Top 10 Course Navigation Tips in Canvas

Lakeshore_Pnc_Pnt11_4608It’s lovely to wander around the lake this time of year. It’s less lovely to wander aimlessly around a course site. If you haven’t already, take a few minutes now to consider your Canvas course navigation, and save time in the future.


Clear navigation shows students where to go and what to do next. That reduces their questions, giving them more time to focus on your course’s content.

Let’s look at our Top 10 Navigation Tips in Canvas

  1. Get your passport.
  2. Make an itinerary.
  3. Be decisive.
  4. Pack only what you need.
  5. Travel safely.
  6. Bring your GPS.
  7. Don’t get lost.
  8. Update your emergency contacts.
  9. Be flexible.
  10. Send us a postcard.

1 – Get your passport.

Let’s start with the big picture and explore Canvas. In Canvas, there are two navigation bars along the left-hand side of your screen. Our global navigation bar is the Badger red one to the far left. Your global navigation bar is specific to you, the Canvas user.

Things to try in global navigation:

2 – Make an itinerary.

To the right of the red global navigation bar is the course navigation bar. This can be different for each course you teach. Just as you think about where you want to go and how long you want to spend in each place on a trip, take a while to think about where you want students to go and how you want them to interact with the course. How long is the course? What sections does it have? What tasks do students perform online? Over the next few items we’ll look at how to make that organization apparent to students.

For more on course planning:

3 – Be decisive.

Car, plane, train, or bus? There are lots of ways to get there, but we want to go on this trip together. In Canvas, there are many ways to design a course and many ways to provide access to the same content. You can remove items in the navigation bar from student view. A study from our own Wisconsin School of Business showed that having four navigation tabs or fewer creates a better experience for students; the more places to click, the more time spent clicking.

Learn how:

How to decide? Keep reading to learn what we recommend keeping and deleting.

4 – Pack only what you need.

How did that 3rd pair of shoes get into my backpack? The default options in Canvas include a lot of stuff, like Chat and Collaborations. The whole-class Chat function in Canvas might serve your needs, but it’s not a very robust tool, and students can’t delete posts there. If you’re not using Collaborations or Announcements, there’s no reason to keep those on the list.

Learn more:

5 – Travel safely.

Stay aware of your surroundings, and keep your belongings safe as you travel. Security may not be fun to talk about, but it’s important and can save a lot of headaches. By removing direct access to the Files tab, you can control where and when students access course materials. This is especially important if you have image files in your quizzes or solution files in with your homework assignments.

Learn how:

6 – Bring your GPS.

“In 100 feet, turn left on University Avenue.” Modules in Canvas provide concrete steps for students so that they know what to do and in which order. They allow you to arrange files, pages, links, and assignments in one place. Putting items into a module creates helpful “Previous” and “Next” buttons for each item. You can add prerequisites or requirements to give specific guidance through a module and from one module to the next. If you’re building a course from scratch, creating placeholders for each item in modules is the best way to get started.

Learn how:

Advanced tip: You can also create a page-based course that uses modules as its foundation.

7 – Don’t get lost.

No one likes to feel lost. The easiest places for students to get lost in Canvas are Files and Pages. Files is a good place for you to organize materials. Pages displays a list of all the pages in the course. You can sort the list alphabetically, but that’s about it. By linking to specific pages and files within Modules, students will see them where and when you want them.

In Gradebook view, you may have noticed that the course navigation menu disappears. That’s to save space on the page, but it may leave you feeling lost. Click the icon with the 3 horizontal bars in the top left corner to expand the menu.

Learn more:

8 – Update your emergency contacts.

It’s good to have a plan when something goes awry. Do students in your course know the best ways to get help? That might be office hours, tutoring, or other opportunities. For Canvas help, there’s a student training course, or they can contact the DoIT help desk. Including this information in an obvious place within your course is very helpful to students.

Links for students:

9 – Be flexible.

Sometimes the best parts of a trip are the detours along the way. You may have found a good reason to deviate from some of the “rules” above. Whether your focus is on the journey or the destination, it’s your course. Consider asking students for feedback on how the course’s navigation is working for them. It’s ideal to have things set up before the course begins; if you do need to make changes during a course, it’s a good practice to post an announcement about the change so that students are aware.

10 – Send us a postcard.

We’d love to know how your Canvas experience is going. Drop us a line at Be it positive or not, we want to know how it’s going and whether there’s anything we can do for you. We’re part of the campus Canvas Feature Request Team. We love to find solutions to technical and pedagogical challenges. We’ll send you “postcards,” too, with information about Canvas. Thanks for reading them!

Learn more about our services at CEETE.

Explore the Lakeshore Preserve at UW-Madison.