Lesson Solutions using Moodle 1.9: Part 1

One of the most challenging aspects of course development often involves simply determining how to select and organize your material. It is very important to be strategic about the type of material you select. Needless to say, every item used in your course should tie directly to course outcomes, and you should make sure that all your items are used in some way. Beyond that, putting the material in your course can feel fairly confusing. Fortunately, Moodle makes it easy to select, incorporate, and organize your content. Moodle also helps you lead students through the material in a way that will maximize the chances of them finishing your course and successfully achieving learning outcomes.

Before we go any further, it is worthwhile to take a moment to clarify lessons in Moodle. The terminology can be a bit confusing. In Moodle, a lesson is an activity that fits well within the object-oriented approach of Moodle. It is important to keep in mind that the idea of a lesson in Moodle is fairly limited, and will work within the overall traditional notion of lessons.

Selecting and sequencing content for lessons

In this section, we'll discuss the best way to select content for your lessons, and how to arrange it so that the students naturally progress to the kinds of competence they need to demonstrate when they get ready for their final assessments.

Create conditions for learning

Everyone has experienced the pain of a bad lecture when there is just absolutely nothing that reaches out and captures one's imagination. You squirm, you daydream, and then, when it's over, you can't recall a single thing that was said. In that situation, one can safely say that not much learning took place, not just because the delivery might have been ineffectual, but even more compellingly because the speaker failed to ever connect with his/her audience.

The educational psychologist Robert Gagne studied the problem of developing ideal learning conditions and, after years of research published his findings in a book titled Conditions of Learning released in 1965. Basically, he discovered that to create ideal learning conditions, there are nine instructional events that must take place. The first event, which he describes as "gaining attention", is critical. If you intellectually stimulate the learners, you're activating receptors in their brain, and they are more likely to pay attention. Once you've gained their attention, you should develop activities that will do the following:

  • Inform learners of objectives and create levels of expectation
  • Stimulate recall of prior learning that relates to your course objectives
  • Present instructional content
  • Guide your students by creating categories and sequences
  • Encourage performance and practice
  • Provide feedback (either automatically or personally)
  • Assess performance
  • Apply knowledge to job or other activity

Gagne's "instructional events" are not set in stone, but they are very useful as you put your course together. Notice that they are heavily weighted towards performance, which is not too surprising as Gagne was a resolute behaviorist. Other theorists such as Vygotsky might lean more heavily toward social learning and put more emphasis on the discussion forums.

Employ scaffolding

Scaffolding is a concept that was developed by Bruner (1975), who used Vygotsky's notions of social and imitative learning in order to explain how people learn from each others in groups and classrooms. Vygotsky held that children learn as they observe teachers and others and, as they adopt practices, they are coached by others to modify their behaviors until they conform to the norm.

Bruner took the idea further and proposed that a good way to help students learn is to have a model (a teacher) perform the activity, and then assist the student until he/she is able to perform independently and freely. Bruner thought of the support that is gradually taken away as "scaffolding". If you learned to ride a bicycle as a child, you probably used training wheels, so it might be more comfortable to think of this as a "training wheel" approach.

At any rate, wherever and whenever you can, let your students see partially worked problems, and work on the problems with them. Peers can also be training wheels or scaffolding for each other as well, as they provide partial solutions, model essays, and partially-solved problems in anticipation of being able to do things independently.

Use chunking to help build concepts

Have you ever felt utterly lost in a maze of too much information?, Have you heard anyone remarking that "he/she couldn't see the forest for the trees"?

In each case, the problem was that of too many small bits of information and not enough large, organizing sets or categories.

To address that problem, educational psychologists have developed a concept they call "chunking", which is basically grouping small items into sets. Essentially, you are mentally recoding low-information content and grouping them together. Ideally, the total number of units will decrease, and what you'll be left with is a small number of high-information "chunks". Chunks are easier to work with than thousands of individual pieces, just as it's easier to pick up a necklace than a thousand individual beads.

As you develop your content, think of ways to organize, classify, and categorize to help students access and retrieve information from their working memory. Keep in mind that these are good activities to employ early in the lesson as you seek to help students master the lower-level and foundational cognitive tasks such as identify, define, and describe.

Get students involved early

Why make students take risks? Why make them introduce themselves, respond to questions, and interact?

While it's true that some students will feel a certain amount of discomfort as they make themselves vulnerable, the rewards for the intellectual and emotional risk-taking are very high. They will feel a sense of affiliation, and the essentially dehumanizing e-learning space will become more human, more socially relevant to their lives.

Another key consideration is that students are able to practice higher-level cognitive tasks in the discussion board area. They can evaluate, analyze, and synthesize topics on a deeper level through intellectual interaction with peers.

Keep it lively

Gaining attention is something that you'll need to do throughout the class. Students will constantly need to be stimulated, refreshed, and refocused. Not only will you stimulate the receptors in their brains, you'll also help them formulate their own conversation with the content. As for questions in their minds, be sure to relate the content to something practical and relevant—in the world, in their lives, in their prior knowledge—and then encourage them to discuss and debate.

Keeping it lively not only keeps their attention, it also motivates students to return to the course and will help them maintain a high level of enthusiasm.

Keep focused

There are a number of ways to keep students focused on what you're wanting them to learn. The key is to mix it up, and not repeat the same attention-getting tactics, or you'll risk having students totally tune it out. Try many different strategies—add points, add a video snippet, interject a question, add a graphic or diagram, incorporate a practice quiz or game.

Use media strategically

Some instructors fall into the trap of media overload. The students may be studying Shakespeare's Hamlet, so they put up links to a hundred different video clips of Shakespearean plays. Yes, one or two are great, after a while, the overload can be distracting.

As you select media, put it in a location where the student needs to pause to reflect on content or relate to it in a new way. You can also sequence the media so that it occurs when students may be starting to get bored or losing their focus. Media can help you refocus the students.

Diagnostic and developmental/remedial content

With Moodle you can design your course so that it builds in material to help students who may need more time, help, and practice on certain aspects of the lessons.

For example, you can build in "Test Yourself!" diagnostic quizzes, which can help pinpoint where a student needs to focus more. This sounds a lot like the old pretest and posttest approach, but the difference is that it occurs within your lesson and students can stop along the way to get help. For example, an algebra course could include little "spot check" diagnostic quizzes. They could lead to a review section that is not required for the entire class, but for special needs. It's like having a private tutor.

Reward practice

The more the students practice, the more likely they are to feel good about their ability to perform, both in real-life applications as well as in their final assignments or tests. So, be sure to provide many opportunities for students to practice, and also for them to receive feedback, either automated or personalized from you or a peer.

However, be careful that your quizzes and practice activities are similar in structure, content, and feel to their "high stakes" assignments. If they are not, the students will be discouraged. Also, be sure that the questions and the levels are the same as in the graded assignments. Don't make the final quiz too hard or too easy. Align content, levels of difficulty, time limitations, and testing conditions to those the students will experience later.

Build confidence for final graded performance

All the content and the activities in your lesson should build toward the students' final performance, whether a final essay, test, or presentation. By the time they reach the end of the lesson, the students should know what to expect and feel comfortable about what lies ahead. Furthermore, they should have a good idea of where to go when they feel lost or have questions. For example, they may be able to refer to a repository of supplemental readings or solved problems, or they can ask questions in the discussion board. At any rate, they always feel as though there is a supportive presence, either in the course itself or in access to the instructor and fellow students.

Getting started: A simple example

The following screenshot shows a very basic instructional lesson in Moodle. Note that it is essentially a website, and it contains text, links, and an embedded graphic. In fact, it is written in HTML.

Moodle Teaching Techniques

It is a brief lesson, and so does not have a large number of components. Essentially, the lesson is introducing a concept (the relationship between distance and perspective). It is engaging the student's curiosity by asking a question and then providing an illustrative graphic. The instruction involves testing the student's knowledge by using a "jump question". If you get it right, you proceed to the next item, and if you get it wrong, you're either taken back to the instructional page or jump to a remedial page. However, the jump question could just as easily ask a student what he/she is interested in learning next, or some other exploratory question.

When the student clicks on the Continue button at the bottom of the lesson page, he/she is taken to a question page, as shown next:

Moodle Teaching Techniques

Each answer displays a different feedback.

Moodle Teaching Techniques

If the student answers correctly, he/she is taken to the next instructional page. An incorrect answer takes the student to a remedial page.

Moodle Teaching Techniques

This is the normal sequence for a lesson in Moodle. Later, we'll discuss how we can make the best use of the Lesson module.

Moodling through a course

Moodle enables students to view resources and complete the activities in any order. For the period the resources and activities are available to the student, the student can access them at any time, and in any order. A paragraph from www.moodle.com explains its approach towards e-learning:

The word Moodle was originally an acronym for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, which is mostly useful to programmers and education theorists. It's also a verb that describes the process of lazily meandering through something, doing things as it occurs, an enjoyable tinkering that often leads to insight and creativity. As such it applies both to the way Moodle was developed, and to the way a student or teacher might approach studying or teaching an online course.

For our purposes, it's really best to look at the object-oriented approach of Moodle in an instructional sense. If one of your quizzes is not working well, just replace it. You don't have to rewrite the whole lesson. Instead, you can simply take out the piece and replace it with another. The same applies to the lectures and readings. Is the reading suddenly out of date? No problem. Just replace it with a more up-to-date reading.

Need for sequential activities

We don't want our students to meander or wander through course items. We want to enforce a specific order of resources and activities. One of the most-requested features in Moodle is the ability to require students to complete their activities in a given sequence. This ability is often called activity locking, which the official Moodle documentation wiki defines as:

A conditional activity is a dependency filter that prevents a student from entering and/or seeing an activity, resource, section, or some other Moodle course feature. Typical conditions are based on an overall score, on a specific activity and time spent on it.

For example, a student will not see the second topic until they have scored 80% or higher on the first topic's quiz.

Activity locking versus sequential lessons

Activity locking can be used to lock the student out of any kind of resource or activity. It affects an entire course. It can be used to restrict and guide a student's progress from one resource or activity to another, based on the student's score and/or time spent on viewing something.

Within a lesson, you can restrict and guide a student's progress through a series of web pages. The path through the lesson pages is based on the student's answer to a question at the end of each page, but outside the lesson, the student is free to go anywhere in the course.

For the purpose of enforcing a sequence of activities, a lesson is much more limited than activity locking. However, the Lesson module comes with Moodle's core distribution. If a lesson can accomplish the kind of sequential learning that you need to create, you will find it much easier than adding and using one of the activity locking modules.

The Lesson module offers a kind of activity locking, which could enable/disable access to a lesson, depending on a student's performance in another lesson. For example, you can lock the student out of Lesson 2, until he/she has completed Lesson 1. Imagine a course consisting of mostly lessons. You could use the "dependent on" feature to enforce a given order to the lessons. You could also add web pages, forums, links, and other items to the course that the student can access at will. By mixing dependent lessons and regular Moodle items, you can have the best of both worlds: Lessons and lesson pages that must be completed in order, along with other course resources that can be accessed at any time. With these tools at your disposal, you might not need to use an add-on module for activity locking or wait for Moodle's core distribution to support activity locking.

Lesson settings

In this section, we will go through the Editing Lesson page from top to bottom. We will discuss most of the settings, and focus on the ones that are most useful for creating the effect of a deck of flash cards. So, by the end of this section, you will understand how most of the settings on the Editing Lesson page affect the student's experience. In later sections, we will discuss how to use these settings to create specific kind of experiences.

General settings

At the bottom of each question page in a lesson, you can place a quiz question. Maximum number of answers/branches determines the maximum number of answers that each question can have. If each answer sends the student to a different page, then the number of answers is also the number of branches possible. For a flash card experience, you will probably use True/False questions, and set this to 2. After creating question pages, you can increase or decrease this setting without affecting the questions that you have already created. This is shown in the following screenshot

Moodle Teaching Techniques

Grade options

If a lesson is being used only for practice, most of the grade options are irrelevant.

Moodle Teaching Techniques

As shown in the previous screenshot, if you set Practice lesson to Yes, this lesson will not show up in the Gradebook. And if you set Maximum grade to 0, the lesson does not appear in any of the Grades pages. Either way, the student's score in this lesson will not affect their final grade in the course.

Flow control

Some of the options under Flow control make the lesson behave more like a flash card deck. The other options become irrelevant when a lesson is used for flash cards.

Moodle Teaching Techniques

Allow student review: enables a student to go backwards in a lesson, and retry questions that he/she got wrong.

Look at the setting for Action after correct answer. Note that in this case it is set to Show an unanswered Page. This means that after a student answers a question correctly, Moodle will display a page that the student either hasn't seen or that he/she answered incorrectly. The Show an unanswered Page setting is usually used during a flash card lesson, to give the student a second chance at answering questions correctly. During a normal lesson, you will usually use Allow student review to enable students to go back to the questions they got wrong.

Display review button displays a button after the student incorrectly answers a question. The button allows the student to reattempt the question. If your questions have only two answers (true/false, yes/no), then allowing the student to retry a question immediately after getting it wrong doesn't make much sense. It would be more productive to jump to a page explaining why the answer is wrong, and use the Show an unanswered Page setting to give the student another chance at the question, at a later time.

Maximum number of attempts determines how many times a student can attempt any question. It applies to all questions in the lesson.

Minimum number of questions sets the lower limit for the number of questions used to calculate a student's grade on the lesson. It is relevant only when the lesson is going to be graded.

Number of pages (cards) to show determines how many pages are shown. If the lesson contains more than this number, the lesson ends after reaching the number set here. If the lesson contains fewer pages than this number, the lesson ends after every card has been shown. If you set this to 0, the lesson ends when all cards have been shown.

Lesson formatting

The settings under Lesson formatting are used to turn the lesson into a slide show, which appears in a pop-up window. The Slide Show setting creates the slide show window. Slide show width, Slide show height, and Slide show background color set the format of the slide show.

Moodle Teaching Techniques

Display left menu displays a navigation bar on the left side of the slide show window. The navigation bar enables the student to navigate to any slide. Without that navigation bar, the student must proceed through the slide show in the order that Moodle displays the lesson pages, and must complete the lesson to exit (or the student can force the window to close). Sometimes, you want a student to complete the entire lesson in order, before allowing him/her to move freely around the lesson. The setting for and only display if Student has grade greater than accomplishes this. Only if the student achieved the specified grade, will he/she see the navigation menu. You can use this setting to ensure that the student goes completely through the lesson the first time, before allowing the student to freely move around the lesson. The Progress Bar setting displays a progress bar at the bottom of the lesson.

Access control

Recall at the beginning of the article when we learned that lessons are the only activity that can be made dependent on completing another activity. This means you can require that the student completes a specific lesson in your course before allowing the student to access the current lesson. Now, look at the Dependent on setting in the screenshot:

Moodle Teaching Techniques

Before the student can access this lesson, he/she will need to complete the lesson Parts of Speech. As of now, in Moodle's standard distribution, this is the only kind of activity that supports this type of activity locking.

Other lesson settings

The Other settings area has some settings that can make the lesson more interesting for the student.

Moodle Teaching Techniques

Notice in the screenshot, Link to an activity is set to Find the Noun. This setting places a link on the last page of the lesson to the activity or resource specified. The drop-down list contains all of the resources and activities in the current course. The user must click the link to be taken to the location. So, this setting doesn't force the user to proceed to a specific place after the lesson.

The Choose or upload a file... setting enables you to specify a file that is displayed in a separate window, at the beginning of the lesson. This can be useful if you want the student to refer to something during the lesson. For example, you could display a diagram and present a series of lesson pages that refer to that diagram. Be careful about combining this with the Slide Show setting under Lesson formatting. If you use them both, you'll have Moodle displayed in one window, the file displayed in another, and the slide show lesson displayed in a third window.

Display high scores lets the high scoring students choose a name to post their scores under. This setting doesn't do anything, if you make the lesson a Practice lesson.

>> Continue Reading Lesson Solutions using Moodle 1.9: Part 2


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