How to make adaptive learning activities in OneNote

Like many other educators, I fell in love with OneNote after using it in my class. Drawn into the endless possibilities and instant access to my work, and that of my students, I started simply by taking notes and sharing content with my class. Eventually, I grew into creating lesson plans and using it as a simple diary, so students would know what we had covered in each lesson.

I soon realized that putting the lesson plan and key terms in OneNote before the lesson helped my ESL and SEN students to prepare in advance and get a confidence boost in class. Seeing these students expressing themselves and opening up in class, with the help of technology, sparked my desire to find new and creative ways to use OneNote.

Twitter was my best resource for help. I tweeted my questions or issues with the #OneNote hashtag and would get almost help and advice from all round the world, almost instantly. I don’t have a device with a stylus, so I was limited to what I could do with OneNote, but that didn’t discourage me one bit. As OneNote expanded with new features, such as parent guardian links and the OneNote Class Notebook plug-in, I became like a kid in a playground, eager to play with all the new toys.

One of my favorite activities was Escape the Classroom, a fun activity where students worked on an exercise (or series of exercises, in my version) to get answers. A combination of those answers generated the password for the next section, which remained locked otherwise. Students repeated the process until they unlocked the final section, which then congratulated them for their success.  The students were enamored.

The class was dynamic and extremely competitive, with most of my students becoming fully immersed in their learning, wanting to win and become the first ones to Escape the Classroom. I say “most,” because the reality was that ESL and SEN students initially started the exercise with enthusiasm – the first password was generated with little effort – but would soon be overwhelmed with self-doubt and a feeling of “I can’t do it.” They saw other students progressing though the sections and, as time passed, the gap would grow and increase their anxiety and self-doubt.

I know how hard it is to convince others that you are not an idiot and that you can contribute if you are just given a little more time to read the question. As a child I didn’t know I had dyslexia – back then, students with dyslexia were mischaracterised as “stupid” or “lazy,” so I know how hard it is to be singled out because you can’t read as well as the others, or you can’t spell, or your handwriting is bad. I also know that I am a problem solver and a perfectionist, so I was determined to find a way to use OneNote as a means to solve the issues we faced as a class.

The issues I needed to overcome were:

  • How to create a differentiated learning path, where students would not all follow the same sequence of questions
  • How to make learning individualized for each student
  • How to take away the competitiveness without losing the fun, so that students would focus on learning, rather than winning
  • Most importantly, how to make all students feel equal, while still challenging each student’s abilities without making anyone feel inferior
  • Making sure the solution was easy enough for any educator to replicate, without needing any special knowledge other than how to use OneNote

The challenge was set. I would like to say that it took hours of thought, brainstorming and lots of failed attempts, but that’s not how it turned out.  After listing the problems, I would revisit my list every time I had an idea. If the solution did not resolve all the listed problems, I scrapped it.

A couple of days later, while sitting in traffic, it struck me: Use Page links.  “Hmm,” I hear you say. “Page links? That’s it?” Yes, that was it.

I focused on a topic I would be teaching throughout all the year groups, then pooled the questions together. I categorized them as such: Easy, Medium, Hard, and Gifted/Talented. I made sure that I had at least five entries in each category (apart from the gifted/talented ones). I placed each question on a separate page in a OneNote Notebook and gave each page a name that had no meaning to anyone, except me.

My topic area was IF functions in Excel, so I named my pages after chemical elements – they had nothing to do with Excel. In a table, I had a list of all the page names and the difficulty level of the question in each page.

I created a traffic light image with Red, Amber, and Green lights (adding faces to them for a little extra fun). The colored lights were separate images, which let me add separate page links to each color. The final stage was to create a map that would indicate which page (question) the student would go to next, depending on whether they clicked on Red, Amber or Green.  This must have been the hardest part, as each question needed three page links (one for each light) and the destination page would have to match whichever color the student picked. That’s where adaptive learning started taking shape.

In the finished version, all students start from the same exercise. Once they complete it, they click on the light that best represents their feeling about how it went.

  • Red: I found it difficult / I needed a lot of help to complete it
  • Amber: It was challenging / I needed a little help
  • Green: That was easy / I need something more challenging

The student is directed to the next question, depending on which light they click on.  If they have a good grasp of the question and know exactly what they are doing, they’ll get more complex questions and avoid becoming bored in the process. After being directed to a more challenging question, they again choose from a set of traffic lights to determine the next question. If a student finds a question to be very hard, they will click on Red, which takes them to another question of similar difficulty. If a student clicks on Red a couple of times in a row, they’ll be taken to a help page that might have some information in the form of a Sway, presentation, video, digital ink, URL, learning resource or other content you can embed into OneNote.

The process is the same for every question. And remember the random page names? The wonderful part of this activity is, since the pages are randomly named, no student knows at what level they are working. Weaker students do not know how many questions other students have answered, as the pages are named randomly and mixed up to mask evidence of progression. The stronger students cannot get competitive, as they do not know what the page names mean or what the position of the page is.  As the teacher, however, I know exactly what level each student is on. I have my table that describes the names of the pages and what level of difficulty the question is, on each page.

I have not had time to create more of these exercises to try with my other classes, but the one I created on IF functions in Excel has been used in my Year 7 through to Year 11 classes with 100 percent success. One piece of work kept this range of students totally engaged and working throughout several class periods, without anyone feeling inferior or unchallenged. I truly think this is the way forward.

So, where do we go from here? It would be great to have the ability to rank pages within OneNote with levels of difficulty and then have an artificial intelligence engine decide which question to give next, depending on user response, or even through recognition of facial features.  For now, though, my work is available for anyone to download and use. The pages are all set up, educators need only change the questions to the pages so that it is adapted for their subject.

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