Navigating Canvas Features

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). 

Review the variety of features available to you in this LMS and how you can use them to enhance your course. 

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,
  • 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.

The additional Canvas guides contain additional information:

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

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. 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, and more ahead of time. Canvas has put together guides to help you use the Course Navigation Menu as an instructor and to reorder and hide the Course Navigation links.

Canvas has several options for choosing the entry point for 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.

The Syllabus option is a great way to create an entry point. 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.

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

You can also set your course to show the latest announcements at the top of the homepage.

Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Announcements

The Syllabus feature 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.

Explore best practices by reviewing the Creating an Inclusive and Learner-Centered Syllabus page. A syllabus can be used to communicate course expectations, especially in regard to graded assignments.

Note: Review and choose to include the Recommended Iowa State Syllabus Statements (Faculty Senate) and consider adding the example Inclusive Statements for Your Syllabi

  1. 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 to the content selector.
  2. 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.

Canvas is flexible to accommodate the instructor’s delivery style; however, it favors a modular design, in which a course is built in smaller, discrete units.

A module in Canvas is an instructional package built around a concept, unit, week, or another segment of instruction to guide learning and can be used in a number of ways. 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

Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Modules

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.

Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Pages.

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. How do I use the Assignments page?
  2. How do I add an assignment?

Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Assignments.

Canvas 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.

Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Discussions

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.

Additional information can be found in the Instructor Guide to Quizzes.

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.