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