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Formatting an Assignment in Moodle

© J. Francois Barnard – August 9, 2021

In this post, I would like to describe what I do to format assignments in Moodle. These are all suggestions, and no one has to do what I do, but I have a good track record in doing assignments, and perhaps it will help some get better grades.

Moodle is an online platform - a content management system (CMS) similar to WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal. CMSs allow you to create websites without prior knowledge of HTML, PHP, CSS, or MySQL. Moodle will enable you to format your content to look professional and presentable, and while you also do not need prior knowledge of PHP, CSS, or MySQL, knowing a little bit of HTML can help.

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Many years ago, I familiarized myself with HTML by using HTML Goodies and W3 Schools to teach me HTML coding basics. Please visit these sites, and see if you can learn how to make paragraphs, divisions, horizontal lines, and formatting in bold, italic, and underline. The Moodle editor can do most of it, but once you know the basics, you will also understand how to apply other tricks and tips.

Like with all CMSs, the Moodle platform has a template that determines the website's "look and feel." Students using this platform have no control over the template and CSS styling. Therefore, you can get around it if you know a bit of HTML code.

APA 7th Edition

Presently, UoPeople ascribes to the APA 7th edition guidelines for assignment formatting. Please refer to Dr. Green's writing guide: Instructor-developed resource & reference [1] for excellent information on formatting your assignments for academic submissions. Undergraduate students will do the UNIV 1001B Online Studies course, covering much of the same material. The university assumes that graduate students know how to write assignments and are familiar with APA 7th Edition formatting.

Sadly, my experience is that many of my peers in graduate school cannot write academic papers well, and many do not know how to format a document according to the required APA guidelines. Many get poor grades simply because they do not adhere to the rules.

The Assignments

There are three assignment types in Moodle:

  1. Discussion Forum
  2. Written Assignment
  3. Portfolio Activity (aka Learning Journal during my undergraduate studies)

§1. Discussion Forum

The first step in writing my discussion forum assignment is to create an MS Word document for it. As my research develops, I record my sources, formatting them in a reference list.

I do not write the content of the assignment immediately in the MS Word document. I write it in Grammarly first, ensuring that my English grammar and spelling are correct. My mother tongue is Afrikaans, and Grammarly is a great tool to help you write better. I prefer the stand-alone Grammarly application above the MS Word add-on of the same product.

Once I am satisfied with the content, I copy and paste it into my MS Word document. Here I double-check my references and in-text citations.

By now, I am ready to publish the document.

I log into the Moodle server, browse to the discussion forum, and click on the Reply link below the instructor's post. Moodle gives you an editor box with the words "Write your reply..." but below it are three links: Submit, Cancel, and Advanced. I click on Advanced.

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The Advanced Editor screen opens, and I click on the left button.

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It opens an extra row of advanced features, and I click on the HTML button on the right. Clicking on this button toggles between the HTML Editor and the Advanced Editor mode.

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All the formatting buttons are then greyed out, and you are ready to paste your assignment.

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According to the APA rules, the assignment should have a cover page, but we only do it for Written Assignments, and some instructors require it for Portfolio Activities too. We ignore the cover page for the Discussion Forum and start with a heading. The heading should be in bold and centered on the page. It is here that I use the HTML notation:

<p align="center"><b>My Assignment Heading</b></p>

I never use the H1, H2, H3, etc., heading formatting because they are far too large (overpowering) and do not comply with APA.

APA requires the first line of each paragraph to be indented. If you had control over the website's style sheets (CSS), it would have been possible to use the spanning command to style it correctly. But now, you do not have that control, and you have to create an indent manually. To do it, I open the paragraph and insert four spaces using the following notation for a space:

&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;

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If you toggle the HTML button at the top, you can see the results of your formatting. Take note of the indent at the start of the paragraph:

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But I hardly ever toggle back and forth on that button because the Moodle editor has a bug that will insert spaces and line breaks you never intended to have. You can see it when you click on it again:

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It is not a significant problem, just an irritating bug. I always toggle back after I formatted the document in full.

As per Dr. Green's APA guide, headings are left-aligned and in bold. Sub-headings are left-aligned, in bold and in italic.

<p><b>Heading</b></p>
<p><b><i>Sub-Heading</i></b></p>

APA requires a page break before the Reference List, which you cannot do in the Moodle Editor. Therefore, I insert a horizontal line using the following HTML notation:

<hr>

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We should order the reference list alphabetically. It is not indented but makes use of a "hanging indent." That means that the second line is indented. Again, I insert four spaces after a line break:

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Moodle does not automatically hyperlink website URLs - we have to force that. The easiest way to do it is to toggle back to the Advanced Editor, highlight the URL, press [Ctrl-C] to copy it, and click on the hyperlink button:

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Paste the URL, checkmark "Open in new window," and click on the [Create link] button:

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Repeat this for every reference item, and in the Advanced Editor mode, the hyperlinks will be colored in pink:

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If I want to emphasize a point by quoting some great orator like Winston Churchill, I use the blockquote command:

<blockquote>I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly - <i>Sir Winston Churchill</i></blockquote>

The result in the Advanced Editor will look like this:

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To create tables, you can try and paste it from Excel or Word in the Advanced Editor, but I have found that pasting from a Microsoft document a lot of unnecessary code accompanies the action. To edit it can be a nightmare.

It might be better to click on the Table Tool in the Advanced Editor:

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The default theme is not to have any borders, and this last term, I have seen how students use this tool without creating borders, and the result was somewhat confusing. If you change the theme, you can specify your borders.

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Here is the result:

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Another way to do it is to use the table commands in the HTML Editor:

<table border="2">
<tr>
<td>Columns One</td>
<td>Column Two</td>
<td>Column Three</td>
</tr>
</table>

Here is the result:

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Another way to insert tables is to format them perfectly in MS Excel and copy and paste them with the Snipping Tool or a "screen grabber" - whatever works for you. I would save the image to a JPG file and upload the file in the Advanced Editor.

Here I inserted tables saved on JPG files into my assignment:

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§2. Written Assignment

Dr. Green's writing guide: Instructor-developed resource & reference covers all of what you need to know about Written Assignments. He requested that students submitted MS Word documents and not PDFs. His reason for it is to check for plagiarism, which he found difficult with PDFs. Most instructors accept PDF documents, but then, most students do not know how to remove personal details from the document properties and lose their required anonymity in the process.

Although it is possible to enter your Written Assignment in the text editor and submit it, you will get a poor grade for not adhering to APA requirements. Hence, I always write in the editor something like: "Please find my assignment attached hereto in PDF format."

When you create an MS Word document, and you save it, the properties page will show your identity, which is a breach of the anonymity requirement:

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To remove it, click on [File], and then on [Check for Issues], and after that on [Inspect Document]:

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Uncheck all items except for "Document Properties and Personal Information." Then click on [Inspect].

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Click on [Remove All] and then on [Close].

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Your MS Word document no longer displays your identity:

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If you want to submit a PDF document instead (like I usually do), you click on [File] and [Save as]. Select PDF and click on [Options]:

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Uncheck "Document Properties," click on [OK] and then on [Save].

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The PDF will contain no document properties which can reveal your identity, and you can safely submit it on Moodle.

§3. Portfolio Activity

We edit the Portfolio Activity precisely the same way as the Discussion Forum mentioned above. But some instructors require that the Portfolio Activity have a "cover page" as we have for the Written Assignment.

The text on the cover page is all centered, and I, therefore, create a centered division. The heading is in bold and usually starts a third from the top of the page. You only enter a few line breaks to create a space above the title because you do not have a full-page as on a written assignment. Below is what it looks like in the HTML editor. Take note of the horizontal line to indicate the end of the cover page:

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When you toggle back to the Advanced Editor, the result looks like this:

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Plagiarism

While the topic of plagiarism has to do with the content of the assignment and not formatting, I still feel I should mention that it is a real problem in all universities today and at UoPeople. The university has partnered with Unicheck earlier in 2021, which means that the instructors have free access to its plagiarism checker.

Students can register with Unicheck and buy 100 pages for $15. You can submit your document to Unicheck to ensure that you have not broken any rules. Grammarly also has a built-in plagiarism checker, but Unicheck's checker is by far superior.

 

Writing good academic papers requires well-researched and well-written content, original work, and formatted according to the university's rules.

 

[1] Green, R. K. (June 15, 2021). Dr. Green's writing guide: Instructor-developed resource & reference
    [Reference]. Fielding Graduate University.