Defining Features Matrix in Large Courses (online)

Using Defining Features Matrix activity to facilitate critical thinking in large online courses
Time and Effort
Instructor Prep Time Medium
Student Activity Time Low
Instructor Response Time Low
Complexity of Activity Medium


Defining Features Matrix requires students to categorize concepts according to the presence (+) or absence (–) of critical defining features. This activity helps students develop conceptual and organizational skills and data on their analytic reading and thinking skills. In large courses (150 +), it can be difficult to facilitate active learning. This document walks you through planning and implementing this approach in your large course.


Use it when you want...

  • To help students develop their skills in organizing information based on a given set of critical defining features,
  • To assess how well students can distinguish between apparently similar concepts or
  • To help students identify, define, and explicitly distinguish between related ideas.

What students will need


The following workflow is meant to guide you on how you can facilitate a Defining Features learning activity in a large course within an online learning environment.


  • Focus on two or three concepts that are similar enough to challenge or confuse students. Determine which features of these concepts are most critical for students to recognize or understand.
  • Create a template of the Defining Features Matrix activity in Google Docs.
  • Make a list of defining features each concept possesses or does not possess. After drawing up the list, add a limited number of shared features.
  • Create a table with features listed down the left side and concepts across the top.
  • Set up a Canvas Group Space.
  • Set up a Canvas Collaborations space for the activity.
  • Create a Canvas Assignment for submission of collaborative work.

Creating a Group Set in Canvas

  • Select People from the course navigation.
  • Select + Group Set for the assignment(s) you will create.
  • Provide a descriptive name in the Group Set Name box (ex. Defining Features). Note: For large classes, consider creating just one collaborative Group Set you use for the entire semester instead of creating an assignment-specific group set (ex. Group Set Name: Collaboration Space instead of Defining Features).
  • In the Group Structure section, select the Split students into ___ groups option. Enter a number that ensures there will be 10-15 students per group. (ex. 200 student class 18-20 groups). 
  • Select Save.

Setting Up a Collaborative Space (Option 1 - Instructor-Created)

This process will create a collaborative assignment with a Google Doc already created for each group. Students will see their assignments by going to the Collaborations tool in the course navigation. For large courses, however, the process can be time-consuming.
  • Select Collaborations from the course navigation.
  • Select + Collaboration.
  • Provide a name for the collaboration under Name (ex. Defining Features Assignment).
  • Provide a description and directions for the activity under Description.
  • Select + Collaboration | GoogleApps.
  • Under Group, click <Group Set Name> 1
  • Select Submit.
  • Repeat for each group you created under the Group Set. This will set up a collaborative space.

Setting Up a Collaborative Space (Option 1 - Student-Created)

This process will have students create their own collaborative documents and assign rights. Students will not see anything when they go to the Collaboration tool. They will access the document through their Canvas Group tool in the sidebar navigation for Canvas.

  • Direct students to enter their group space. Direct one student in the group to follow these steps:
    • Select Collaborations from the course navigation.
    • Select + Collaborations | GoogleApps.
    • Select Document from the Kind menu.
    • Enter a name for the document in the Name box.
    • Enter a description of the document in the Description box.
    • Select each group member's name to add them to the Google Doc.
    • Select Submit.
  • Students in the group will find the document listed on their Group Homepage under Collaborations.

Creating a Group Assignment in Canvas

  • Select Assignments from the course navigation.
  • Select + Assignment.
  • Provide a name and description. Include the following steps for submitting the document:
    • Select Submit Assignment.
    • Select Google Drive for the document source.
    • Locate the collaborative document and add it.
    • Select Submit Assignment.
  • Under Points, specify the number of points the assignment is worth.
  • Under Submission Type, select File Uploads.
  • Under Submission Attempts, select Unlimited.
  • Under Group Assignment, select This is a Group Assignment. Select the Group Set you created for this assignment. (ex. Defining Features).
  • Under Due, specify the date/time for completing the assignment.
  • Under Available from, specify the date/time the assignment will be opened/visible to students.
  • Under Until, specify the date/time the assignment will no longer be opened/visible to students.


  • Direct students to Collaborations on the course navigation. They will find their collaborative assignment. Clicking the name of the assignment will bring them to their shared Google Docs. Note: They may need to authorize the Google Docs integration if they haven't done so before. If students are logged into Google Docs using their personal accounts, they will need to log off and repeat these steps.
  • Direct students to your read-only version of your Google Doc.
  • Students can copy and paste the template into their own shared documents.
  • Have students place a + or - or a Yes or No in each cell of the table.
    • For a synchronous activity, students can use the Chat feature to communicate.
    • Students can place their initials next to their + or - entries for an asynchronous activity. The group can use the comments to reach a consensus on each item's final designation.
  • Direct students to Assignments in the course navigation to submit the document.


  • Review grids.
  • Provide feedback/grades based on the quality of the grids.
  • Discuss the results of the activity at the next class meeting.

Access and Accessibility Considerations

  • Some students might not have the network bandwidth to participate in synchronous sessions. Please make sure students turn off their cameras to reduce bandwidth. Students can also use the dial-in phone connection for audio instead of their network connection.
  • The technologies recommended here should meet most campus accessibility requirements. However, you should check with the McBurney Disability Resources Center for guidance on any specific accommodations for your students.

Technical Documentation


Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: a Handbook for College Teachers. Jossey-Bass, 1993. pp. 164-167.

Keywordsdefining features, active learning, large courses, online, analysis, critical thinkingDoc ID103584
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2020-07-02 16:27:48Updated2024-04-24 10:37:19
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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