Updated July 2023
If you’re a first-time online student, you might be asking: What is a student portal? How do I navigate them?
One of the many differences between online learning and traditional classes for campus students is how they access their resources and participate!
While these websites are generally easy to navigate, the truth is that you can get lost with so many categories, sections, and modules.
Luckily, after so many years of helping students here at Gradehacker, the non-traditional student #1 resource, we have figured out how they work and which ones you can find.
We commit to answering what student portals are, showing you how they work, and giving you the best tips on how to navigate them so you can fill up any student applications and check any grade book assignments and school files!
What Is A Student Portal?
First of all, let’s answer the most basic question.
A student portal is an online service used by educational institutions to set up their programs.
This student tool is the main communication channel between the college and the student. It’s essential to know what it is since it’s where most of the information is shared, going from updates to student grades.
Each class has specific modules, where professors post all relevant material and announcements. Students can complete assignments, whether they’re discussion posts, essays, or exams.
Plus, students can access additional resources like the college’s library, pay for tuition, track their payments, apply for a scholarship, register for the following semester’s classes, and more. And all on the same website!
While many school districts choose to develop their own portal, most rely on an online service where they set up their workflow in a learning management system (LMS).
The most common ones used by institutions are
Even though they have the same basic features, like creating modules, setting deadlines, and submitting assignments, each has its unique display and workflow, which colleges have the opportunity to change as they desire.
But how do they work?
After you log in to your Blackboard account, you’ll first see the Home Tab. Here, you can access:
You also have the online bookstore, where you’ll find the books you’ve purchased or rented for your classes.
When you click on a course, you’ll access the Class Dashboard. It gives you a quick glance at the course and includes a to-do list, teacher’s announcements, and your tasks.
On the left, you’ll see the course menu, which each professor can customize, so don’t expect all to be the same. They may use another color or have different content area links, but there aren’t many differences besides that.
Let’s see what the course menu has.
First, you have the Announcements, where professors post any important information related to the class. Then you have Course Information with the class syllabus and a Contact School tab where the instructor can share a little bio and post their email and communication info.
In the next section of the menu, we have all the actual content related to the class.
The Course Material tab is where you can find all the information needed in different formats:
Following, you have Tests and Quizzes, where you’ll take the exams.
Here, you’ll need to be attentive to the deadlines because some teachers might leave them for a whole week, while others only make it accessible for a few days or specific hours.
Discussion Boards are a common aspect of online lessons, and on Blackboard, you’ll have to enter the designated form and create a new message within it.
Be careful with copying and pasting from Word because you might be carrying over hidden HTML code that can cause display issues in your current student portal.
You also have the Assignments tab, where you will find the assignment instructions and submit your papers once you have them.
It is recommended that students upload documents as attachments in either Word or PDF and not in Google Docs format because it won’t display correctly on Blackboard.
Then, you have the My Grades section, which shows:
It also lets you see what is coming up and your current overall grade.
Finally, the Course Tools tab includes every online tool available on Blackboard. It has all the pages we’ve just talked about and much more, like the Course Room, a 24/7 open chat where you can message the other students.
Even though you usually won’t need any extra pages to complete your class, you should check them out and see what you can find.
If you have additional questions, you can always go to Blackboard Resources, usually found at the top of the menu. Here, you’ll find many user guides that answer basic and specific questions.
A final tip: Blackboard recommends using Mozilla Firefox as your browser, as Google Chrome and Safari may cause issues within the online portal.
After you log in to your Canvas account, you’ll first see the Dashboard, with a course card for each of your current courses.
You can customize them, give them a new color or nickname, and choose which classes you want to see or remove from your home by clicking the courses icon on the left menu and going to ‘All the Courses.’
On the right side of the dashboard, you have the to-do list with all your turn-in assignments, quizzes, and discussions with a due date. Be aware that not every activity will show on this list, only those with an upcoming due date.
Below it, you have the upcoming items with a direct link from your Canvas Calendar.
On the left side of every page, you’ll find the Global Navigation Menu, which is part of Canvas and not specific to any course. Let’s see what you can find here!
First, you have Account Settings, where you see and edit your profile. There, you can:
Finally, you can customize when and where the portal will notify you in the notifications settings.
Next, the Calendar tab will show you your:
You can add custom calendar events by clicking on the plus button or the day you want to add the task. You can use it to set reminders for reading a chapter or include tasks that don’t have a due date on Canvas.
A great stand-out feature they provide is moving your tasks to Google Calendar or Outlook with the Calendar Feed Link.
The final tab from their Global Navigation Menu is the Inbox Tool, which shows your messages and works like any other email but from within Canvas.
Now, let’s see how to navigate your classes.
The first thing you encounter when you access a course is its homepage. On the left, you have the Course Navigation Menu, which includes all items that are specific to the course.
Like the main dashboard, you have a to-do list and coming-up assignments; in the center, you have the main content area, usually with a welcome message or basic course information.
Its Course Navigation Menu is straightforward, directing you to the announcements, syllabus, class modules, and grades.
The Syllabus has all the course information in one place. Always review it before you start, and keep checking on it once in a while. If you scroll down, you’ll see a course summary with all the graded items in the course.
Modules are the primary way of organizing the course content. They can be arranged by subjects, chapters in the textbook, or weeks, which is the most common choice.
Each module has links to its course material and that week’s assignments. First, it shows the week’s overview, including the reading material or module lecture. Then, it has the assignments, like discussion posts, essays, and exams.
Finally, you can see your progress in the Grades tab, graded items with their due dates.
One interesting feature other online services don’t have is that you can interact with your grades, enter temporary “what if scores,” and see how specific scores might affect your overall grade.
If you ever need additional help with your course, you can click on the help button on the Global Navigation Menu.
Here, you can directly send an email to your instructions, contact the 24/7 Canvas Support if you have a technological problem, and search the Canvas Guides if you have a more specific question.
On the homepage of your Google Classroom account, you can see all the classes you’re enrolled in.
To join a class, you must go to the “Add” button on the right and enter the class code your college gave you. Each class card shows if you have any upcoming assignments.
You can see the home screen features by going to the three bars in the upper left corner. The calendar shows you all the assignments that you have coming up this week, and if you click on them, Google will direct you to that task so you can see what it’s about.
You can also go to the To-do list, allowing you to see the assignments you need to do for all of your classes on a list.
By entering a class, you’ll first see the Stream Tab how it looks and what it shows will depend on the instructor.
But generally, on the left, you have a section for upcoming assignments, while on the center, you have a running stream of tasks and announcements in chronological order.
The Classwork tab also changes depending on how the professor sets it up, but it most commonly displays your assignments and class material by week.
The best feature Google Classroom has to offer is its Google-integrated workflow. For example, if you are writing an essay on Google Docs, you can turn it in from there by clicking on the submit button.
Tips to Navigate Student Portals
Before we finish, here are the best tips you need to have in mind when you navigate your current student portal and succeed in all your academic programs.
Check out everything; there is no harm in surfing your online learning portal and seeing what you can find. You’ll familiarize yourself with the site and discover some content areas and helpful links you can rely on later.
Do it with the main dashboard and in each course menu.
Don't rely too heavily on the dashboards
If you do so, there could be some deadlines you can miss.
Maybe your instructor assigned a task that doesn’t appear on the main home page, and if you only rely on it, you can run the risk of a missed deadline and end up with a low score.
And you don’t want that!
Always check the Assignments tab or even the My Grades section! There, you’ll see all assignments that need grading with their due dates.
Use the bookmark bar!
Don’t be afraid to save and delete pages as you go. Each week, bookmark all important pages from your module.
Have your reading material and assignment instructions in one place and access them the moment you open your internet browser. It will be faster, and you won’t have to waste time searching for them.
Check the announcements as often as you can
Professors sometimes post important news through the announcements area.
Maybe they are changing the deadline for an assignment or including more valuable resources for this week’s module. Regardless of the content, never miss it!
It’s recommended that you enter at least once per day, but if you can’t, at least try to access it once every two days.
Know Your Student Portal
Using a new web-based program with so many features and tabs can be overwhelming at first, especially if technology is not one of your strengths.
But before feeling lost on the homepage, if you explore, you’ll see that; actually, student portals can be quite intuitive.
Whether it’s Blackboard, Canvas, or Google Classroom, now you know how they work and where you’ll find what you need to complete your tasks without wasting time entering the wrong sites.
Say goodbye to not knowing where to find all the content for students and start navigating your student portal as a pro!
However, if you still feel stressed about all your classes and want to alleviate your journey, you can always contact Gradehacker to help you with everything!
If you want to learn more tips on how to improve your college journey, then don’t miss these blog posts: