Sunday, May 24, 2020

I'm Moving!

After spending the last eight years hosting Eat.Write.Teach. on Blogger, I am moving to a new location! I've got some upcoming plans for Eat.Write.Teach., and these plans mean I need something just a little more robust for the Eat.Write.Teach. website. It won't be long until will take you to the new website, but if you want to head over there now, I'd love for you to drop by and read my latest blog post! This original blog will still be available for your viewing pleasure too, but all of my newest content will be hosted on the new website.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Experiment: Leveled Challenges

Being a #quaranteacher for the last six weeks resulted in many different classroom experiments, each with it's own goal. Today I want to share with you one very successful experiment from our emergency online learning: offering students a choice of difficulty level for learning activities.

Experiment Rating 1-5 (5 being Ultimate Teacher Happiness)

Ease of Implementation: 3/5 (moderately easy to implement)
Cost: 5/5 (free!)
Tech Rating: 3/5 (average tech skills required)
Enhances the Learning Environment: 5/5 (motivated learners who were ready to learn despite the current state of the world)

The Question

One of the (many!) challenges that educators have been facing since leaving the physical school building in March has been how to motivate our learners. This is very difficult, and it is important that we recognize the work we have been doing in March, April, and May 2020 is not simply online learning. We have been attempting online education during a literal crisis. I knew I would have students that, for a variety of reasons, would be unable to flourish in an online environment and would really need just the bare minimum to earn their Pass for the quarter. I also knew I had some serious go-getters who would thrive in the online learning environment and would get very bored without school to challenge them. My question was this: what can I do to provide appropriate challenge for every student during this emergency online learning experience?

The Research

Research by Hanewicz, Platt, and Arendt (2017) found that learner-centered teaching is a more effective approach to online learning than traditional teaching models. Learner-centered teaching that allows students to choose the assignments they want to complete results in higher levels of assignment completion, and many students choose to go above and beyond when given these choices, taking on more assignments and greater challenges than necessary to receive a desired grade. In my own classroom experience, it is clear that more student agency results in higher motivation, deeper engagement, and authentic interest in learning.


Here was my hypothesis: I can provide students with the opportunity to choose the difficulty level of activities to encourage participation from students who are struggling during this time and to challenge the students who want to be challenged while stuck at home.

The Experiment/Procedure

Here is my procedure for creating and distributing leveled assignment choices for my Computer Science classes during six weeks of emergency online learning.

Step 1: Identify the skills. I identified the skills that I wanted students to master along with identifying levels of mastery. Mastery isn't a single finish line. There are many checkpoints of enhanced mastery. I decided on three levels of difficulty using video game terminology: Easy, Normal, and Hard. (I later added a fourth level - Nightmare Mode - at the request of students who wanted something even more challenging.) For each skill, I identified what mastery would look like at each of these levels of difficulty. So, for example, if the skill was to create navigation between pages on a website, that skill would look like this at each level:
  • Easy - students can create a navigation bar that links to each page of a website (easy because the platform being used - Google Sites - does the linking for you; students simply had to make the pages, ensure they were visible in the navigation bar, and make sure the pages were named appropriately)
  • Normal - students can create hyperlinked buttons that link to each page of a website (normal because students must demonstrate knowledge of creating buttons, clearly labeling the buttons, and linking them to the appropriate page)
  • Hard - students can hyperlink text to create links to each page of a website (still the navigation skill, but with the added challenge of demonstrating the ability to select and hyperlink text to the appropriate page)
Step 2: Design the challenge. After selecting the skills, I designed an assignment that would incorporate those skills - designing a web portfolio using Google Sites, for example. I called them "challenges" because that is way more interesting than an "assignment."

Step 3: Teach the skill at each level. Okay, this is the part that might seem a bit overwhelming at first. If you are going to provide a skill challenge at three different levels of difficulty, then you need to instruct at three different levels of difficulty. If you do not provide the structure students need to master the Normal or Hard levels, many students will not attempt the challenge. However, if you show them that they are very capable of doing the more challenging work and support them in the process, they will rise to the occasion. In the case of our emergency online learning, I made a single screencast video teaching students how to complete each skill at each level of difficulty. When I gave the students the video (see Step 4), I would also provide them the timestamp for their chosen level of difficulty.

Step 4: Provide students with the task, a list of steps, the video lesson, and any other resources needed for each level. I created a Google Slides deck that students accessed daily. The main slide  included the date, the challenge, a link to my daily announcement videos, and the task list. In the task list, students would choose the level of difficulty they wanted to attempt for the challenge.

After clicking on the chosen level of difficulty, it would take the student to the appropriate slide.

Step 5: Provide feedback and score products with mastery of chosen difficulty level in mind. One thing that was important to me during this experiment was that, regardless of difficulty level, the assignment was worth the same points. A student could earn the same amount of credit for an Easy project as a Hard project. In this scenario, I did not want students to be motivated by a grade. I wanted them to choose the challenge level that worked for their given situation. As I scored students' work, I would provide detailed feedback. Students who I felt were working below their potential (honestly, there were only two of them) were provided with encouraging feedback and a suggestion to consider trying the next level of difficulty on the next challenge (both did). Students who were obviously pouring their hearts and minds into their work were given very specific feedback on their above-and-beyond skills demonstrations.


This experiment worked out better than I'd ever expected it to. I was afraid that, upon learning that the challenges would be worth the same amount of points regardless of difficulty level, all of my students would choose the Easy level. This could not be further from the truth. Students did what I really hoped they would do: they chose the difficulty level that worked for them. Some students who struggled in Computer Science all year long stuck with the Easy level, which was appropriate for them, and they did very well and honestly improved their skills quite a bit. Some of my Achiever-type students always went for the Hard level and were even very excited for the Nightmare Mode challenges to appear because they wanted to challenge themselves. Some students bounced around, choosing Easy for the skills they didn't feel confident about and choosing Normal or Hard when they thought they could master it without too much extra effort.

I asked for feedback from my students every week, and nearly all of them agreed that they really liked being able to choose the level of difficulty for their assignment. Some common ideas from the students included:
  • having the freedom to choose how much time they spent on the project
  • enjoying pushing themselves when so much of their lives was feeling dull and boring
  • just being happy that they got to make a choice about what they learned instead of having it force-fed to them
So what now? Well, to be honest, no one knows. I don't know what school is going to look like again come August. I do know, though, that I will incorporate more of this type of leveled work and allowing students to choose the challenge that best suits them. If you are looking for a way to differentiate your online instruction and motivate your students to take some ownership of their learning, maybe give this experiment a try! Let me know how it goes!


Hanewicz, C., Platt, A., & Arendt, A. (2017). Creating a learner-centered teaching environment using student choice in assignments. Distance Education, 38(3), 273–287.