Tag Archives: teaching and learning

Online quizzes!

Last week I took a look at Moodle and tried creating a quiz using the “regular” method – using menus and buttons to navigate graphically through the process of making categories for questions, then populating these categories to form a test bank, then actually putting questions together. It turns out that this is a slow process. I thought that there would be a better way, especially since most teachers already have questions defined from past terms.

There is indeed a faster way. Moodle can import 12 different types of quiz files, including Blackboard and WebCT. The quickest way to go, however, is probably the GIFT format. This is a simple text-based format that uses a variety of delimiters for different purposes. For example, if I want to create a multiple choice quiz I could start by making a plain text file like this, indicating correct answers with “=”:

How many glasses of water per day should a person drink?{~15 ~0 =8}

What is the best type of donut? {~sprinkles ~jelly-filled =eclair}

The GIFT format allows a wide variety of questions: multiple choice, true/false, “missing word”, short answer, even essay. If your answers are numeric you may provide a margin of error. In my first example, for instance, I could say that any answer within 10% of the correct answer would still be graded as correct. 

Here is another example question, this time in matching format:

Match the following IWU departments with their corresponding buildings. {

    =Theatre -> McPherson

    =IT  -> IT House

    =Admissions  -> Holmes

    =Mathematics  -> CNS


There are also provisions for feedback to be given for certain question types, describing why an answer was correct or incorrect.  

It wouldn’t take a lot of work to reformat an existing quiz in Word to fit these patterns. It is also possible that existing test banks that come along with textbooks may already be formatted in one of the Moodle-compatible formats. Once the questions are inside a Moodle course page you can add a quiz wherever you’d like in your course outline (Week 8, topic #4, etc). Next week I’ll add a quiz and get my IT House colleagues to try it out!

evaluating Moodle

I’ve spent a little bit of time evaluating a test installation of Moodle, the open-source course management tool. This tool is becoming quite popular at institutions similar to Illinois Wesleyan, but we still don’t know much about what it offers.

The basic idea is that a teacher will get to create a web space for each course, accessible only to students enrolled in the course. The web space can be structured in a number of formats. The most popular seem to be either “weekly” or “task-based”, which divide your course up either chronologically or topically. Here is a screenshot of a Moodle course homepage, from the teacher’s perspective:

a course page in Moodle

There is an overlap between the tools available in Moodle and those within the MyIWU course tools, such as news and calendars. On the other hand, there are some features that are quite nice. For each week or topic in my course I can create “activities” or “resources”. Here is a screenshot displaying available “activities”:

a course page in Moodle

 As you can see, the array of options is dizzying. I haven’t tried them all, but I did try adding a quiz. I had to first create a test bank of questions, then set up quiz options (how many points, can a student retest, etc). I plan on learning ways to import test banks from other formats soon. I also plan on asking some of my IT colleagues to try taking a quiz to test the usability from the student perspective.

Here is a screenshot of available “resources”:

a course page in Moodle

I created text pages and web pages using Moodle and was pleasantly surprised with the final product and the usability of the tool. It was fast and easy to create a simple document for students that included images. This would be an excellent way to deliver an online handout related to a reading assignment at a particular point in a semester.

Next time around I plan on trying a wiki and importing quizzes into Moodle!

picking the right web tool for the job

Choosing to use a technology tool in a class can lead one down a difficult road. One important key is to figure out what tool to use for the job at hand. So do you use discussion groups, a digital movie project, a wiki, or a blog? To analogize, I wouldn’t want to use a belt sander to grout my bathroom tile, so it would be nice to better understand the nature of these different tools.

So how does one decide what tool or is the best for a specific application or need?

 I’ve found a couple of helpful guides to better understand blogs and wikis in the context of teaching and active learning:

Managing online discussions

As we at Illinois Wesleyan struggle to adapt courses to include online or technology components it often seems that a square peg is being pounded into a round hole. Some parts of some courses are well suited to technology tools and some are not. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Online resources can be accessed at any time, from any place, any number of times
  • Computers can deliver content at the student’s own pace

So it seems that some things can be done outside of classtime so we can get them “out of the way” to spend classtime on higher-level academic discourse. Why not teach basic terminology or vocabulary as online homework so you can tackle tougher stuff in person?

Similarly, if students are engaging in intellectual enterprises outside of class (such as writing critical responses to class reading) doesn’t that mean they benefit from the practice of constructing arguments, or even from the practice of writing in general?

Certainly there are benefits. But how does a teacher manage student activity in the online medium? Let me start with three common refrains from faculty:

  • “How do I get students to engage in frequent, quality online discussions?”
  • “How am I going to grade all that?”
  • “How am I even going to read all that??”

I attended a conference this month and heard an interesting response to these concerns. John Fritz, from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County uses a construct he calls “Participation Portfolios.” Here is his abstract:

If you want students to use online discussions, how do you avoid initiating every thread or simply counting all their replies? By defining and rewarding substantive Q&A (and requiring an online “participation portfolio”). Students will take responsibility for discussions and reduce your burden in assessing them.

John makes an important distinction between quantity of discussion and quality of discussion. This is something that he clearly sets out at the beginning of a course with a rubric. By setting clear guidelines of what makes a post or response “good”, “average”, or “poor” he eliminates “me-too” responses and also reduces grade-groveling later in the term. He requires posts and responses to be spread throughout the course, to stem the tendency to “dogpile” at the end of a term. And it cannot be ignored that John participates in the online discussion. This models the behavior he desires from his students, and sets the academic tone of the discussion.

The students are then asked to pull the best examples of “good” posts, week by week, from the online class discussion forum. They cut-and-paste them into a Word template, propose their own grade based on the rubric, and hand them in. John reserves the right to adjust the grades, but finds that most students are harder on themselves that he would have been.

This system of Participation Portfolios addresses a number of problems. It provides a for-credit incentive with clear quality guidelines for students . It reduces the workload on a faculty member by distilling a term’s worth of discussion into a single assignment. It also requires a student to evaluate their writing and assess themselves.

If you want to hear about how well the assignment works, watch this video interview with UMBC Professor Chris Swan about this portfolio assignment (opens in iTunes).

UMBC didn’t come up with this overnight. They have a program on their campus to promote Alternative Delivery of class content. Faculty design a online/hybrid learning module and test it twice – once for students and once for faculty. They then make a 10 minute presentation about their experience to earn a stipend.

I hope that by reviewing the best practices at some other institutions, such as the Portfolio that John Fritz proposes, we might ease the integration of technology into some of our own courses.

why would faculty want to blog?

A number of us just completed a 2-day workshop on technology for a select group of faculty here at Illinois Wesleyan. Naturally 2 days is not enough time to even establish the foundations of enhancing teaching and learning with updated communication and research techniques. We had to blast through a lot of topics and examples of a few of the more ubiquitous tools in quite a hurry. I’m afraid that in the rush we might not have expressed why certain types of technology might be attractive to an already busy faculty member. Here are a few thoughts about what might “seduce” a teacher into authoring a blog:

  • at its most basic, blogging is about self-publishing. Anyone with opinions, expertise, or criticisms can simply post to a blog to share it with the world. This sounds a heck of a lot easier (for the casual bits of work) than submitting papers and writing journal articles. A group of undergraduates who tackle heavy scholarly work in a blog could take pride in that work standing up to scrutiny in an extremely public forum.
  • Most of the work is done for you. Barbara Ganley referred to a blog as a “vessel” for your content. You don’t have to design a webpage, learn code, or understand how the internet works. You write, you click “publish” and your work is out there. It is automatically archived by date and by categories that you provide.
  • Our mission statement says “A liberal education at Illinois Wesleyan fosters creativity, critical thinking, effective communication, strength of character and a spirit of inquiry”. I believe that our faculty will benefit from investigating new means of communication simply by expanding their perspective. I suspect that it is with strength of character and a spirit of inquiry that a teacher must adapt, improve, and learn.