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Engaging Students in Their Own Learning

Stephen Matchett, a chemistry professor at Grand Valley State University with 24 years of experience teaching at the college level, believes that learning doesn’t end when a student graduates.

steve-matchett“When we leave school, we must continue to teach ourselves, so I try to guide them in learning this process,” he says.

Matchett’s teaching philosophy is to engage students to participate in their own education so that they can be life-long learners.

“Learning is not a passive process,” he emphasizes. “It requires us to work.”

Engaging students in their education requires extensive feedback and interaction, which Matchett says is made easier by using WebAssign. Before classroom lectures, students read the interactive textbook, which Matchett wrote entirely in WebAssign, and then test their knowledge by answering questions and solving problems online as they read through WebAssign. Then, Matchett uses the lecture to help students build on what they’ve already read.

“Because students work with the textbook prior to class, they are much better prepared and have a deeper understanding of the material,” he says.

In order to prevent students from cheating on the homework, Matchett uses WebAssign’s ability to randomize examples and problems from within the textbook itself, making each student’s experience unique.

Matchett also engages students by using WebAssign as an alternative to clickers in the classroom. Although clickers are in theory a good way to encourage student learning, professors have often run into problems with the hardware. For example, students forget to bring their clickers to class, or the batteries are dead. Sometimes students click randomly just to get attendance points which can give the instructor faulty information. With WebAssign, Matchett can take attendance and facilitate in-class participation by having students use their own smart phones as the hardware with no additional cost to students or department.

Although Matchett finds many features of WebAssign helpful to his teaching style, he says that being able to use the WebAssign platform to create his own materials has been particularly useful.

“Use WebAssign’s powerful features to customize the experience to your classroom,” Matchett advises other instructors.

Stephen Matchett will be presenting “Moving Beyond Question Authorship: The Power Of Larger Scale Content Creation” at our WebAssign Annual Users Group this June!

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New Analytics Feature, Class Insights

We have some exciting news! Class Insights, our new analytics feature, was officially launched on May 13. This new feature gives instructors a detailed and analytical view of their students’ performance throughout the course. For example, instructors can quickly see the number of attempts to correctly answer questions, and questions for which a large percentage of the class had trouble are flagged. With this view, instructors easily can identify topics or concepts that may be confusing to students. One of the highlights of Class Insights is the ability to identify at-risk students early in the semester. Like most WebAssign features, all settings are completely customizable so instructors can configure settings to suit their classroom needs.

class_insights_overview (2)

“Sharing the data WebAssign collects about student performance with instructors in a digestible way provides powerful information that helps them increase learning results,” said Andy Trus, product manager. “We’re excited to hear how our early adopters are using Class Insights to improve the teaching and learning experience.”

This new feature has been well received by a select group of beta testers who have explored the new tool. “I use Class Insights to help zero in on which sections of the book, topics, and questions are problem areas for my students, then build my review based on that,” said Daniel Roddin, Professor at the Minnesota School of Business. Other instructors agree this feature has a broad capacity of uses to support both teachers and students.

Download our guide to make the most of using Class Insights.

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Collaborative Learning and Online Assessments Enhance Developmental Math at Ohio University-Chillicothe

Check out this inspiring article published by Campus Technology on collaborative learning that highlighted one of our innovative WebAssign users, Michael Lafreniere. Come to our annual Users Group Meeting to hear Michael discuss more details of his collaborative classroom setup and share his insight on Visible Learning in WebAssign.

By Leila Meyer
While in his previous role as associate dean, Lafreniere became concerned about the number of students who were repeating developmental mathematics courses two or three times in an effort to move on to college algebra. He had started using technology in his classroom in the late 90s, and even back then he saw its potential to make his classroom more efficient so he could spend more time helping students understand concepts. He used it for purposes such as sharing his notes with his students, but what he really wanted was a tool that could assess his math students’ problem solving process and give them feedback.


Evaluating an Online Instructional Tool

Around 2009, Lafreniere began looking for a tool to accomplish that goal. One of them was WebAssign, an online instructional system that combines digital learning content with instant assessment. “I eyed WebAssign because it had the ability to take advantage of some of the powerful packages on the mathematics and engineering scene, which were Maple and Mathematica,” he said in a phone interview. “Those were real draws because I knew the power behind those products that they were tapping into.”

As part of the product evaluation process, Lafreniere was able to compare WebAssign and other tools side-by-side in his classroom on a trial basis. “I had the opportunity to bear witness to students and their engagement, their excitement or frustration when working with these different tools,” he said. “It was rather interesting to see, in some cases, students taking a developmental sequence in two different formats at the same time. Usually you’re comparing apples to oranges so to speak with different students, but we actually had students experiencing both.”

Lafreniere evaluated the tools based on their academic value as well as cost, including textbook costs for students. The students had a real affinity for WebAssign, Lafreniere said, and as a professor, he liked its features, such as question authoring, pooling and randomization; customization and support for third-party tools for video, simulations and online calculators; as well as freedom to choose between publishers. The university had already adopted a textbook and wanted a tool that could support it. He also saw the potential of WebAssign to let students convey their mathematical thoughts beyond click and point by using digital ink. “It really has a lot of tools that are highly graphical in nature,” he said.

Responsive Teaching, Collaborative Learning and Online Assessment

Lafreniere lets the students work through the material at their own pace in WebAssign, but the majority of them choose to move through the coursework together. Because the tool lets Lafreniere monitor how well each student is mastering the material, he can pace his course accordingly, going back to reteach concepts students are struggling with. “You can see an evolution in students becoming more and more open, knowing that they can come to a classroom where they’re actually going to get a chance to ask questions about the difficulties they’re facing, versus a typical lecture where I’m moving on whether you understand it or not,” said Lafreniere. Over time, he has collected data about the number of times a typical student needs to work through a type of problem before he or she masters the concept, and he provides students with those benchmarks. If they’re still struggling with a concept after that number of attempts, it’s a flag that they need assistance.

Sometimes it’s Lafreniere providing that assistance, and sometimes it’s a fellow student. The system generates a unique set of problems for each student, while ensuring that they are based on the same mathematical concept. That randomization means students can work collaboratively, helping each other understand the mathematical procedure without copying each others’ work. “It allows the students literally to sit next to each other, as well as online, and talk about a problem that they’re trying to solve from a conceptual and procedural fluency standpoint, versus peering over [someone’s] shoulder and just taking an answer and submitting it,” said Lafreniere.

Since implementing WebAssign, Lafreniere has also revamped his approach to assessment and switched to proctored exams through a testing center. Each exam is available during a two-week window, so students can write select a time that is convenient for them and when they feel best prepared to tackle the challenge. Because the exams take advantage of WebAssign’s randomization feature, there is no risk of students cheating by sharing answers. It also means students can take each exam up to three times, with different problems each time. Lafreniere gives about eight exams throughout the course, so using the proctored approach means eight hours more classroom time for teaching and learning during the semester.

Effects on Developmental Math Outcomes

Since implementing this new approach to developmental math classes, Lafreniere has seen an increase in the rate of students passing the course and progressing to college algebra. “It was really impressive how students — when given the right direction to work on concepts, to build their procedural fluency — can learn the material and not have to revisit it time and time again,” said Lafreniere. The college algebra instructors noticed a change in the students coming from the developmental math classes, too. “Other faculty were finding them contributing and well prepared for their classes,” said Lafreniere. “That was a telling sign that things were going right.”

Based on the success of Lafreniere’s developmental math classes, the university has rolled out the new approach to all of its developmental math classes, so there are now about seven or eight faculty members using the new approach.

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