them know which tool you prefer (e.g., email, Canvas Inbox, etc.).
  • Help students plan. Post due dates for the entire semester on day one and show students the location in Canvas and your syllabus. Lack of pacing and direction is counterproductive.
  • Body language and social cues. Recognize that students may have difficulty interpreting sarcasm, idioms, and body language because they interpret information very literally. If using these types of communication modes, reframe the information by using an alternative, more literal (whenever possible), type of explanation.
  • Reinforce directions. Present information in multiple ways to support and enhance student comprehension. If you explain a task verbally, provide students with text-based communication (e.g., outline, slide(s) in PowerPoint, Canvas, handout, etc.). If you share directions in text format, consider creating a brief video (with captions) walking through the steps.

Effective communication steps

Effective instructors leverage precise, frequent messaging, and thoughtful planning. Ongoing instructor availability for timely questions is vital. Instructors must stay engaged daily to keep students progressing and adding value to each other.

  • Introductions. Please introduce yourself to your students and encourage them to get started on their studies. Create introductory Discussions with detailed question prompts to break the ice and help students connect personally. For example: “Please introduce yourself to your classmates. Include your name and why you are taking this class. You may also choose to include your major, interests, hobbies, photos, and something fun or memorable to help people get to know you. (Approximately 5-10 sentences.) As you reply to your classmates’ posts, ask questions, look for interesting details, and keep your upcoming group projects in mind.
  • Promote the ISU Principles of Community, use the Netiquette at ISU page.
  • Share a communication example. Explain how students should communicate with you and give them an example communication or a brief guide to read (e.g., How to Email a Professor guide).
  • Include using Canvas at ISU success steps (notifications, profile, assignment submissions, and system requirements.) Include an email requirement for immediate student questions or comments as the instructor.
  • Don’t assume students are on email all the time. Establish shared expectations about when and where students should check for announcements or other communications. Let them know if you are using the Canvas Inbox tool since they may need to update their notification preferences.
  • Be specific when revisions are needed. If your requirements are strict, then assignment instructions and rubrics must match that precision. If your instructions are loose and flexible, your grading should reflect this style of teaching.
  • Reduce chance for error or misinterpretation of information. Write detailed instructions for the least tech-savvy students. Include info links, definitions of terminology, and expectations of writing length. Include links to specific Canvas Guides for Students in your assignment instructions for those who need step-by-step tutorials.
  • Share examples of success. Before each project, curate multiple successful examples of completed assignments for students to emulate and surpass. Varied assignment examples will invite more in-depth learning inferences and creative thinking. For guidance, use the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) in Higher Education website.
  • Use Rubrics. Students will know where to spend their energy on assignments and have fewer complaints or questions. Rubrics help instructors give consistent, fast feedback without writing the same comments again and again. Learn more from the Interactive Feedback page.
  • Request early student feedback. Approximately week 2-3 in a semester—to gather student feedback on the course design, not the instructor! Minor course adjustments and clarifications can create significant attitude improvements and student success. Use the Plus/Delta Feedback and Critical Incident Questionnaire page along with the Quiz tool for a required survey, grading only the student’s participation and not the answers.
  • Reward Curiosity. Make your ePortfolio assignments the most memorable, impactful part of your course. (Research topics: Project-Based LearningBackwards Design, and High Impact Teaching Practices.)
  • Be flexible. Keep assignment settings unlocked wherever possible so that students can look ahead.
  • Reward Persistence. Ease student anxiety by using low-stakes quiz settings that allow multiple attempts to raise grades. Allow students to submit major writing assignments to after feedback and revisions.
  • Reward Contributions. Create opportunities for students to locate and share content in course Discussions.
  • Help students create their tools for life and work. Students can create proud evidence of what they have learned in the form of research papers, meaningful projects, and creative ePortfolio artifacts.
  • Keep feedback positive and encouraging, wherever possible, use the Interactive Feedback page
  • Be human. Use a conversational style in your Announcements and assignment directions that balances professionalism and friendliness. The written format is automatically more cold sounding, so account for this in your writing.

Canvas has two ways in which you can communicate with your students. At the course level, there is “Announcements”, and at the global level, there is “Conversations” also known as “Inbox”.


With announcements, you can create messages that will be visible to all of your students and remain on your course site.  If individual students have notifications for announcements turned on, they will also receive an email notification with the announcement. This setting is turned on by default.

Below are a list of a few use cases as examples:

  • Example 1: If you have to update a reading and want to give the students the link when they log into your course.
  • Example 2: Changes to a due date to class schedule.
  • Example 3: Clarification of a course-related issue (i.e. content-related or system related).

For more information on Announcements:

Conversations (Inbox)

Conversations (Inbox) can be used as an in-Canvas email system. Inbox is a messaging tool used instead of email to communicate with a course, a group, or an individual student. You can communicate with other people in your course at any time. Unlike announcements, the inbox tool allows you to talk back and forth with the people you are communicating with. Although you have one inbox for all your courses, you can filter by course and by section.
  • Note: You can only send messages to individuals who are enrolled in the same course as you.
  • Note: In order to receive a copy of the conversations you send out to students, your notifications settings will need to have “Conversations Created By Me” turned on.

Below are a list of a few use cases as examples:

  • Example 1: If you need to email a specific section or student within the course.
  • Example 2: If you would like to view and reply to assignment submission comments.

For more information on Inbox (Conversations):

Gradebook: Message Students Who…

You can use the Gradebook to send messages to your students using the Message Students Who option. For example, you can message students with specific characteristics (such as those who haven’t turned in a particular assignment). You may also message students individually in the Gradebook by using the student context card.

Other tools for communicating with your students

Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA)

One-on-one communications between students and their instructors and/or advisers can be particularly challenging in a virtual environment. It is imperative that Instructors follow all Federal Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) guidance on the Registrar’s Policies website.

In particular, review and bookmark the Sharing Sensitive Student Info-FERPA page. This page outlines which software may be used to communicate private information.

Communication Instructional Strategies, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Communication Instructional Strategies, is a derivative of Sweeten, R. (2019, December 5). Being There: Basic Strategies for Online Teaching Presence in Canvas LMS* Part I (retrieved on May 4, 2020) from