Student Organizations & Activities uses Canvas to train 700+ student organization officers

In the winter of 2018, Northwestern Student Organizations and Activities, an office within the Division of Student Affairs, found the answer to a question that had beset them for years – how do you effectively train 700+ undergrads on the policies and procedures related to heading a student organization in a timely, organized way? At its core, the real issue is timing. That is, finding a time that’s late enough in the spring term to hold a training session so that student organizations have appointed officers for the upcoming year but also early enough so that it doesn't put a major strain on a student's schedule as they're starting to wrap up their academic obligations, is not easy. It’s also not possible to find a single evening when at least one group isn’t rehearsing, hosting an event, or already have a planned activity.

To take the burden off those who make the valiant attempt at finding a space on campus to train this many people simultaneously and also coordinate schedules, Student Affairs decided to move training for incoming officers to Northwestern’s learning management system, Canvas. This move both negates the scheduling issue while also providing an easy to update online resource that students can refer to whenever they have questions about campus policies and procedures.

Joe Lattal
I recently spoke with Joseph Lattal, assistant director of Student Organizations and Activities, about the many benefits revealed by this move.


To begin, can you give me an estimate of how many students at Northwestern are involved in extracurricular actives?

JL: The most recent survey data I've seen reports that about 90% of our undergraduate students are involved in an activity outside the classroom. That could be with a registered student organization, fraternity or sorority, in the four Social Councils, residential government, a sports club, or a varsity sport. It's tricky to calculate how many are involved precisely because many students are involved in multiple activities.

How do students currently find information about what groups are out there for them to join?  

JL: Wildcat Connection is our platform for information on student organizations – how to find them, join up, and attend events that they put on. It's a platform that centralizes many of the things groups are doing in one community space online.

Aside from trying to reconcile hundreds of individual schedules, were there any other contributing factors in moving officer training to Canvas?

JL: The activities of our 350 registered student organizations vary greatly. Some groups are really strong at transitioning their successors on what they need to know. Other times, folks who are outgoing just graduate and don't leave anything behind. They leave it up to their successor to figure out everything from the appropriate way to reserve a room on campus to how to use their student organization finance accounting to what the advertising and marketing policies are on campus.

In addition, with our previous in-person trainings, we would work with officers on the requirements for event planning; specifically, funding and contract procedures. The issue that we commonly encountered was that in most groups, different people do each of those things and we were not necessarily seeing the representative who attended the training pass along the information to the appropriate person in their group.

Using Canvas has allowed us to make sure that anyone in a group, not just the officer, has direct access to this information at any time. 

What types of things are covered in the trainings? How are they set up?

JL: Our training courses cover everything that I just mentioned, as well information on officially registering the group and resources available to them like grants and other fundraising opportunities.

Student Affair’s Canvas course on event planning

Student Affair’s Canvas course on event planning

Over the past summer quarter, we launched five separate courses all for different topics. We set them up so that groups could fill out a form and tell us which representative of their group should be completing which course. These courses launched in addition to the basic New Group Orientation module that touches on all of the topics, but a little less in-depth.

A video module on contract procedures for holding events

A video module on contract procedures for holding events

Each course uses the same approach: a training video that you can watch on your own schedule and then a quiz to show that you understood the material covered in the video. The quizzes are set up so that a student can take them as many times as they need to get 100%.

The test to verify a student understands the proper procedure

The test to verify a student understands the proper procedure


How have the students responded to the move to Canvas?

JL: It's been a smooth transition. I think the flexibility of being able to complete the modules on their own schedule has been really appreciated by the students. We made sure to boil down the content to the essentials we need groups to know. Our estimated time for a student to complete all of the courses is about an hour and a half. The in-person trainings we had previously run were scheduled for four to five hour blocks on weeknights and weekends. The time savings is significant.

The students also appreciate having an online reference point if they know they learned about a policy but cannot remember the exact action they need to take. Now, they know an easy place to find the answer.   

From the Student Affairs side, what has been the biggest benefits of this change?

JL: The immediate benefit for us has been to help track which of our 350 registered groups are still active and which ones are not. We try tirelessly to reach out to groups that we haven't heard from in a while so getting them to complete this training as a requirement is really helpful. Documenting the completion of the courses cuts down on redundant training. In addition, we can also hold groups accountable and know who specifically is responsible for the various tasks. Plus, now that all of our content is created, any time something changes, all we have to do is make the update in Canvas and we’re done.

I think all of us are happy to not have to answer the same questions over and over again. Happens a lot less frequently for our office now that we have the Canvas sites up and running.