Moodle Support Videos and Links

This post will be used to host links to all the Moodle workshop, support videos, and links. Links will be grouped as best as possible by topic. If there is a Moodle support topic you would like to request, please contact Jedidiah Rex.

Course Design

Grading and Assessment


Community of Inquiry

In this Chronicle blog post, Rachel Toor writes about the strategies she used in conjunction with Zoom to help build community in her undergraduate courses. The main one about her, “sandbox” discussion thread reminded me about what I have learned from the community of inquiry method (CoI) and social presence. it is also encouraging to know that at least some face-to-face strategies may work in an online environment.

For more about Community of Inquiry (CoI) check out the links here:

Extreme Makeover: Moodle Edition

We are in unprecedented times. The spring term has been a time of triage, of doing what we can to meet students and create any learning experience possible. Many have used our learning management system, Moodle, for the first time (Kudos!) And some are relying on it just a bit more than they have before. According to data being collected by colleagues in the Office of Research Administration, student experience in this new paradigm within Moodle has varied. Some have been able to take it in stride and some have experienced challenges. The purpose of this post is to provide brief design examples and recommendations that an instructor may implement in their Moodle course to help make the student experience as good as it can be.

As an aside I will mention that Shannon Newman and I presented a workshop where we shared strategies for making a course more inclusive with Moodle tools. You may see the slides here.

What follows are some strategies with examples that you may choose to implement in your Moodle course(s).

Strategy 1 – Use Topic Zero With Care

The first topic section in every Moodle course is “Topic 0.” One special characteristic of this section is that it is always visible no matter which course format you choose.

Moodle course page with the first topic section, "Topic Zero," highlighted inside a red box.
Moodle: Topic Zero

This makes it a great place for more static information like a syllabus, office hours, and course description. Care should be taken to only place what is necessary in this section. Keeping the information in this section concise will limit how much the students have to scroll to access other course materials.

Strategy 2 – Use images

Images can bring color and increase interest on your course page. While cliché, there is some merit to the phrase, “A picture is worth 1000 words.” Used in the right way, an image can additionally help bring clarity to a concept or provide commentary on a specific idea. Below (1) is an example of a banner image from Martyn Smith’s RLST 205 course, “Religion and the Biosphere.” The image adds interest and is tied to the course theme.

A Moodle course page showing a banner image of white flowers in front of green leaves and a list of emoji images for students to use on Instragram.
RLST205S20: Images in a course.

The second image (2) is used to convey information to the students about how they can interact in the course.

One note on using images: Best practice would dictate that all images be accessible, containing alternative text (alt text) where necessary. The Moodle text editor provides you direction for entering alt text and/or giving you the option to not include it if the image is decorative. In the above example the banner image is most likely decorative and doesn’t need alt text. The second image would require a description to allow those using screen reading software to know what the image was about.

Strategy 3 – Limit Cognitive Load

Limiting the amount of content that students must consume in an interaction with your course can open mental bandwidth for them to focus on the course content and work that you have for them. There are a number of ways that you can support students in this. One way exampled in both Martyn Smith’s RLST 205 and Shannon Newman’s BIOL 354 course, is that only the most current week/topic (RLST 205,) or all past and current are visible, but future topics are hidden (BIOL 354). Topic sections may easily be hidden by the instructor.

Moodle Edit topic settings menu with the "Hide topic" option noted with a red arrow.
Moodle: Edit topic menu.

Activities and resources may also be hidden/shown to students based on a number of criteria including date, grade, completion of another activity or combination thereof.

Another way to help focus students’ attention is to use an alternative course format. Two useful ones are collapsible topics or weeks. They function as they sound, allowing each topic to be collapsed or expanded as the student needs or desires.

The Moodle course settings page with the Course Format sections expanded and the Format drop-down menu expanded to show the available course formats. These include (in this order from top to bottom): Collapsible topics format, Collapsible Weeks format, Single activity format, Topics format, and Weekly format.
Moodle: Course Administration > Edit Settings > Course format.

We can see an example of this in the image below from Shannon Newman’s Molecular Biology course. There is an option to expand all sections in the upper right. Each section contains an arrow on the left to expand or collapse that section. Two benefits of this format are that 1) it provides a list of the activities and resources contained in that section, and 2) shows a progress counter so that students can see how much they have completed in a section. This supports their executive function.

BIOL354S20: Collapsible topic sections.

One last way to limit cognitive overload is to group information within a Book, Page, or Folder resource. Each of these provide a way to consolidate large amounts of information or files into a single link on the course page.

Strategy 4 – Use Consistent Organization & Visual Design

A Moodle course is an extension of the class environment and in this current circumstance THE class environment. An instructor can provide context for the course materials which will in turn help students navigate, locate, and use those course materials. This is accomplished by using a consistent layout and visual design. An example of this can be seen in Shannon Newman’s Molecular Biology course.

One topic section within a Moodle course page displaying four chunks of information: an overview, lecture recordings, laboratory, and assignments.
BIOL354S20: Consistent topic content layout and design.

In the image above we see four distinct sections within the topic section: an overview, Lecture Recordings and PowerPoints, Laboratory, and Assignments. Each of the subsequent sections in Shannon’s course follow this same format. Doing so provides a consistent structure to help the students find what they need. Creating sub-sections within a topic section can be accomplished by using a Label resource to create a heading and then indenting (“Move right”) the items below the heading.

Where the section structure may differ from topic to topic with additional or less materials, e.g. there is an additional section for “Exam Information” in the second module of Shannon’s course, the order is kept consistent to allow the students to easily scan over the materials and find what they need.

Strategy 5 – Avoid the Scroll-of-Death

Moodle makes it very easy to add materials to a course. It is simple as dragging them from your computer’s desktop or folder into your Moodle course. As a result a course can end up consisting of a long list of documents and activities requiring students to scroll and scroll to see materials later on in a course.

A scrolling Moodle page.

A number of the strategies mentioned above may help combat this (Collapsible topics/weeks, hiding topic sections, using Book, Page, or Folder resources.) Making an effort to limit scrolling is especially important as more and more users access Moodle from a mobile device. By way of illustration during the first four weeks of winter term 41% of users accessed Moodle from a mobile device. During the first four weeks of spring term this number has increased to 53%. Ignoring this trend means creating barriers for users and creating a less inclusive environment.

Using the handful of strategies presented can help make your course more accessible, pleasant, and useful to students. The easier it is for your students to navigate your Moodle course the more they can concentrate on the task of learning. Please reach out to Instructional Technology if you have any questions about the strategies shared here.

Workload Estimator

The Workload Estimator from the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University is a helpful tool for instructors to inform themselves about how much work they are giving students. This tool can be part of an instructors transparent approach by providing a way for instructors to communicate to students the amount of work that instructors require of students.

Making Accessible Office Documents

One part of creating an inclusive classroom is making sure that the materials we use are accessible to those with disabilities. As the University of Washington Accessible Technology blog points out, there are some common steps that one can take regardless of the type of document. These include:1

  • Using headings
  • Using lists
  • Using meaningful hyperlinks
  • Adding alternate text to images
  • Using tables wisely

I will include links below to helpful resources for each of the three Office tools. This link to the University of Washington page on creating accessible documents contain very helpful information. There is also a link to Microsoft’s accessibility video training hub that has helpful information and examples.





1. “Overview of Accessible Documents.” n.d. Accessible Technology (blog). Accessed February 20, 2020.

New Resource: Podcasting 101

I write today to share a video playlist resource for faculty, and their students developed through a collaboration between Instructional Technology and Mudd Library staff. We have created a series of three videos in support of podcasting projects.

The videos are hosted on the Podcasting page within the Digital Media Toolbox. we invite any instructor interested in having students complete a podcasting project to use these videos. Not to prescribe use of this resource, but the videos could be used in a flipped workshop model, where students view the video(s) ahead of time and then Instructional Technology or the Mudd Library staff could attend a class to facilitate work on a facet of the actual project.

The playlist shares recording tips, resources the Library has to offer, and how to get started editing in Audacity.

Individual Videos

  1. Recording Tips (6:22)
  2. Library Resources (7:43)
  3. Getting Started with Audacity (10:44)

*** Make sure to check out the video description in each video for linked bookmarks to specific points in each video and other resources.

Libguides – Teaching and Learning

Logo image for Libguides. A blue cloud with a white laptop icon in front.

I write today to share a link to a number of resources. Since coming to Lawrence I have begun curating a number of guides in the “Teaching and Learning” category. The purpose of these guides is to provide resources for instructors and their students. This list of guides is chosen to support instructors in making their courses more active and inclusive; and supporting students in their coursework.

If you are interested in viewing other guides you may do so by navigating to the Library’s main page (, and then clicking the “research guides” link located on the right under the “Research Guides” heading.

Rather than providing a summary for each guide in the teaching and learning list, I prefer to call out a few that I think are most important.

The first in this list is the Universal Design for Learning, Neurodiversity guide. Universal design for learning (UDL) is a design framework for reducing and removing barriers in the teaching and learning experience. Its purpose is to make the learning experience more inclusive and to produce self-directed and engaged learners. This guide provides an overview of UDL, explanations for each of the three principles (Representation, Engagement, and Expression), and an overview of what neurodiversity is and implications for teaching and learning. UDL has great potential to better the teaching and learning experience, particularly in the areas of student agency and executive function. One increasing issue faced on our and many campuses is clinical anxiety. UDL provides the means for an instructor to support a student by providing the structures and tools to help the student manage their work in a more digestible manner.

Second in the list is the Wikipedia as a Teaching Tool guide. One goal of all educators is to help students become producers of knowledge rather than solely consumers. Wikipedia is one tool that can help facilitate this is a pointed way. The platform provides a low barrier to entry for anyone to contribute to the repository of knowledge. This guide provides recommendations for instructors on how to have students evaluate Wikipedia, research with Wikipedia, and resources available to an instructor for teaching and students working in Wikipedia. One resource that I particularly want to mention is the WikiEdu organization. This group provides assignment examples and templates as well as design support for an instructor wanting to use Wikipedia in a course.

The third and last guide in this list is the Digital Media Toolbox. This guide was created with the purpose to be a resource for instructors and students in the creation of digital media. Among other things this guide provides information on copyright and citation of media, finding media that may be re-used in projects, and campus resources for creating projects. Digital media projects are a way to provide students options in how they show what they know (a tenet of UDL and the principle of Expression). They also allow the students to express creativity and participate in something that may be perceived as fun. These are all positives in a learning experience leading to increased engagement.

I invite you to review these guides in particular and the rest in the list too. Please feel free to reach out to me through comments or contacting me directly. I am happy to discuss the content in these guides and how it relates to the teaching and learning process.

IDC02-A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice

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IDC02 Transcript (PDF)

Welcome to the second episode of the ID Corner podcast, where we talk about anything and everything related to teaching and learning.  I am your host, Jedidiah Rex, Instructional Designer at Lawrence University.

This podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. You may also subscribe manually through the feed on my blog. Notes, resources, and transcript are also available there. My blog may be found at

Today I am going to review a book titled, “A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice” by Paul Baepler, J.D. Walker, D. Christopher Brooks, Kem Saichaie, and Christina Petersen, published in2016. This is an important work, referenced by the Educause Learning Initiative in their, “7 Things You Should Know About … Research on Active Learning Classrooms.” Active learning pedagogy and active learning classrooms, or ALCs, are an important topic on many campuses. Lawrence is no exception. As higher education is looking for ways to engage with students, active learning has come to the fore as a means of doing that. This book is a great resource for anyone interested learning about, or considering teaching in an active learning classroom. My goal for this episode is to distill for you those things I found most informative and helpful for someone interested teaching in an active learning classroom.

As the title suggests, this book takes a past-present-future approach to look at how the pedagogy of active learning classrooms has developed. While it is not necessary to know the exact history of the development of ALCs, it is helpful to see that the use of ALC’s has over twenty years of research and development. Some of the key findings from research about ALCs shared in this book are, and I quote:

  • Students in Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) outperform their peers in traditional classrooms;
  • Students is ALCs exceed their own grade expectations as predicted by standardized test scores;
  • Using an active learning pedagogical approach in an ALC results in significant student learning gains over using a lecture-based approach in the same space; and
  • Using a flipped classroom model and a blended learning approach in an ALC can compensate for significant reductions in face-to-face time in the classroom. (17)

So what do we see here? Student achievement can be increased through active learning compared to a traditional approach. Matching pedagogy with the space increases student learning. Utilizing active learning pedagogies, such as flipped learning, can make up for a reduction in face time. It has also become apparent from the research that the space design has an effect on the level of student achievement. Studies in 2008, 2010, and 2011 all point to increased engagement and achievement for students taught in an ALC. (19, 22, 24) There is a strong correlation between student achievement and the relationship between teaching design and space. The better the design fits the space and the space supports the design, the better the student achievement will be.

Due to the social nature of teaching and learning, ALCs change the ways in which instructors relate to students and the ways in which students relate to each other. The research presented in the book looks at four different variables when measuring how and to what degree the variables affect learning. I will post a link to the specific research, the Social Context and Learning Environments (SCALE) survey, in the blog post for this episode. There is a wealth of information there about the effects of ALCs and active learning pedagogy on student achievement. In short, results show that students out performed students in a traditional class.  

ALCs change how instructors and students relate to one another and may present some challenges to the teaching and learning process. The authors point out four categories of challenges. These are:

  • Planning to teach in the space
  • Teaching in the space
  • Managing student resistance
  • Employing technology in the space

Teaching in an ALC with active learning pedagogy requires planning. In most cases, doing so will mean modifying a majority of a course. All of these areas must be given careful thought and planning to have a successful experience. An example of something that may need to change is a reliance on lecture. The authors share that lecture has been shown to be less effective in ALCs as cited in Brooks, 2012; and Walker, Brooks, Baepler, 2011.

Some questions that the authors suggest that instructors consider are:

  • What is it like to be in the space?
  • How do I need to change the course to fit the space?
  • How can I adapt course materials to fit in the space?

Active learning requires a different level of energy and engagement from students. They may not initially participate with joy. If you find yourself in that situation, there are some things that you can do to help change the student perspective. These include communicating the ways in which the space supports the work and learning that you desire, sharing the connection between the kind of work and skills they will do and acquire in class to those desired by future employers. Any time you can point out the research on the positive effect of active learning and ALCs won’t hurt either.

Another challenge of teaching in an ALC is that students may feel isolated if you structure your course in such a way that the same group or teams of students only work with that same group.

Additionally challenging in an ALC is the redefinition or lack of a “front of the room.” As mentioned by the authors, “Instructors new to ALCs find that it can be difficult to locate and hear student, to move through the space, and to regain attention from a new spot in the room. The lack of a central focal spot means instructors need to plan for how to direct attention in the space, including defining the front of the room and positioning themselves to ensure students can locate the speaker.”

So what should an instructor do? What can an instructor do to mediate possible challenges? Being up front and sharing possible challenges with students along with how you as the instructor decide to address them can help greatly to minimize challenges. In the case of the –lack-of-front-of-room, discuss how this can and may affect how you and they relate to one another. If you experience difficulty regaining students’ attention, perhaps creating a common gesture or phrase, or using a timer can help. In the situation in which students may feel isolated, I recommend sharing the structure of the class, the pedagogy you will use and why you think it is important for their learning with the students. Being upfront about the ‘why’ provides an opportunity for the student to increase their understanding and engagement in the learning experience.

Some students (and instructors) might be intimidated by all the technology that can be present in an active learning classroom. First, let me say that active learning does not require the use of technology. An instructor can make use of active learning strategies without using technology. That said the best way to minimize this challenge is to make pointed use of the technology, making sure that the technology use aligns with the desired learning objectives. The technology use should support the learning goals. Sharing the learning goals with students and explaining how your use of technology supports the learning goal can help them see the purpose behind the use, which in turn can mitigate reticence and help them engage more fully.

One final challenge related to technology may be digital distraction. The combination of a room filled with screens and the possibility of having and needing a device of their own can make it easy for a student to be distracted. Some of the strategies shared by the authors include moving around the room, providing cues for when devices may be used and not, and beginning class with a rigorous activity. This last recommendation gets the students focused on an activity and reduces the opportunity for distraction.

We are going to turn now from challenges to look at differences between traditional and ALC experiences. Aside from the flexible furniture, focus on group work, and heavy technology presence, how is teaching in an ALC different from in a traditional classroom? The authors point out four common features of effective activities in an ALC. These are, and I quote:

  • Most of the information transmission in the form of lecture by the professor is significantly reduced or moved out of the classroom;
  • Most activities are supported by graded pre-class reading, homework, and quizzes or post class homework;
  • Students often work in small teams on activities designed to provide them with a deeper understanding of the topic, and;
  • Classroom activities are typically followed by some form of whole-class synthesis facilitated by the instructor that may take the form of a discussion a short assessment, or a mini-lecture. (72)

So from this, we can see a few general characteristics. Teaching in an ALC lends itself to a flipped model where traditional information transfer happens outside of the class and the class time is devoted to discussion or work on problem sets. Next, the work students are required to do outside of class counts toward their overall grade. It is not busy work, but preparation for the learning that will happen in the class. Finally, there is some sort of culminating group synthesis activity to make sure that everyone is on the same page. There is a mixture of group time and whole-class time. I see this mixture as movement. Movement of the class along a trajectory toward the course goals, and movement within the students toward shared understanding. It is a churning of information as students work with the subject matter in order to construct their own understanding. What should a collaborative experience look like and how can an instructor manage this movement? How can an instructor facilitate a positive experience for the students?

The next chapter in this book looks at these questions and outlines benefits of collaborative work, characteristics of collaborative groups, and then recommendations for configuring groups and experiences within an active learning experience. Some of the benefits of collaborative work the authors share are:

  • Exposure to multiple perspectives and increased openness to diversity;
  • Increased problems solving abilities; and
  • Greater satisfaction with learning. (121)

One benefit the authors’ share that I find particularly pertinent in today’s higher-ed environment is that it has been found that introducing collaborative work in the first year increases the likelihood that a student will persist to the second year of college. (121) This finding on its own should encourage any instructor to consider working this type of activity into first-year and intro courses. The authors also point to the power of collaborative work saying that, “researchers have also suggested that students develop the capacity to reach mastery through a complex and challenging objective that no single student could reach alone.” (124) So the collective nature of the collaborative group allows the students as a whole achieve more than the individual students could on their own. Not to reduce this to cliché, but is seems that the sum is greater than the parts when collaborative work is involved.

How does collaborative work facilitate these benefits? The authors point out 5 common characteristics of all active learning strategies that facilitate learning gains. These are: accountability, group processing, interaction, interdependence and skill development. (124-125) An instructor should attempt to structure an active or collaborative learning experience to contain these things. The rest of this chapter details strategies that an instructor may use to do so. The very first strategy mentioned by the authors is developing learning outcomes or objectives for the group. (125) This is paramount for a couple reasons. First, to clarify for the instructor what the learning experience is to be about. Objective define what is it that the instructor wishes the students to get out of the experience. Second to communicate to students the ‘why’ of the experience. It communicates the importance the work that the students will be doing. Questions the authors share to help an instructor get at these are:

  • “What ideas or concepts should endure for the students one month, one year, and one decade after they complete the course?”

And next,

  • “What competencies or levels of mastery should a student be able to demonstrate after finishing the course? (125)

The next section in this chapter focuses in on creating student groups and addresses issues such as when to form groups, ways to form groups, group size, group roles, and group duration. (127-134) I will do my best to summarize each of these. When you might form groups depends on the objectives for the group and the scope of the activity. There is a range of time that groups may be formed but most instructors polled by the authors agreed that doing so as early as possible is best. (128) Next the authors share ways in which groups may be formed. They list four. They are random, instructor-generated, self-generated, and mixed. (128-130) There are plusses and minuses for each of these methods. I have seen each of them used in by instructors at Lawrence. One recommendation I have received from a number of instructors related to forming groups, no matter the specific method, is to provide the students an opportunity to confidentially share if there is someone they are not able to work with. This is a proactive strategy to meet student needs and promote group success. Another consideration an instructor needs to take into account in the group size. This can vary but generally staying within four to seven students per group seems to work best. (132) the scope of the activity has some determination of the size of the group. The group size should correlate with how much work is required or how challenging the project or activity is. (132) Space logistics may also play a role in the group size. (133) The success of a group can be influenced by the use of roles, however there is mixed opinion on whether roles should be used. (133) Those opposing group assignment mention that roles form organically. (134) An instructor should make an effort to allow students to function in different roles if roles are assigned. (133) Last in this list the authors discuss how long a group should last. Some reported that groups lasting the entire term are best while others reported that a shorter duration is better. (134) The authors additionally mention that may instructors shared that it is easier to manage groups that persist over a longer duration. (134) I think key to determining how a group will be structured and how long that group will remain, is to create a planned structure based on the learning objectives, taking into consideration influences space may have, then thinking about the structure, difficulty, and scope of the activity.

After talking about how a collaborative activity and groups may be structured the authors turn to how an instructor may promote success of those groups within an active learning activity. The outline of the next section includes thoughts on group accountability, group dynamics, group dysfunctions, groups outside the classroom, and groups in a blended or online environment. The authors then turn to strategies for assessing student work in the context of a group activity. Strategies covered here are weighting grades to promote group work, avoiding grade curving, and peer assessment. They conclude the chapter with a discussion of strategies for closing the  collaborative activity. One idea to point out is the idea of accountability. Groups will function more smoothly and students more engaged if members are accountable to one another. Some instructors recommend a group contract (136). While this can be beneficial, an instructor at minimum should have the groups or class discuss norms for how the group will function. It can be helpful to include the students in the creation of norms instead of handing them down. Including the students will give them a sense of ownership and greater accountability. (136) Group dysfunction may arise and the literature mentions that encouraging the groups to work it out is the best strategy. (140) When assessing group work an instructor can promote collaboration by weighting the grading structure to highlight group accomplishments. (141) Another recommendation is to avoid curving grades. Curving grades, or using a norm- referenced grade puts students in competition with one another. (143) There are good recommendations here around peer assessment also on page 143 and 144. You may also listen to episode 1 of this podcast for information about peer assessment.

The next chapter in A Guide to Teaching in the active Learning Classroom tackles the topic of assessment specifically. Just as an active classroom supports collaborative activity it can also support collaborative assessment. (153) Active learning supports collaborative activities as well as collaborative exams or quizzes. Designing these can present a challenge to an instructor new to active learning. One example of a collaborative exam that works well in an active classroom setting is a two-stage exam. (155) In this model, a student takes one part of the exam individually and then participates in a collaborative portion. There are two main ways to provision grades: norm-referenced or criterion referenced. A norm referenced grading scheme may be seen as being more fair (161) but in effect pits students against one another in competition for a top grade. (143) Criterion-referenced grading conversely allows each student to earn a particular grade based on predetermined criteria. (162) The authors point out that if you want students to work collaboratively you should use a criterion-referenced approach. (162)

The authors now turn to the topic of supporting all learners. Many of the challenges mentioned before can be an even bigger challenge for students with disabilities. (169) Forethought and planning should be given to proactively meeting these challenges. The authors point out that the number of student with disabilities attending college is on the rise and that as of 2013 11% of undergraduates reported having a disability. (169) Another group for whom the active learning environment may pose a challenge are non-native speakers. The presence of these students on our campuses is also increasing. (169) One strategy for supporting all students is to share course expectations clearly from the very beginning of your course. (173) Additionally, making use of the universal design for learning framework in the design of the course and materials can help remove challenges that students may encounter. If you are interested in learning more about universal design for learning, please check out my blog and the materials I have there. The rest of this chapter outlines specific strategies for addressing challenges and removing barriers for students in the active learning classroom.

The last three chapters of this book share information about strategies for supporting faculty, how to design learning spaces research, and future direction with active learning classrooms. While these are interesting topics they all fall outside the scope of what I hope to address in this episode. This book is a wealth of information, and full of helpful, research-backed strategies for teaching in an active learning classroom. I hope that you found this episode informative and helpful. If you are interested teaching in an active learning classroom please reach out to me. I also welcome you to visit my blog to comment or discuss anything I have shared here. Thank you for listening and have a great day.



IDC01-Peer Assessment

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IDC01 Transcript (PDF)

Welcome to the first episode of the ID Corner podcast.
The ID Corner podcast is a place where I will share and invite you to think about anything and everything related to teaching and learning. I plan to release three episodes a term. My hope is that this podcast will be a resource to teachers and a source of discussion. I want to provide space for thinking and talking about teaching. I invite you to comment below.

Peer Assessment

In his article published in Theory and Practice, Keith Topping defines peer assessment (PA) as, “… an arrangement for learners to consider and specify the level, value, or quality of a product or performance of other equal-status learners.” (Topping, 20) Why would an instructor want to use PA? What are the benefits and challenges? If I decide to use PA in my course, how should I go about doing so?

PA can be used as a means of engaging students in the learning process (Allberg and Lorås, 6) especially when the instructor deliberately communicates to students about the reasons for and benefits from PA. (Topping, 25) It has been shown that there can be gains for both assessors and assesees due to PA. (Topping, 22)


What are the benefits of peer assessment? In the following section, we will look at benefits in three areas: academic benefits and social skill benefits for students, and benefits of PA for teachers.


Topping lists a number of benefits that students may enjoy because of participating in a PA exercise. Some of those listed are: time on task, increased sense of accountability, increased assessment of understanding, earlier error identification and analysis, and increased metacognition. (Topping, 23) These are all areas that a teacher should want to see gains in their students. There is some correlation between a high PA and high performance on exams. (Allberg and Lorås, 10) This means that those students who receive a high grade in the PA perform well on the exams. Another study by van Zundert et al. reports that students work revisions improved based on feedback from PA. (273)


Students may also realize gains in social skills. One such gain is the ability to judge good work. (van Zundert et al., 270) Related to criticism Topping reports that, “Learning how to give and accept criticism, justify one’s own position, and reject suggestions are all useful, transferable social skills.”(24) PA helps the student practice these skills. Lastly, Aalberg, and Lorås share that, “Research also shows that peer assessments, if applied successfully, can have positive effects on self-confidence, transferable skills and social skills.”(9)


Benefits to students should weigh heavy in favor of use, but there are specific benefits that a teacher may realize with PA. One benefit of using PA for the teacher is an economy of scale. Using the students as assessors creates that many more assessors and shares the responsibility of assessment. (Topping, 22) In addition, when taken as a whole, the sum of all the assessments may provide a deeper level of detail than with a single assessor. Aalberg and Lorås report that teachers found that the comments provided by the peer assessors seemed to, “have a higher level of detail than what the teacher would have been able to identify, and if when all comments are put together they gave a good overview.”(9) Related to PA of group work, the work by van Zundert et al. quotes a study mentioning that PA provides teachers, “a more accurate picture of individual performance in group work (Cheng & Warren, 2000).”(270) Another final benefit that teachers may realize is that the process of preparing for and administering PA may cause them to take a focused look at the course objectives and assessment, bringing clarity. As Topping mentions, “”Peer assessment can lead teachers to scrutinize and clarify assessment objectives and purposes, criteria, and grading scales.” (24)

Challenges & Questions

PA is not without its challenges. Students may feel anxious about assessing and being assessed by peers. (Topping, 24) Some students may feel that the assessment is not fair or that the assessment is not valid because their peer is not an expert in the area being assessed. (Allberg and Lorås, 8) They may also feel that the time and effort to complete a PA exercise is not worth what they perceive they may get out of the experience. (Allberg and Lorås, 8) One question related to PA is, “Are the grades valid and reliable?” It has been shown that PA grades are generally higher than a teacher may give. (Allberg and Lorås, 8) Can a teacher trust the PA enough to include the grades in the overall course grade? Aalberg, and Lorås share that PA may be used in grading, a finding that was confirmed by Topping. (9)  There are conflicting findings about whether and to what degree social processes may affect PA. Topping reports that social processes can, “influence and contaminate the reliability and validity of peer assessments.” (24)  He elaborated that, “Peer assessments can be partly determined by friendship bonds, enmity, or other power processes, the popularity of individuals, perception of criticism as socially uncomfortable, or even collusion to submit average scores, leading to lack of differentiation.” (24) A study referenced by van Zundert et al. conversely shares that the fairness of PA affected by personal relationships is negligible. (van Zundert et al., 272) There may be strategies that an instructor may use to minimize the possibility of these issues becoming a factor in the PA exercise.


How do we maximize benefits and minimize challenges associated with PA? As we will see in the following section, there are strategies that an instructor may employ to make the best use of PA in the learning experience. With forethought and preparation, PA can be an effective pedagogical tool.


The success of the PA activity is due largely to how much time is spent in preparation. As with any other learning activity, a teacher should define the objectives, what she or he wants students to get out of the experience, and why it is important for the students to participate. (Topping, 25) Helping students understand the ‘why’ of the activity will go a long way in alleviating some of the negative feelings students may have about the PA exercise.  Communicating the importance of the place the students are taking within the PA exercise can help them to be more engaged. As Topping states, “…students should be told that peer assessment involves students directly in learning, and should promote a sense of ownership, personal responsibility, and motivation.”(24) Providing support for the students in a PA experience should begin with defining how the students will be assessed and creating a rubric for doing so. The creation of a rubric can help bring focus on those most important take-aways, and provide language that the students may use in their assessment of peers. (Allberg and Lorås, 2) Providing guidance and opportunities to practice PA can have a great positive impact on both students’ perception of PA and ability to carry out a PA. (van Zundert et al., 270, 274-5)  Another strategy that can help students as they begin practicing a PA exercise is to have them give positive feedback initially. This can help to reduce anxiety they may have about assessing their peers. (Topping, 24]


A teacher must monitor and coach the PA activity in order for it to be successful. (Allberg and Lorås, 9) Providing guidelines and rubrics are one step in the preparation, but to be successful the instructor needs to continue to support the students through the experience. Students need direction from the teacher and opportunities to practice writing appropriate and helpful assessment comments. (Allberg and Lorås, 11) One strategy for reducing assesse anxiety in the initial PA experience is to give positive feedback first. (Topping, 24) In addition, providing multiple opportunities to practice PA will help students build skills for accurately assessing the work of their peers. Evaluating the quality of the PA is another way that teachers may support students through the experience and help them build good assessment skills. (Allberg and Lorås, 11)

In his article “Peer Assessment” Keith Topping provides eleven steps to executing a successful PA activity. I will not reproduce the entire list here, but there are a few items from the list that are important to recount here. The first recommendation is to find a partner. Do not implement PA on your own. I think this is important to share the intellectual load of talking through and determining objectives, rubrics, guidelines, and structure. This is work and many hands are helpful. The second recommendation mentioned is, “Clarify purpose, rationale, expectations, and acceptability with all stakeholders.” Determining the reason for and what you want students to get out of the PA experience is crucial for making the experience a success. Communicating these with students early and throughout the experience can increase their engagement, accountability and sense of ownership. Similar to this point is to include the students in identifying the assessment criteria. This is especially the case for PA of team or group work. Next is practice, practice, practice. Training students on how you want them to do PA is the best way to ensure that they do it the way that you want and to have a successful experience. To that end, providing exemplars, guidelines for and rubrics for the assessment you are asking them to do provides them a solid grounding in what criteria you want them to assess. This also provides a foundation for the sort of language that is appropriate and desired for them to use in the PA. Lastly, instructor should make a point to evaluate the assessments. This can be a graded exercise or not. Doing so provides a good means of determining if the students understand the objectives of the PA activity. This can also serve as a means of gathering exemplars for future iterations of the activity. (Topping, 25)

Peer assessment can be a great tool for formative assessment as well as benefitting students in a number of other ways. Preparing adequately and following the strategies listed her can help your PA activity be a success.


Aalberg, Trond, and Madeleine Lorås. 2018. Active Learning and Student Peer Assessment in a Web Development Course ; Active Learning and Student Peer Assessment in a Web Development Course.

Topping, Keith J. 2009 “Peer Assessment.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 48, no. 1, Winter , pp. 20–27. doi:10.1080/00405840802577569.

van Zundert, Marjo, et al. 2010. “Effective Peer Assessment Processes: Research Findings and Future Directions.” Learning and Instruction, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 270–79. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2009.08.004.



UDL and Blended Learning

In her article on Edutopia, Beth Holland mentions the following:

“In a blended environment, students take advantage of the different modalities afforded by both the online and in-person contexts. I have argued in the pastthat neither digital workflow nor the dissemination of digitized, teacher-driven content constitutes blended learning. As Michael Horn and Heather Staker write in Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, the proper role of digital technologies in true blended learning is giving students control over the time, path (e.g., type of content), place (online or in person), and pace of their learning. The online environment affords students with choice and control over their learning, and teachers gain opportunities for meaningful interactions with their students. “
[Emphasis mine]

This second part of the paragraph sounds very similar to a universal design for learning (UDL) approach. The article mentions differentiation but I would argue that UDL is not the same thing as differentiation. I appreciate the comparison made by Loui Lord Nelson in, Design & Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using UDL where she compares differentiation as creating separate meals for each student versus providing a buffet of options (UDL). the latter environment allows the person to choose the things that work for them.

I wonder how may educators view it this way?