When students come to university, they don’t just learn new knowledge and skills. They also learn a new language to describe and explain what they are learning about. And this doesn’t just apply to international students – all students must learn a new way of using English within their discipline. 

So what can you do to make the language you use more accessible? And how can you effectively communicate instructions, assessment guidelines and your subject content while avoiding the distraction of unnecessarily complex language? To assist in tackling these issues, the LX Team have compiled a handy guide: Making Your Canvas Site Clear to all Students.

What is the guide? 

This guide is basically a list of tips to help you ensure that when you work with your colleagues to put together your subject sites, you’ll be giving your students the best opportunity to focus on their learning. It includes rules for using clear language, structuring your Canvas pages clearly, introducing discipline specific vocabulary, making course expectations and assignment requirements clear, and using multimodal resources. But before you dive into the details, here are four tips from the guide to get you thinking about language and the impact it can have on students’ learning. 

1. Avoid multi-word verbs 

Ever wanted your students to draw on their knowledge in order to come up with a solution to a problem? Or perhaps you wanted them to work an answer out? Well, ‘draw on’, ‘come up with’, and ‘work out’ are multi-word verbs – and they’re really difficult for non-expert English users to understand. Does ‘draw on’ require artistic talent? ‘Use’ would be a better choice. Are you asking me to ‘come up with’ you to a higher level of the building? ‘Find’ would work just as well here. And what about ‘work out’? It could be ‘work the answer out’ or ‘work out the answer’, but it’s always ‘work it out’. Confused? Your international students probably will be. So avoid multi-word verbs altogether – that’s the best way to solve this problem.  

2. Highlight specialist, technical and abstract vocabulary in bold text 

Every discipline has its ‘power words’ – vocabulary that, when used correctly, opens up a whole new world of meaning and knowledge. Know what ‘externality’ means? How about ‘ideational metafunction’, ‘massing’ or ‘heterotopia’? If you do, it’s most likely because you’ve studied economics, linguistics, architecture or sociology. By using these discipline-specific words correctly, students show that they are earning their right to become members of an academic community. This can be challenging for many new students as they may not be able to easily recognise the words that carry this importance. These words may simply get lost in the deluge of unfamiliar vocabulary. You can make all of your students’ lives that little bit easier by highlighting key terms as they appear on your Canvas site and in your teaching materials. 

3. Ensure there are subtitles on videos, and transcripts for audio materials 

Speech is messy. Expert users of a language speed up, slow down, change course mid-sentence, mispronounce things, emphasise some words and mumble others. The result? That great video or podcast you’ve included on your Canvas site to prepare students for their next on campus class could be, at best, difficult to understand, and at worst, incomprehensible. A simple way to make life easier for your students – and vital for students with hearing difficulties – is to make sure that you choose videos with subtitles or closed captions, and provide a transcript to accompany all of your audio materials. This will take the guesswork out of understanding the content by enabling students to read as well as listen to the learning materials you provide. They can check vocabulary without difficulty and see words in context, which will then help them to use them correctly in the future. 

4. Use consistent terms course-wide to show a subject’s structure 

One of the things that students have told us about their experiences with UTSOnline is that the names used across subjects vary wildly, and that this causes them quite a bit of confusion. Pre-class, before lecture, homework, preparation, groundwork – do these all mean the same thing? When you build your Canvas subject sites, use the suggested terminology and use the templates provided by the LX Team. That way, students will only have to learn their way around Canvas once and will have more cognitive energy to focus on subject content. 

These four tips are just a brief taste of those you’ll find in the guide. Have a read-through before building your Canvas site and, as always, feel free pop in to the LX.lab for all the learning and teaching, and tech know-how you need to create effective online content. 

Photo by Randy ORourke on Unsplash.

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