Improving Course Navigation Experience for Students

Jump to solution
Community Participant

higher education #easy navigation#student learning‌ #course navigation

We're piloting Canvas currently and are somewhat disappointed by the experience of feeling lost in a course. We're looking for workarounds. The absence of breadcrumbs and being able to "bookmark" or "save" the page to return to later on are just a couple of needed features.

We're telling faculty to point students to the Modules "page" to orient themselves, to ensure links open in new windows/tabs so students don't get kicked out of the course, and to name pages and modules keeping in mind this navigation issue.

Any other workarounds you've heard of?

Labels (1)
2 Solutions
Community Contributor

saurilio  Some of my favorite navigation strategies to improve student user experience UX/UI:

  • Keep the Homepage brief and inviting. 
    • A Start Here button, full course name, an image, and the instructor contact info--so it isn't buried on page 8 of the Syllabus.  If students can't find the course content, it won't matter how great it was, unfortunately.
    • Link the "Start Here"  text button to the Modules navigation list view--rather than any particular page in modules.
      • If you are new, there are multiple steps to a custom homepage. Go first to navigation menu Pages tab--> "View all pages" button. Make and save a homepage. Then, click navigation menu Pages-->View All Pages again to see the list view. Look for the gear cog on the far right of your new page to "Set as Frontpage." Go to the Nav menu "Home" and on the far right, you can see controls to Choose the Homepage. You'll only see your custom page if it is first set as Frontpage (the first page you see on the Pages nav. 
      • Bonus: a Start Here button is QM Quality Matters rubric compliant! (Example linked to my personal -Dev site/play place.)
    • Be aware that the course Navigation Menu is not sticky--it disappears from view if the homepage is too long! Users are instantly lost.  Keep homepage short and get students right to modules. 
  • Put everything you want students to encounter into the Modules--in the precise order in which you want students to view content. This is your design opportunity for student-centered courses.
    • Hide other navigation options once you use Modules. Avoid multiple routes to partial content. Students are less likely to get lost or attempt assignments without doing the readings, etc. if other nav options are hidden. Students also get lost clicking nav items with no purpose.
    • Modules will display anything you want, inside or outside Canvas.  Make modules options your friend.
    • (* My previous controversial solution: I placed the Syllabus as the first content page inside modules and skipped the Syllabus tool. Now, you can turn off the auto-generated shortcut to assignments that tempts student to attempt quizzes and assignments without seeing all module content.  Turn this off with a checkbox in the Syllabus Page Edit mode. )
    • The more that Modules are organized, logical, chronologically arranged, and complete, the more students will trust the course and instructor. This cuts down on complaints, frustration, lawsuits, and attempts to skip perceived busy-work. 
  • Create Overview pages for each week/module.
    • Keep the same format for all Overview Pages. (Predictability is vital. Designers get bored, but students get lost!) Content should be exciting, not navigation.
    • Include Overview Page interior headings for "This Week" and "Readings and Activities."  
    • List module-level objectives on each overview page in casual, conversational language from a student perspective of "What's in it for me?" 
    • The Overview page is ideal to tell students when to begin a lengthy project! Due dates only tell them when it has to be completed.
    • Embed videos, articles, and links to all websites or files/readings. 
    • Include a different image--or color scheme--on each overview page to help students recognize automatically when they are reviewing or seeing new content. 
    • Avoid Module "Text headers" option for important information. They disappear from view in the "Next" navigation. Instead, use a regular content page with a title and no content. Looks the same, doesn't disappear.
  • Use Due Dates to trigger student-friendly reminder systems. (Skip the Available and Until date settings unless absolutely essential--such as with a Final Exam. It is a maintenance burden and usually counterproductive.) 
    • If you use due dates, the Calendar tool takes care of itself.
    • Avoid the global menu Calendar tool--especially when training new faculty or designers--or they will make a mess with it. Once someone is at expert level, the calendar has some interesting functions, but it is useless for those who don't have a good mental map of their course yet. 
    • Avoid date-specific text. Due dates in the Assignment settings can be updated more easily.  Dates hidden inside the assignment instructions will constantly be wrong. Avoid the maintenance burden. 
  • Explore the Student "mark as done" requirement for modules. This is restrictive, but may solve some of your goals for students' knowing "Where have I been?" Otherwise, well-named Overview pages will really help a lot. 
  • Look into QM or another Online course quality tool to benefit all of your courses. 
  • Think of Quizzes tool as an auto-grading tool.  If something has a right answer, it can be auto-graded.
    • Leverage your teachers' time by auto-grading when you can, then save their input for the most precious feedback and interactions. 
  • Think of Assignments tab as "everything you want to grade." If you need a column in the gradebook, the Assignments tab creates it.  
    • Hide Assignments navigation tab when you use Modules. The assignment ordering looks different to students than it does to the teacher anyway! 
    • Tip: Assignments tab constructs the gradebook to calculate correctly for the teacher's expectations. Modules present the student-centered path through your content. 
  • Remember: Peripheral tools like Quizzes and graded Discussions appear in the Assignments tab only when they are published. 
    • Discussions tool is very handy and easy to grade in Speedgrader. You must click the easily-missed settings box "graded" to make all of the assignment settings appear in your Discussion.
      • Well-worded discussion questions are essential for online courses, and helpful for all courses.
      • Discussions are student-to-student contact, adding value to a course. Good discussions also help ensure your school's online courses meet Title IV Federal Pell Grant criteria. 
    • Hide Quizzes and other navigation items once you use modules. Quality control is up to you--making sure everything is in modules! Benefit: less skipping, missing, and confusion for faculty and students alike. 
    • For classroom or hybrid classes that still share some content on paper (such as a paper Final Exam) use an assignment as a placeholder/grade column-maker. Select the setting "On paper" and use the directions box to explain. 
  • Consider templating a Course Materials introductory module to solve problems before they start, prevent lawsuits, and basically calm your students and faculty. 
    • Tab code can condense multiple content pages together into tidy tabs--once the wording is finalized. 
    • My favorite boilerplate content pages are named:
      • Syllabus
      • Institutional Syllabus
      • Tentative Weekly Schedule
      • Meet Your Instructor
      • Computer Requirements and Skills Needed for this Course (include links to any free software from your school and links to Canvas guides for computer specs, etc.)
      • Get Help: Canvas & Tech Support
      • How to navigate this course (Course map)
      • Security, Privacy Policies, Accessibility, and Attributions
      • Communication Policies and Student Expectations
      • Discussion Etiquette and Instructions
      • Preparation Assignment for Canvas (message instructor on inbox, notification settings to reduce junk email and get announcements, submit a practice assignment)
      • Introduce Yourself Discussion (Instructor participates)
      • Pre-Post course Surveys/Feedback forms  (My school uses a Canvas assignment with Qualtrics embedded because Canvas survey replies from the Quizzes tool don't compile into a spreadsheet.)
  • Avoid linking from one Canvas page to another Canvas page.  (I call these Inception-style links, after the movie.)
    • Although Canvas implemented a helper feature of retaining the modules "Next" button, Canvas-to-Canvas links are tricky and usually cause problems. --Exception: the homepage "Start Here" button directing to the modules list.
    • If you feel you must interrupt your Canvas content flow with a link to another place in Canvas, use this Code snippet: target="_blank"  --to open Canvas again in a neighboring tab.(Looks and behaves like an outside weblink and students can close out of one tab and be right where they left off.)
      • Add ^ this snippet to your HTML to open Canvas-to-Canvas linked content in a neighboring tab, similar to the way an outside link to a website opens. 
      • Example: Keep Discussion instructions short and focused by including a Discussion Etiquette and Instructions page in the introductory Course Materials module.
      • Complete all discussion readings and questions with a final line, like this: For complete instructions, review Discussions Etiquette and Instructions (opens in a new tab). 

View solution in original post

Community Contributor


Ahh...convincing.    @fowleste   The way I convinced myself took 3 1/2 years of intense and tedious customer service for faculty/courses seeing the same issues, repeatedly and having to puzzle through them, repeatedly. I wouldn't wish that learning experience on anyone, though it was certainly convincing for me. I'm still providing support as I design though I like to manage upstream now, when possible.

I've also said, (in other posts such as More Reasons #5 at the bottom) that it is excruciating to watch videos of a new user struggling with a Canvas course you've designed when the navigation seems so obvious! Nope. That is painfully personal UX and the teacher in me can't live with knowing that course design itself can be an obstacle to learning. Not every action that seems kind is really kind. (This is why I recommend doing the personal pre-work of quality control on Modules, making sure every assignment, content page, link, due date, and quiz is present in the precise order you want students to experience them. Then you hide other navigation avenues that allow skipping. Make a homepage button that lands students exactly at the list view of modules, not inside a page, not with confusing options.)

Quote from the above-linked Syllabus tool post: "*Real-life experience: I was a student in a course where, at the end of week 3, over 1/3 of the class hadn't found the actual course content in Modules but they thought they had. 1/3 of the class had clicked on Assignments and Quizzes at the bottom of the Syllabus and attempted them without even knowing there was anything else to see!   Fortunately or Unfortunately, only 1/3 of the good students followed the directions to read the Syllabus first, so only 1/3 were angry and betrayed by the experience."

The Tao of Rachael: Course content needs to be varied and interesting. Course navigation needs to be utterly predictable.

Caveat* Even terrible navigation will kind-of work if you do it the same way every time, in every course. Students only crash a few times and then they can potentially figure out the designer's misguided mental map and overcome it. Interesting, creative masterpieces of custom-coded navigation only prove the rule until they are scalable and maintainable by non-digital-native faculty. 

Keep in mind these apples and oranges: When multiple formats are allowed for students to accomplish an assignment, that is a trendy, sensitive way for students to express themselves and remain vested in their work. When multiple navigation routes through materials are possible, that is a guarantee that some vital content will be missed. 

I understand that not everyone will agree on what qualifies as simplicity on Canvas. For inspiration, I recommend you rely less on experienced teachers or those who consider themselves experienced Canvas users and instead talk with those who give daily tech support to lost students, angry faculty, and great courses that students mysteriously hate. 

There is a chasm between what we think ought to work, and what really works.  Sometimes we get "design bored" and try to add interest in the wrong ways. Sometimes we fight built-in Canvas features due to lack of understanding or lack of flexibility, creating unnecessary parallel features and failing to leverage existing tools that benefit students. Sometimes we get confused by hype (ie, the training industry loves to speculate that LMS and the next button are dead. They aren't higher ed., are they?)

Article: Why Simplicity Is So Incredibly Important In UX Design 

"Explain it like I'm 5."--Credited to Nobel Prize-Winning Physicist Dick Feynman

Quality Matters Rubric created to evaluate online courses only, but it still has a lot of Ah-ha moments for lecture courses too.  QM  is the best tool I've found so far. 

View solution in original post