Instructor Spotlight: Solomon Willis

We love our innovative faculty users! This week we are spotlighting Solomon Willis, mathematics instructor and Mathematics, Health, and Physical Education Department Chair at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, NC.

Solomon WillisWhat is your educational background and teaching history? 

I earned my Bachelor of Science degree from Gardner-Webb University in 1999. My major was mathematics and I earned a double-minor in education and computer science. I started teaching right after graduating, and later earned my Master of Arts degree in Mathematics Education. My teaching experience includes six years at Gaston Day School in Gastonia, NC, where I taught all levels of middle school and high school mathematics. I was hired full time at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, NC, in August, 2006, and have been there ever since. I am currently the Department Chair of Mathematics, Health, and Physical Education. I have taught at the college level, everything from developmental math up through calculus II and statistics.

What is your teaching philosophy?

My belief is that every individual can learn and can obtain an education. Teachers should realize that each person learns in his or her own unique way and they should try to cater to each student’s individual needs and learning style. Because each student learns individually, teachers should use various teaching strategies and do as much as possible to make learning interesting. Technology is also a key role in teaching and learning mathematics. I believe that all students should have the opportunity to experience the usefulness of graphing calculators. Education is important for young people in order for them to become meaningful citizens in today’s competitive world. Today’s society also has many adult learners going back to school, and teachers also need to accommodate their needs and different learning styles.

What teaching practices do you employ to get your students engaged in learning?

I try to find and use real world examples as much as I can to help make math “real” for students. If they can see where something is used in the real world then they seem to understand and appreciate it better. You will laugh, but I am a big Dolly Parton fan and collector of her memorabilia. My students quickly learn this and I often use “Dolly data” or facts about her in my classes. In statistics and quantitative literacy, we make a time series graph that shows her number of hit songs through the 1970’s and 1980’s. In pre-calculus we construct a linear model dealing with the life expectancy of women and always use Dolly’s year of birth to predict how long she will live! In addition to Dolly, I have students create a database of songs from their iPods and do various projects using the data – such as finding the mean length of their songs, a Pareto chart by genre, or a pie chart by decade.

What are your best practice suggestions for using WebAssign?

I have recently been making much more use of the Personal Study Plan (PSP). I encourage students to use this and even count it as a category in their weighted average. It quickly shows them their weaknesses and provides them with many tools to build upon those weaknesses. I love how customizable WebAssign is. If there is not something that works one semester, then I change it for the next semester. It is easy to copy a course from semester to semester, but also easy to make changes when needed. I don’t know how many times I have played around with the number of attempts or the things that I want them to see before or after the due date. I do find that 5 attempts on homework seems to work well for my students. I have also found that I should not be afraid to ask for help with WebAssign when I have a question; I am amazed at the quality of customer service WebAssign provides and the speediness of responses.

What role does technology play in your teaching?

I consider myself a “TI-84 expert” and use it almost daily in my teaching. I am also teaching myself more about the TI-NSpire and plan to make more use of it in the near future. I like showing students how to do things by hand, and then showing them how the graphing calculator makes it better! I also use a tablet computer in my teaching. I hook it up to the classroom projector, write out almost everything I do on the tablet, and then save it as a PDF for students to access later on Blackboard. I tell my students that it is a “high-tech overhead projector.” Almost all of my homework assignments are submitted through Blackboard and/or WebAssign. I collect very little on paper anymore and grade very little by hand, which is all a huge time-saver for me. I also frequently use Excel in the classroom for data projects, especially in statistics.


New Term Tip: Prepare Your Students for WebAssign

A new school year means students who may be new to WebAssign. Make sure your students are as prepared as you are to maximize their WebAssign experience. To help get your class up and running, we’ve created a printable Student Quick Start Guide for you to share with your students.


Based on feedback from instructors like you, we recommend you download and distribute our Student Quick Start Guide as a tool to introduce your students to our system so they have a handy reference on common WebAssign tasks such as logging in and submitting assignments.

A full collection of new-term resources can be found on our website, including our new Interactive Best Practices Guide for setting up your course.

As always, if you need further assistance please do not hesitate to contact our Customer Support Team.

New Term Tip: Getting Started Assignments

Several years ago, we released the Getting Started Assignments, and since then thousands of instructors at over 1,500 different institutions around the world have been using these interactive assignments to introduce students to WebAssign. WebAssign’s Getting Started Assignments provide the opportunity for your students to familiarize themselves with the tools and question types they’ll be encountering throughout the semester, so when they start their first homework assignment the only thing they’ll need to worry about is getting that green check.

If you’re using a textbook that utilizes one of WebAssign’s Course Packs, you’ll find that the relevant Getting Started Assignment has been included. WebAssign will continue to expand our offering of Course Packs, and you can look for the Getting Started Assignments in those Course Packs as more become available.

To date we have Getting Started Assignments for mathematics, calculus, chemistry, and physics and all are available for free with your WebAssign account. Read more about the Getting Started Assignments, utilize the best practice tips below, and try them out for yourself!

Best Practices for Using Getting Started Assignments in Your Courses

Schedule a pre-made assignment
The Getting Started Assignments can be scheduled to your courses by searching for the appropriate assignment ID number. We recommend making one of these assignments available to students to work on before starting on actual graded homework. The assignment ID for each of these discipline-specific assignments are listed below. You can also find this information on our website.

Getting Started with WebAssign – Mathematics (Search for Assignment ID 5969592)
Getting Started with WebAssign – Calculus (Search for Assignment ID 5969651)
Getting Started with WebAssign – Physics (Search for Assignment ID 5969658)
Getting Started with WebAssign – Chemistry (Search for Assignment ID 4555794)

Add the Getting Started questions to your assignments using the Question Browser
You can gain access to the individual Getting Started questions in the Question Browser by adding them as an additional resource when you create a course. Adding Getting Started questions to your assignments is an excellent way to provide interactive instruction to your students when they need it most. Most instructors use the Getting Started Assignments at the beginning of the semester, but if your students won’t be encountering a particular tool or question type later in the class, you can add the relevant Getting Started question at the top of the first assignment in which they’d encounter that tool or question.

Use the Getting Started Assignments as year-long practice and exploration in the WebAssign application
The Getting Started Assignments can be a space for students to explore WebAssign’s tools and question formats in a low-stakes environment. Self-paced exploration is a great way to become comfortable with new technology. By leaving the assignment available for the duration of the course, and granting the students a large number of submissions, they can familiarize themselves with the WebAssign application and its tools throughout the semester.

Get involved
Taking the assignment as a student gives you a better understanding of how students are interacting with the homework for your course. You can take the Getting Started Assignment yourself by scheduling it to your course, and clicking “Open Student View.” The Getting Started Assignments were designed to address the questions that we most often heard from you and your students, and we depend on your feedback to continue improving these resources.

If you have any suggestions on how to improve the Getting Started Assignments, please post a comment below or contact us by phone or e-mail.

Instructor Spotlight: Dr. Sharon Vestal

We love featuring the innovative work of our outstanding faculty users here at WebAssign. This week we are spotlighting Dr. Sharon Vestal. We are currently offering her Calculus Lab to WebAssign users. We invite WebAssign users to try these labs this fall as a free trial in your current course. Contact us to start your free trial today!

Sharon_VestalWhat is your educational background and teaching history?

I earned my BA and MA in Mathematics from the University of South Dakota (USD). During the 1995-1996 academic year, I was a full-time instructor at Winona State University in Winona, MN.  This was the first time that I taught Calculus I.

After earning my PhD I was a faculty member at Missouri Western State University from Fall 2000 to Spring 2006. I have been a faculty member at South Dakota State University since Fall 2006. I have taught several calculus courses throughout my teaching career and I have taught our Calculus I Lab, for which this textbook was created.

What is your teaching philosophy?

My teaching philosophy has evolved a lot during my years as a faculty member, but I have always believed that students need to work hard in order to succeed. I set high expectations of my students and myself and work hard so that we can both achieve these expectations. I once had a student tell me, “You are tough, but you are fair.” I took that statement as a huge compliment.

What teaching practices do you employ to get your students engaged in learning?

Most of the classes that I currently teach are for pre-service teachers so they are frequently at the board presenting material and answering questions. My teaching practices have changed a lot over the last few years as I used to have the opinion that the teacher was the focal point of the room. Now I strongly believe that the students need to be the focal point of the room and the teacher needs to get them involved. This isn’t difficult with pre-service teachers as they know that they will eventually be the teacher in the room. In my other classes, I ask a lot of questions and wait for students to answer. There are times when I have to wait a while as no one wants to answer, but I wait patiently. I make it very clear to my students at the beginning of the semester that I want to hear from them during class and that I don’t want a quiet classroom.

What are your best practice suggestions for using WebAssign?

As a faculty member who believes strongly that learning mathematics is about learning the process not about getting the answer, I use WebAssign very carefully in my classes. I limit the number of attempts on problems, ranging from one attempt to five attempts. One attempt would be used for True/False, Yes/No, or multiple-choice problems while five attempts is standard for a free-response problem. Also, I limit the help features so that the students can’t use them until after the third attempt. This is the way that I encourage students to actually work on the problem on their own before using one of the help features.

I really like WebAssign and feel that it is a huge time saver for grading homework. Homework is important so students can practice. However, I also give paper/pencil quizzes and exams so students can demonstrate their thought process.

What role does technology play in your teaching?

I use technology daily when teaching. In fact, I teach a course called Technology for Math Educators so the focus of that course is helping pre-service teachers learn how to use technology appropriately in the classroom. I have learned a lot of technology throughout my years of teaching and learn more every day. It is sometimes difficult to find the right balance of how much technology to use in class as I am also very much a traditionalist when teaching mathematics and believe in students showing work with paper and pencil.

Can you give us a brief overview of what is included in your calculus lab manual?

The lab manual includes algebra and trigonometry skills that are needed to be successful in first semester calculus. These topics are structured in an order that would fit nicely with an early transcendental first semester calculus course. Each lab includes reading, videos (coming soon), practice problems, and exercises related to the topic for that lab. There are twelve labs so one lab per week fits nicely with the structure of a semester course.

What initially made you want to write your own lab manual?

After watching students struggle in Calculus I for many years and wanting to help them succeed in the course, I worked with my department to create a one-credit lab and then write the lab manual to go along with it. As a faculty member, I want to see students be successful in my course and in subsequent courses.

Have you seen a positive response in student’s grades and comprehension following completion of your lab manual?

Our co-requisite Calculus I Lab is required for certain students who we have determined (through data analysis) to be at-risk. Much of our positive results have come from anecdotal evidence. I had one student who was retaking the course and chose to take the co-requisite lab. He felt that the lab was very helpful to him and his opinion was that all students should have to take the lab!


New Analytics Tool for Students

We are excited to announce the release of our latest analytics feature for students, My Class Insights.

my-class-insights screenshot 7_24_15


Integrated with the WebAssign application, My Class Insights gives students an overview of concepts they have learned and topics they are struggling on based on data from students’ first attempt on a problem.

The user-friendly interface shows students a summary view of concept mastery, as well as provides the subsequent steps in the learning process. A practice button appears next to each topic so students can dive deeper into a series of similar question types.

“My Class Insights gives students more data and control over their learning, making WebAssign a powerful tool for increasing student engagement,” said Jack Narayan, WebAssign chief academic officer and mathematics professor. “Now students can quickly see the areas they need to pay more attention to, and the data presented in My Class Insights should encourage them to fully invest in learning before an exam.”

My Class Insights was designed primarily to act as a study tool, but can also be used as remediation or to identify gaps in prerequisite course knowledge. This new feature will be available via the student homepage in WebAssign for a select group of Summer II courses and will be available to all students for Fall 2015 courses. This is the latest feature in a series of analytical tools and reports WebAssign will continue to release throughout the year.

Friday Funny!

This week’s Friday Funny was sent in by one of our product managers.

People are divided about math jokes because the average math joke is pretty mean.
Derivative math jokes are a constant we can do without.

Have a better math/science/teaching joke than this one? Email us to have it posted as one of our future Friday Funnies!

WAUG 2015 Recap


Another WebAssign Users Group Meeting has officially come and gone. Thank you to everyone who attended WAUG this year and helped make it a huge success! We enjoyed getting the chance to meet with all of you and hear engaging presentations from innovative instructors.

waug-2015-5WAUG started with a networking lunch on Thursday, June 25, followed by a series of interactive workshops led by our team of in-house experts. Attendees learned how to create their own questions, add media to their courses, modify existing questions, and much more. Thursday evening, instructors mingled with WebAssign employees at a lively cocktail social. On Friday, June 26, we showed a sneak peek at upcoming features in WebAssign as well as shared best practice tips for using some of our newer tools. After a yummy fajita buffet lunch, attendees heard from colleagues on a variety of topics including visible learning, placement exams, hybrid classrooms, and question authorship.

If you missed out on WAUG, PowerPoint slides and PDFs of many of the presentations are available to view on this shared Google Drive. Also, check out our Facebook page to see some of the great pictures captured throughout the two-day event. You can also see entertaining pictures and commentary posted on Twitter and Instagram by searching for #WAUG2015.