Making the most of teaching online: Adaptive release

When moving from in-person to online teaching, you may have lost some instructional options you would normally use to help your students learn, but as you become more familiar with the different features available in Canvas and other tech tools, you may find that you’ve gained some useful options as well.

The book Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and James M. Lang is packed with practical advice for successful remote teaching, and the e-book is available through FSU’s libraries. In the second chapter, the authors explain that releasing content strategically is an option in the online environment that can be used to ensure that students complete tasks in an order that best facilitates their learning. In fact, Darby cites a study that showed students in an online course that used adaptive release earned better grades than a control group.

For tips on how to use adaptive release in Canvas, check out this support guide. There are various ways you might use this feature. If students read an article or watch a video, they could need to pass a quiz with a certain score in order to unlock the next activity or module. Or students might be asked to summarize what they learned (and what they still have questions about) from one module in order to unlock the next one. Because of the way adaptive release works, these kinds of assignments don’t necessarily have to be graded, either. Darby explains:

You can assign points for these conditional assignments and quizzes, or you can choose not to count them toward the grade. If they are set so that students must submit a task, these activities don’t necessarily have to be graded. Noted educator and author José Bowen often makes the point that the tennis net doesn’t grade your swing…he discussed the importance of this kind of non-evaluative feedback that a tennis net provides. The net doesn’t assign points based on your performance. It provides feedback. Either your ball sails over it or the ball hits the net and bounces back to you…You can use [adaptive] release to achieve the same purpose.

“Don’t overdo this,” Darby warns, though. “You could create frustration if students have to jump through this hoop (as they might see it) too many times before being able to proceed with the course.” So it’s important to determine the best use of this tool in your particular course. Here are a few more options that seem quite useful to us:

  1. Do students sometimes struggle to understand the instructions or expectations for major projects in the course? You can post a detailed project description and ask students to read and respond to it in order to unlock the rest of the module. In text, audio, or video (their choice), they can describe, in their own words, what they think they are being asked to do (the task), what they think they might learn from doing it (the purpose), and what a successful project might look like (the criteria). Completing such an assignment will help students to focus more on understanding the instructions, and reading or listening to their responses might be very illuminating for you, too. You may find some common points of confusion that you can clear up before students get started on their work, or even improve the project description for the future.
  2. Do you spend a lot of time providing feedback that your students don’t seem to use? You can create an assignment that asks students to read and respond to your feedback on their work before they move to the next part of the course. In text, audio, or video (their choice), they can describe, in their own words, what your feedback was, how it compares to their own assessment of their work, and how they can use your feedback to improve their work in a revision or in the next assignment. Again, reviewing their responses will give you an interesting window into what they’re getting from your feedback.
  3. Do you wish students would use their exams as a learning opportunity instead of focusing only on their grade? You could ask them to complete an exam wrapper after each exam in order to unlock the next section of the course. Exam wrappers are assignments that help students to learn from their errors and reflect on the effectiveness of their study strategies. To learn more about exam wrappers, you can check out our tip on that topic.

If you would like to schedule a consultation to brainstorm a few strategic ways of using adaptive release to improve students’ success in your courses, please email us at We look forward to working with you!