Navigating Canvas

Navigating Canvas

Table of Contents

Canvas is the primary learning management system (LMS) at Iowa State University. It gives you the ability to quickly share course materials, provide easy-to-use tools to communicate and collaborate with students, co-instructors, and Teaching Assistants (TAs). The table of contents introduces you to the key components in your course shell.

Accessing Canvas

Canvas can be accessed through a web browser or through the Canvas Teacher or Canvas Student apps, available for both Android and iOS mobile devices. Your courses will require you and your students to log in to Canvas to access the materials. To log in to Canvas on a web browser, go to the Iowa State University homepage and click the Sign Ons link in the top-right corner of the page. Select the link for Canvas to be taken to the sign on, which requires your ISU netID and password. Canvas is compatible with pretty much all major browsers and devices, provided you have updated them. See Which browsers does Canvas support? for a specific list of browser versions that are compatible with Canvas and What are the basic computer specifications for Canvas? for minimum computer requirements. To access Canvas via mobile app, click the appropriate link below to download the app, then follow the prompts to log in with your ISU Net-ID and password. If you experience trouble logging in, you may need to reset your Net-ID password.

Web browser Canvas sign-on at Iowa State

Navigation menus

Canvas has two levels of navigation: global navigation and course navigation.

When using Canvas in a web browser, the global navigation is the red bar on the left of the screen, and the course navigation is the white column of links next to that.

The Global Navigation Menu contains links to tools that show you information for all your courses. Examples include Studio videos, Calendars, Inbox, Courses list, and Help. The Help menu is where you will find:

  • support options,
  • a link to this course called MyCanvas Teacher,
  • the Canvas Training Portal,
  • University Library resources, and
  • Global Course Administration, ISU’s tools for course creation.

The Course Navigation Menu can and should be customized to fit the needs of your course. Here are a few helpful tips to help you understand the course navigation:

  1. The visibility icon (crossed out eye) marks default Canvas items that are not visible to students, such as Assignments, Syllabus, Modules, Discussions, Files, etc.
  2. Creating content using one of these tools will enable the link for students.
  3. Links to external tools must be reconnected each semester.
  4. You can manage the course navigation by following the steps in the Canvas guide to course navigation.

Read the following Canvas guides to learn more about each of these menus:

  1. How do I use the Global Navigation Menu?
  2. How do I use the Course Navigation Menu?

Customize course navigation

Keep distraction at a minimum in your Canvas course: Your students should see a customized course menu that will allow them to quickly and easily navigate the information they need. To maximize engagement, only leave the options that are relevant and promote an organized and consistent look and feel of your course. For example, as you add Assignments to your modules, you will see that they can also be accessed by your students via the Assignments option on your course’s menu. You might prefer that your students not have access to your Assignments area as it organizes your assignments in a way that is different from your module organization. Another reason why you may prefer that your students do not have access to the Assignments area is to avoid confusing redundancy in which students can see the same assignment in two locations (in the Assignments area and in the module organization). This may be true for all of the following:
  • Assignments,
  • Quizzes,
  • Discussions,
  • Pages, and
  • Files.
Another reason to hide Files is to prevent students from accessing lecture notes, exam study guides, assignment supporting files, etc. ahead of time. To customize your course menu, see these web guides:
  1. How do I use the Course Navigation Menu as an instructor?
  2. How do I reorder and hide Course Navigation links?

Choose a course homepage

Canvas has several options for choosing the entry point to your course. They have different advantages:
  • Course Activity Stream  demonstrates important recent activities inside the course, such as announcements, discussions, dues dates, etc.
  • Pages Front Page features a customized page from your course which you designate to be the entry point.
  • Course Modules show a list of all modules inside the course.
  • Similarly, Assignment List enlists all graded activities inside the course.
  • Lastly, Syllabus allows customizing the top of the page and automatically creates a list of all course assignments on the bottom part of the page.
Syllabus is a great way to create an entry point: the upper part of the page can be simple (you can place a link to your Syllabus file there) or more developed (you can upload the course’s logo and create several links that have important course information). If you opt for a more developed upper part of the page, please remember that text and images will push down a list of course assignments – this is not a good outcome as Syllabus is designed to help your students have a quick overview of your course and keep on top of all activities. Instead, create Content Pages for the information and insert links to those pages into the upper part of the Syllabus. Review the Online Course Essentials (ONCE) and ISU Course Template to determine what will work best for your course.


Canvas is flexible to accommodate the instructor’s delivery style; however, it favors modular design, in which a course is built in smaller, discrete units. A module is an instructional package built around a concept, unit, week or another segment of instruction to guide learning. This “chunked-up” modular structure makes a Canvas course transparent, clear, and adaptable to the needs of your students. Modules can contain:
  • Content Pages
  • Assignments
  • Quizzes
  • Discussions
  • Files
  • Links to external URL
  • Links to external tools
  • Text headers
Read the following Canvas guides to learn more about Modules:
  1. What are Modules?
  2. How do I use the Modules page?
  3. How do I add a module?
Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Modules. Explore best practices, via Online Modules the Once Course Essentials (ONCE) page and Quality Matters at Iowa State page.


General communication in the course is often sent via announcements. Students may choose whether to receive email or push notifications, text messages, or no notifications when new announcements are posted. Regardless of notification preferences, new announcements will always display a red badge on the announcement icon on the course tile on the Dashboard, as shown in the example below.  You can also set your course to show the latest announcements at the top of the homepage. Read the following Canvas guides to learn more about Announcements:
  1. What are Announcements?
  2. How do I use the Announcements page?
  3. How do I add an announcement?
  4. How do I show recent announcements in the Course Home Page?
Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Announcements. Explore best practices, review the Communications Strategies page.
Example announcement badge on a course tile


The Assignments tool in Canvas will display anything that results in a student submission, grade or activity. This includes Quizzes, graded Discussions, online submissions, and assigned tasks. Assignments can be categorized using assignment groups. Examples of assignment groups include discussions, assigned readings, practice activities, quizzes, exams, presentation projects, exams, etc. Assignment groups can be used to weight the course grade and to filter the gradebook. Read the following Canvas guides to learn more about Assignments:
  1. What are Assignments?
  2. How do I use the Assignments page?
  3. How do I add an assignment?
  4. How do I add an assignment group?
Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Assignments. Explore best practices, review the Assignments Strategies page.


The Quizzes tool in Canvas can be used to administer online quizzes, surveys, and exams. It includes both auto-graded question types (multiple-choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, Likert scale, matching, numerical, formula) and manually-graded question types (essay, file upload). Quizzes include settings to shuffle answers, enforce a time limit, restrict access to external resources, allow multiple attempts, and see quiz responses. Read the following Canvas guides to learn more about Quizzes:
  1. What are Quizzes?
  2. How do I use the Quizzes page?
  3. How do I create a quiz?
Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Quizzes. Explore best practices, review the Quizzes and Exams Strategies page.


Discussions can be created to facilitate engagement and interaction, particularly in online courses. Discussions can be graded or ungraded and assigned to the whole class or individual groups. Read the following Canvas guides to learn more about Discussions:
  1. What are Discussions?
  2. How do I use the Discussions page?
  3. How do I create a discussion as an instructor?
Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Discussions. Explore best practices, review the Discussions Strategies page.


The Syllabus in Canvas makes it easy to communicate to your students exactly what will be required of them throughout the course. The syllabus contains a Course Summary which is automatically created as you make new assignments in Canvas. Read the following Canvas guides to learn more about the Syllabus:
  1. How do I use the Syllabus as an instructor?
  2. How do I edit the Syllabus description in a course?
Explore best practices, review the Creating an Inclusive and Learner-Centered Syllabus page. A syllabus can be used to communicate course expectations, especially in regards to graded assignments.
  1. Read through Preparing to Teach on the CELT website. Determine if the learning objectives and assessments in your course are aligned with each other and your content is accessible to all students.
  2. Develop your syllabus based using the Creating an Inclusive & Learner-Centered Syllabus web guide.
    Important Note: Review and choose to include the Recommended ISU Syllabus Statements (Faculty Senate)  and consider adding the Example Inclusive Statements for Your Syllabi page.
  3. Enter your syllabus content into the upper free-form part of the tool by entering it directly in the rich content editor or by uploading it into Course Files as a PDF and linking it in the content selector.
  4. Automatically generate your course schedule in the bottom part of the tool by creating the graded assignments and activities in your course. This automatic view can only be changed by editing or deleting the corresponding assignments All assignments (unpublished and published) are listed in the syllabus for instructors.
    Tip: Create calendar events for each of your lectures to generate your course schedule as part of the Syllabus. This eliminates the need to create a new table of dates each semester. Be sure to include a list of assigned readings in the event details to help students know what is expected of them.


Pages contain content and educational resources that do not necessarily belong in an assignment. Pages can include text, video, and links to files and other content. Canvas keeps the entire history of the page to account for changes over time. Read the following Canvas guides to learn more about Pages:
  1. What are Pages?
  2. How do I use the Pages Index Page?
  3. How do I create a new page in a course?
Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Pages.

Putting it all together

Prior to the start of each semester, follow the steps in the Start of Semester Checklist to create your Canvas course(s). If you are building a course from scratch, you may find useful information in the Course Building Basics webpage.

You might also consider using these other technologies and resources at ISU:

The Canvas Instructor Guides can be a useful resource to you.

Finally, at the end of the semester, follow the End of Semester Checklist to submit your students’ final grades.

Things to consider when building your course

Other things to consider when building your course:

  • Plan your course content: Read through Preparing to Teach on the CELT website. Determine if the learning objectives and assessments in your course are aligned with each other and your content is accessible to all students. Develop your syllabus based on the recommendations in the How to Create an Effective Syllabus web guide. Be sure to include the statements recommended by the Faculty Senate for inclusion in all syllabi. Place the syllabus in a prominent location in Canvas such as the Syllabus link.
  • ☑ Build your course: Follow the steps outlined in the Course Building Basics guide to build a course from scratch or use the How do I copy content from another Canvas course? guide to copy content from another Canvas course.  We recommend that you copy all content then delete what you don’t need as people tend to forget to copy things like images. Use CELT or college-level instructional design staff to brainstorm ways to turn paper assignments into meaningful Canvas assessments, saving time and paper. *Tip:* If you use Group discussions or assignments, you will need to recreate the group structure each semester. Creating the groups and then importing content will keep the discussions and assignments associated with the groups.
  • ☑ Choose a Home Page:  The Home Page is the first impression of your course. Select the Home Page option that best fits the needs of your course.
  • Organize your course: Organization helps students concentrate on the subject matter. Canvas is meant for modular course design. See the Course Building Basics guide for more information on how best to use Modules.
  • Review your course: Students are most successful when they know what is expected and when. Specify due dates so students can budget their time effectively. Review your assignments, discussions, quizzes, content pages, modules, and course details for accuracy and to ensure they are published. Check for proper assignment groups and accurate due dates to avoid confusion for your students. Use Student View to review the entire course.
  • Check for accessibility: Use the built-in Link Validation tool to check your course for broken links. Use the Accessibility Checker when editing content to make sure it is accessible for all students. For more insight on how to approach accessibility in your course see more with Accessible Course Design.
  • Add additional people: From within the Canvas course, click the link for ISU AdminTools and Manage Additional People to add visiting instructors, students working on an incomplete, or other users.
  • ☑ Publish the course: Return to the Prepare to Teach page in Global Course Administration course to make it available to students.
  • ☑ Prevent students from seeing your course before the semester begins (optional): Once you have connected your course to the Registrar sections and published it, the default setting allows students to access your published course as early as one week before the semester begins. To change the date your students gain access you will navigate to Settings, change the Start Date of the course and check the box that states “Restrict students from viewing this course before the start date.”
  • Communicate with your students: Start a conversation via the Canvas Inbox, create an announcement, email via your regular e-mail program, schedule a conference, initiate a discussion, or add a video welcome message to your Canvas homepage to introduce yourself and encourage students to get started on their studies. Review the Communication strategies page.

Other ISU resources

Optionally link your course to additional ISU resources:

    • Immediate Access of course materials is a collaborative program between the ISU Book Store, faculty, and publishers. Students that are enrolled in an Immediate Access course will receive access to all required course materials on the first day of class and at a reduced cost compared to the national average.
    • For helpful information on academic accommodations for students in Canvas please see the How-to Guide for Student Accommodations in Canvas web guide.
    • Library Services – Embed library guides, request a course-specific guide, add streaming videos or link course reserves inside your course.
    • Information Technology has some options for Bubble Sheets. View the Information Technology Knowledge base articles: IT Ordering Bubble Sheets page and the Supported Scoring of Exam Bubble Sheets page.
    • Faculty using the quiz and exam features built into Canvas may wish to utilize the Online Testing Center as a secure location for students to take these assessments.