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Using automation to adjust the difficulty level for your course

Here’s my confession for today: I have a weird obsession with beginner vs. pro videos. Those videos show the differences between amateurs and pros in specific skills, usually with hilarious results.

My favorites are the cooking shows (pandemic, eh?) in which amateurs, home cooks, or expert chefs each demonstrate how they make a particular dish (after some mishaps in the kitchen, I know why amateurs choose the store-bought dough for pizza).

Aside from pure entertainment value, their appeal is seeing the whole process of skill-building from a different perspective. As someone who is also obsessed with e-learning, the amateur vs. pro cleverly shows not only the tricks that the pros use but also how a specific skill looks like at different levels of difficulty.

So what does this have to do with building online courses? Quite a lot, as I’ve detailed in this post on the pros and cons of adjusting the difficulty level for your course.

You can build separate courses for beginner, intermediate, advanced (or however you want to call it) users, give different instructions on the same course, or better yet, take advantage of automation!

Using automation to adjust the difficulty level for your course

A simple explanation of building difficulty levels into the same course is this: as learners progress through modules, they also complete hurdles (quizzes). Depending on their score, they get to unlock different content, which can be harder or easier depending on their performance. A high score means that they usually only see the more challenging modules, while lower scores indicate that they need to build their way up from a beginner level.

Let’s see what the steps needed to build difficulty levels with the help of automation are:

  1. Create a diagnosis quiz

    It’s nearly impossible to do a complete needs assessment for thousands of learners. Instead, you’ve got the option of introduction quizzes.

    Think of it as a diagnosis tool, placed at the beginning of your course (the Introduction module). It asks questions about their previous experience or level of knowledge in essential areas:

    Based on this information and people’s answers, the quiz directs them to the next module, where the fun begins (see numbers 3 and 4 on this list).

    Make it clear to learners that you’re doing this to offer the best possible learning experience and that it’s in no way a bad thing to get a “beginner module.”

  2. Build a skill hierarchy

    A skill hierarchy tells you where your learners are in their journey. At first, you can use your experience to determine what a beginner, intermediate, and advanced learner should know.

    For example, a cooking course is incomplete without teaching proper knife skills. As a cooking instructor, you can build the three levels of the same skill as follows:

    • Beginner: demonstrates basic knife skills: gripping and cutting properly
    • Intermediate: demonstrates intermediate knife skills: how to dice and julienne
    • Advanced: demonstrates advanced knife skills: how to slice and cut faster

    You can do this exercise for any skill you want to teach. It depends on your audience’s needs, but building such a hierarchy helps you break down any skill, as easy or sophisticated as it might be. It’s also better to focus on learning goals since that gives you a clear idea of which concepts to include in each module.

    Most importantly, keep track of all skills and goals, as it’ll come in handy when you build quizzes and set up scores.

  3. Adding meaningful content

    Usually, the content is the hardest part, but not necessarily when you use difficulty levels. If you have a clear idea of the skills you want to teach (see number 2), it’s much easier to build content that focuses on what is truly important. It helps to cut unnecessary parts or bits of information that are above or below their level.

    The trick is to differentiate them enough so that there’s not an overlap between the modules (you don’t repeat the same info over and over). Again, learning isn’t going to be linear. Learners might get an intermediate score in knife skills (and proceed to the advanced module) and a beginner score in measuring ingredients (so they’ll move to the intermediate module).

    The most significant advantage is that an intermediate user won’t see the beginner module, as it most likely contains what they already know. It’s a very targeted way of teaching, instead of mixing all content.

  4. Design quizzes for skill assessment

    If you have a skill hierarchy ready, building quizzes is a piece of cake. As mentioned, the quiz score determines which modules to unlock. For example, you can give a quiz to measure learners’ progress on module 1: Knife skills.

    Read more: How to create awesome quizzes for your online courses

    Sure, it’s up to you to build the quiz so that it measures their knowledge correctly. Here’s an example of a concrete question:

    It’s clear that answer a) means needing to do more training while answer b) helps them level up to intermediate. For example, if the quiz has ten questions, and the learner’s score is equal to or greater than 90%, they can level up to advanced.

    However, you can also measure specific knowledge about concepts, methods, or whatever you think is useful:

  5. Adding score rules

    To make your life easier, keep track of skills and points assigned to each question (see number 4), as it’ll be hard to troubleshoot later if you forget to add a score rule.

    Score rules tell the system which module to unlock next, based on the learners’ knowledge. Following our previous example, if the learner gets the most points on the quiz, it means that they’ve passed with a score of >=90%, unlocking the “Advanced module.”

    If the learner manages 12 points total on the quiz, that is >=70%; they unlock the “Intermediate module.” For any score lower than <=40%, they unlock the beginner module.

    Once you have a simple yet effective system, building quizzes, questions, and adding score rules becomes easier to do.

  6. Jumping from one skill to another

    So you might be thinking: but wait, if learners progress through the three modules (beginning, intermediate and advanced), what happens next?

    Learners can level up, going from beginner to advanced, or they can also move to other skills, usually, once they finish the advanced module (meaning that they know now all you wanted to teach them about a specific skill).

    At the end of, let’s say, “Advanced knife skills”, they can find a survey (see number 1) that directs them to the next skill level, for example, “Basic measuring skills.” You can do this for all modules and their levels.

    You can also add a sort of “cheat codes” by using surveys to skip content. For example, a quiz can ask learners to continue leveling up to “intermediate” (in which case they simply have to go to the module they’ve unlocked) or skip to “advanced.” Another method is to choose to skip to the next skill content (let’s say, go from “intermediate knife skills” to “measuring ingredients beginner”).

    Sure, learners can use this method to skip ahead without grasping all concepts, so it’s up to you as an instructor to decide what’s best for the course.

  7. Add a sprinkle of fun

    Building difficulty levels into your course already make it more relevant but also challenging for learners. Now, that doesn’t mean that fun isn’t involved: I’m talking, of course, about gamification.

    Read more: How to include gamification in your course design

    Course games come with their levels, points, and custom badges. However, be aware that game levels usually measure overall progress throughout the course, so it’s better to think of the game as offering rewards for completing each module. Sure, advanced modules can be worth more points than beginner ones, if that’s what you’d like to reward.

    You can go crazy with badges, which are great fun, and you can customize each one to reflect a difficulty level, and learners can receive them at the end of each module. Just don’t add too many rewards; people need to feel like they’ve worked hard for them!

  8. Learner experience testing

    With any automation process, it’s great to be able to see it through the eyes of the user; create an account and test it in all scenarios — for example, maybe the learner gets 100% on a quiz, but the system mistakenly unlocks a beginner’s module instead of an advanced one (that means you’ve probably set the rules wrong)

    Any instructor should see the course through the eyes of a learner first. In the case of an automated course with adjusted difficulty levels, you need to make sure that everything works as it should.

    For example, if you forget to add a score rule for a quiz, or the faulty rule, the learner will go to the wrong module (in terms of difficulty level). So, go through the course as a beginner, intermediate, and advanced learner, ensuring that leveling up through skills works seamlessly.

What’s your level?

Building difficulty levels into courses help your learners gain the skills they need the most. They’ll feel more confident as a result of getting a thorough understanding of the learning content, and since it is a bit of work, they’ll be more invested in finishing the course (or most of it).

Happy course building in 2021!

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