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LMS-Based Teaching Hacks: A Collection of Simple Ideas to Tweak Your Teaching Within an LMS.




Matt Clare, Brock University.  matt.clare at -






Santa Barbara A


_Conference site link

A collection of simple ideas that can magnify the impact of an instructor's teaching through the use of an LMS. These hacks have been collected from an international collection of instructors and provide solutions to common challenges in teaching. Some of the teaching hacks address concerns with student attendance and communications, others with facilitating collaboration and other elements of active learning. Participants might be surprised to learn what kind of challenges an LMS and the web can solve.

Much as the development community would use the term, these teaching hacks are intended to be pragmatics solutions that might use a resource not as it was originally intended to be used.

The slides for this presentation can be found at

Clandestine Attendance Tracking

Start of Class Quizzes

If you are fortunate enough to teach in a space where every student has a computer starting class with a simple, "open computer", quiz on the previous class' content has a number of benefits:

  1. It encourages students to pay attention in class, knowing that there is a quiz next class
  2. Forces students to reflect and apply learning from previous class within a few days of learning it, helping knowledge make it into student's long-term memory
  3. The results of the quiz give students a gauge of how a student is doing in the class and identifies areas in which the student needs to study more
  4. Encourages students to attend class, as quizzes are given a small weighting in the final mark

This concept is well suited to an LMS because of the features common to almost all LMS-based testing: Multiple-choice, true and fals, some numeric and short answer questions can all be scored by the LMS without adding marking for the instructor. The options to randomly draw from question pools and randomize the positions of multiple-choice distractors ensure that students can take quizzes side-by-side without the temptation of cheating (or at least any benefits from it). The randomization of question presentation also allows for reuse of questions. The new presentation of the same question may appear to a students as an entirely new question.

Most importantly, what this type of start of class tool can be used for is attendance. By adding a quiz password (and username in Sakai's case) that you only give out in class it can be used for clandestine attendance taking.

What to cover today?

A one question quiz asking what to cover today -- if not topic then order. This will give a less-than-perfect record of who was present.

Check-in / Check-Out

Ask one or two questions about how students learning is going. At the start of class ask questions to reflect on what they've learned so far: hi-lights, insights, outstanding questions. At the end of class ask for a "muddiest moment" or what the most important thing to remember was. These test results or assignment submissions not only let the instructor know who is in the room but they also let the instructor know where to focus their teaching.

Course Outline Quiz

The course outline is a courses most important text, and the one text that every student should have a copy of; regardless of the status of their student loans.

Even though every student should have read the course outline instructor are often frustrated that students do not read, or fully understand, course outlines. Students need to know what is expected of them and instructors do not appreciate being asked what seem like such trivial questions.

A hack that can address this is configuring the course Resources to contain only the course outline and a quiz on the course outline when student first access the site. The rest of the course Resources will only be revealed once the student has taken the quiz on the course outline and passed it; perhaps achieving 100%. The Resources tool's conditional release options allow student access to be based on a student's grade on aGradebook item. In this hack if the quiz on the course outline is sent to the Gradebook (and probably not counted in final grade calculation) then all of the Resources can have a conditional release based on the course outline quiz's results for each student.

Learning About Your Students

Entrance Quiz on "How I Learn Best"

Profile your learners about how they learn, what their preferences are, what helps them best understand complex topics and what their experience with learning [online] might be.

You could ask specific questions or quickly get students to select from a quick multiple choice question about classic learning styles from KOLB or VAK (more at ) or to identify with a set of fictional learner profiles.

Learning Student's Names & Introductions


Tools like the Roster tool can help. The Pictures view can be particularly useful if your institution populates rosters with pictures or has students actively using the profile tool.

One can always offer to friend-back anyone who friends the instructor with their picture added - and perhaps add a funny joke or fact in your own profile notes.


Ask students to submit a quiz or Assignment about themselves, potentially with a picture.

Introductions in Blog or Forums

Ask students to introduce themselves in the blog or forums tools. Instructors should provide either a model posting or some suggestions for what is relevant and/or acceptable.

In some cases, a URL might be all that is needed? Here's a few examples:


Discussion Boards/Forums as File Revision Tracking

Forums can be used as a file versioning and storage system. This will allow students to access their files and share others' through a central location and maintain a conical file.

Revision control, or versioning, is the management of multiple revisions of the same unit of information, often involving multiple authors. The Wiki tool can be used as a revision control system, however only for simple text, and the interface is not very intuitive.

Benefits of using Forums for Revision control:

  • It's web-based and can be accessed from almost anywhere
  • Authors are already authenticated
  • Private topics can be created to limit contributions to groups
  • Date is stamped on each post

Disadvantages of using Forums for Revision control:

  • It is not very sophisticated
  • No "Desktop-based" interface
  • Multi-file projects can be very awkward

Student Questions Forum

Why answer the same question over and over again? An instructor can create a forum topic named "course questions" that students can use to both post their question and scan for responses from the instructor, TAs or other students. Questions with answers in the course outline can be answered ASAP by anyone, deeper questions (like how many words actually fit on one page) can be answered by the instructors once and for all. There is the concern about a lack of privacy, so make sure that the scope is clear.

Get a fake student account

There are lots of ways to preview what a students sees in an LMS. Sakai, Moodle, D2L, Bb all have their own take -- which Sakai's perhaps being the most limited -- but to the extent one can get a fake student account in their own course they teach in, it can be helpful.

Embedding Content

Google Docs


One of the most faithful ways to transfer a PowerPoint presentation to the web is through Google Docs or other sites that allow you to embed actual slides with with animations, etc.

Services include:

Here's an example:


Small forms can be embed in may places inside your course to seek student feedback.

Here's an example:

Audio (and some linked video)

Yahoo's Media player can be added wherever the <script> tag is allowed. Once the script is added any links to an MP3 file, etc are playable on the web page.

Embed YouTube video

  1. Search for your video
  2. Find the embed information on the left
  3. Copy the embed information (select all and right-click and choose "Copy")
  4. Inside the Resources tool in Sakai select where you would like to add the video and choose "Add" > "Create HTML Page".
  5. Click the Source button
  6. Paste the embed code in the content area (right click and choose "Paste") and then press Continue: *You're welcome to press *Source button again to add context around the slides.
  7. Fill in the "Name" of the video and any other information that is relevant
  8. Press Finish

With YouTube the classic embed option generally works better with Sakai.  The start of the source code should start with either <embed   or  <object    These or similar techniques should work for most video sharing sites.

Simple Student Showcases and Spaces for Collaboration

General Student Folder

Instructors can create a folder for students to upload items to the Resources tool. This can be a useful way for students to share their work with others in the site.

Any regular folder in the Resources tool can be modified to allow students to add items to it by editing the folder permissions. Folders can also be limited to only allow access to individuals in specific groups set-up through Manage Groups.

Here are the steps for an instructor to create a folder for students to add items too.

Creating a Folder
  • In the Resources tool click "Add" button beside the main folder or sub-folder you would like the create the new folder in and choose "Create Folders"
  • Give the folder a name
  • Click "Create Folders Now"
Folder Permissions

Next to the folder in which you want to manage permissions,from the Actions menu, choose Edit Folder Permissions.
Check or the boxes to grant the permissions based on participant role. To allow students to add their own items and only modify their own items:
new: Add new resources
read: View and download resources
revise.own: Modify own resources
delete.own: Remove own resources
Click Save. To change your selection, click Cancel.

  • Next to the folder in which you want to manage permissions,from the Actions menu, choose Edit Folder Permissions.
  • Check or the boxes to grant the permissions based on participant role. To allow students to add their own items and only modify their own items:
    • new: Add new resources
    • read: View and download resources
    • revise.own: Modify own resources
    • delete.own: Remove own resources
  • Click Save. To change your selection, click Cancel.

Student Showcase Folder

Instructors can create a folder with student presentations or other files. Once the instructor has proper permissions, the instructor can all students to edit the folder (potentially their own files, but practically all) as well as vary which files are public and which can only be accessed by the class.

This approach creates a showcase of student work that students can update or remove AND respects students willingness to share with just their peers or the whole internet. Here is an example.

Copyright/Public Release

Add a question or item to assignment or tests and quizzes that asks for permission for content to be shared with the rest of the class, institution or the rest of the internet. Students may appreciate that opportunity to indicate that they would like to review the item first, place a condition on the grade received or have the ability to make revisions. Students should always be given the opportunity to change their mind.

Track Usage

Either with Site Stats or embed something from another site or service like that monitors traffic (keeping in mind your local privacy regime).

Can shape where you put your efforts: is it worth producing the exam review sheet or should you instead host a chat, or not?

Explain how your course site works

Take a moment to explain in video or in text how the course site works and place it in a prominent location, such as the home page or the announcements area when the students first gain access. Explain both how each to works and more importantly how you expect students to use it. Not all instructors or students conceive of tools like the Gradebook or the wiki the same way. Clear expectations help everyone.

RSS/News Tool

Lots of web site export their content as an RSS feed, here are a few examples:

Sites with RSS feeds that might spark ideas for your course

"Publisher" Feeds

The Course Blog

Link the course blog (at , , etc.) to the "official" course site in the LMS.


Stock information

Social Bookmarking

While it still exists, can be used for groups to bookmark urls and tag them. Instructors could ask students to tag URL with very unique tags, for example a course code. From the web page you can go to the tags section and search the tag and find the RSS link at the bottom of the page. Here's an example with the tag "sakai"

Twitter Hastags and Other Searches

If students or other communities are using a hashtag to communicate in Twitter an instructor can search for that hashtag at and copy the URL from the "Feed for this query" link on the right. Adding the Twitter search link as a News/RSS tool will add the conversation about this hastag to the course site.

Grades and Spreadsheets

Ideas for once you exported the grades from the Gradebook.

Dropping the Lowest Item

The a good approach is to create a new column and apply a formula that will SUM all of the items and subtract the MIN of those items. The best approach is to confirm that the student completed all of the items thus accounting for the distinction between a null/exemption value and a score of zero.

In the following example:


Quiz 1[10]

Quiz 2[10]

Quiz 3[10]

Quiz 4[10]

Quiz 5[10]

Quiz 6[10]

Final Quiz Mark[50]

















































The formula in column H2 (Dick's mark) is:


A more simple markup would be: =IF(COUNT(B2:G2)=6,SUM(B2:G2)-MIN(B2:G2),SUM(B2:G2))
In prose instead of programming that is: If the total items recorded equals 6 then add them together and subtract the minimum, otherwise just add them together.

If you know that every cell will have a number (like zero where the example currently has a blank space) then you do not need the IF part, you can just have =SUM(B2:G2)-MIN(B2:G2) The formula can then be extended downwards to the other students.

The SMALL option mentioned during the session would work if you wanted to drop one item, or more importantly two items.  It does still have the same limit that if one item is blank (without a zero) then students would "lose" a good mark.

Here's an example with SMALL of dropping one item.


Here's an example with SMALL of dropping two items.



The formula can then be extended downwards to the other students.

Low Grade Alerts

Visual Alerts

In MS Excel or Google Docs select the relevant column (such as final grade), choose from the "Format" menu "Conditional Formatting", click to add a rule, choose one of the colour options (I prefer 3-color) and add it. You will then get colour based alerts behind the students relevant column.

E-Mail Students

Sort the grades by the final grade (or other relevant column). Choose your braking point and then copy and paste the the "Student ID" column into your E-Mail clients BCC filed (stressing BCC!!!) and send off a generic alert to students. If your Student ID field does not contain full E-Mail address see the tip "Turning usernames into E-Mail Addresses".

Turning usernames into E-Mail Addresses

In many institutions (including Brock University) the "Student ID" field only has usernames, not the full E-Mail address with the @ and domain.One way to add the @ and domain is to add a column beside "Student ID" and paste into the cells a formula like =A2&"" -- in this case adding to the usernames/Student IDs.


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