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.


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!


Increasing Student Engagement with Blended Learning

Kyle Kline has taught high school mathematics for twelve years and is entering his fifth year of teaching with WebAssign. He currently teaches algebra II and pre-calculus at Twin Lakes High School in Monticello, IN.


Kline holds the fundamental belief that all students can achieve a certain level of mastery in mathematics. “Not every student is capable of making straight A’s, but they are all capable of putting forth their best effort,” Kline says. He applauds the efforts of his students if they work hard and put in the effort to learn the material. Kline believes that the effort in itself is a success no matter the letter grade.

In his pre-calculus class, he has created a blended learning environment to increase student engagement. Kline uses WebAssign to post notes, videos, helpful links, and homework assignments. He also has his students do a mixture of assignments utilizing both WebAssign and the textbook. Typically they will view the notes and videos for homework, while much of the in-class time is spent working on practice problems and extension activities.

As part of each semester’s coursework, students are also asked to submit a video on a math topic. This assignment is a group effort, and students break into small teams to collaborate. Projects have included game shows, music videos and parodies of their assignments. Students aren’t the only ones creating video content. Kline also has an extensive YouTube library, including a few parodies of his own.

Technology plays a key role in Kline’s classroom, in which every student has his or her own laptop. This provides more opportunity for interaction, and he has found that his students are more active learners. He utilizes WebAssign for homework and online quizzes as well as the announcement feature. Kline finds announcements to be a great place for him to share important information and materials with his students. Each year, Kline implements more and more of the tools of the online learning system into his classroom.

One of Kline’s favorite features is Ask Your Teacher, which helps facilitate teacher-student interactions. He finds himself using Ask Your Teacher almost nightly and feels it has given students a voice in his class. This is especially important for students who do not feel comfortable asking questions in class.

His suggestions for other teachers and instructors using WebAssign are to read the monthly WebAssign newsletter and to attend WAUG and network with other WebAssign users. “It is a great place to meet new people and learn more about WebAssign and its features,” he says.

The WebAssign Users Group Meeting (WAUG) will be held on June 25th and 26th this year and features a great speaker lineup and interactive question coding workshops. Register today to reserve your spot!

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!

How Collaboration is Just a Modern LMS Away

Check out this article that was recently published in eCampus News. It was written by WebAssign user Michael Lafreniere, an associate professor of environmental engineering technology and mathematics at Ohio University – Chillicothe. Michael will also be presenting at our WebAssign Users Group Meeting on June 25-26. Register today to hear him and other professors talk about teaching, learning, and using WebAssign.

Developing “collaboratories” in mathematics thanks to multi-tooled LMS’

Today’s colleges and universities are quickly turning to alternative pathways to traditional teaching and learning approaches, especially for core courses such as developmental mathematics and algebra—and collaboration enabled through modern Learning Management System (LMS) functionality may be one way to accomplish this rejuvenation.

Leveraging today’s key methods and technologies can create collaborative spaces that enhance student learning and outcomes. A teacher can recapture time spent on traditional lecture and create opportunities for exploration of concepts that lead to increased student engagement and mastery level learning—all while accommodating individual student learning pace variations and asynchronous learning.

LafreniereThe technology to help accomplish this form of pedagogy can be brought together in what is being called the “Collaboratory Approach” or simply “Collaboratory.” The term collaboratory is credited to William Wulf for interacting and sharing via software as early as 1989 (Wulf, 1993).

Today, the software is a web-based application commonly known as an LMS. With an appropriate LMS, video delivery, conferencing integration, and white board integration with digital inking capabilities, a teacher can collaborate with colleagues and students through the broadcast of synchronous instruction and learning activities online and in-class. The teacher can facilitate collaborative, shareable, personalized note-taking spaces, as well as track student engagement across multiple sections—class and student level insights that assist the teacher much like intentional formative assessment.

At the end of the course, the same data collection can be used in the creation of student portfolios of learning outcomes, which are ideal for course and program improvement, as well as, accreditation.

The goals of an LMS-enabled collaboratory, specifically for developmental mathematics and college algebra include the ability for online learning so that every student can “come to the board” without ever leaving their seat (or coming to campus).

Which means a STEM-proficient online assessment system

Online assessment is a primary driver in the design of this collaboratory approach, given the high effect size of improvement for effortful practice with testing (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014; Hattie & Yates, 2014).

For STEM courses like mathematics that come with a significant reliance of symbolic characters, a system that can accept and assess such information provides valuable fidelity to the discipline, time savings, and a greater volume of student engagement.

WebAssign is a great online assessment system, because it affords the highest symbolic and mathematical fidelity needed for student engagement beyond the standard assessment (e.g., types like multiple choice and true/false). It also comes with high-fidelity symbolic capabilities from Maple, Mathematica, and MATLAB—along with embedding capabilities that enable integration of a variety of publisher’s e-content. This e-content can incorporate technical simulations, e-book materials, and student learning support tools like “Watch it” videos; all applications pertinent to learning mathematics, physics, chemistry, and engineering.

The WebAssign online assessment system also serves as the hub of activity through which students engage and collaborate on items like homework, in class activities, quizzes, exams, video lectures, simulations, and problem-solving.

CollaborationThe ability to write and share

Second to the assessment system in the collaboratory LMS approach is a need to write by students and teacher using digital ink, given the benefits known (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). OneNote, DyKnow, or PencilPad can be used to connect teacher and students’ digital writings with others during engagement activities where symbolic mathematical representations are crucial for increasing the mathematical fidelity of their conceptual understanding.

Problem-solving can be shared in real-time, whether a student is present in-class or attending online, through the use of digital ink. Each student is “coming to the board” to contribute and share their approach in problem solving. This conveyance of digital notes from the teacher and students’ collaboration is shared and saved for all in real-time.

Being able to couple tools like PencilPad and DyKnow on an LMS, a teacher can also ascertain the cognitive fidelity of the student’s work via a recording of the digital inking activity. For example, whether sequences are correct from start to finish or filled with intermittent “false starts” or “tangential efforts,” the writing, erasing, and writing is all there for the teacher to evaluate.

In WebAssign, data collection on a student’s digital writings now includes assessment and insights at the question-, assignment-, and class-level with both quantitative and qualitative data types. Educators can see how much a student writes as a measure of engagement (Kamin, Capitanu, Twidale and Peiper, 2008), as well as taking what a student digitally writes and analyze it for correctness via computer algorithms (Hatfield, 2010). Two such promising tools are FluidMath, and MyScript.

A means to flip

Flipped delivery of lectures is often used in the collaboratory approach. To ensure student engagement, as well as provide the teacher with formative assessment data, the flipped delivery of lectures is embedded in WebAssign using such online tools as YouTube or EdPuzzle.

This monitoring and assessing of student lecture viewing provides key mid-level data to reduce misconceptions and develop greater conceptual understanding–leading to greater gains in disciplines like mathematics. Given the time savings from flipped delivery of lectures, a teacher can collect and analyze student writing with digital assessment capabilities or good ol’ fashion “by hand.”

Pooling capability for high stakes

Since class time is spent on concept development and building procedural fluency from these concepts, the LMS should help the teacher build questions (to occur in initial assignments, through exams, and culminating on a final exam) around material learned. From this, mastery of the content by a student (or whole class) can be tracked and displayed in the collaboratory.

As for high-stakes assessments such as module or chapter exams, these are offered in a campus testing center under proctored conditions. Exams can be taken multiple times in this format to further promote mastery learning. Given the randomization and pooling capabilities of a modern LMS, students get a greater range of questions tied to concepts, which can significantly reduce the possibility of academic misconduct.



Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hatfield, J. J. (2010). A method for automating the analysis of tablet PC ink-based student work collected using dyknow vision. In R. H. Reed & D. A. Berque (Eds.), The impact of tablet PCs and pen-based technology on education: Going mainstream (pp. 57–64). West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press.

Hattie, J., & Yates, G. (2014). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. New York: Routledge.

Kamin, S. N., Capitanu, B., Twidale, M., & Peiper, C. (2008). A “teacher’s dashboard” for a high school algebra class. In R. H. Reed, D. A. Berque, & J. C. Prey (Eds.), The impact of tablet PCs and pen-based technology on education: Evidence and outcomes (pp. 63–71). West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 0956797614524581.

Wulf, W. A. (1993). The collaboratory opportunity. Science, 261(5123), 854–855.

Instructor Spotlight: Dr. Anne Triplett

Featuring the innovative work of our outstanding faculty users is something we love to do here at WebAssign. This week we are spotlighting Dr. Anne Triplett. Anne is taking a sabbatical from teaching this year and will be writing a collection of sports-themed questions for WebAssign! We are very excited to have her working with us and recently spoke with her about her education background and teaching philosophy.

 Anne TriplettWhat is your educational background and teaching history?

In 1997 I graduated from The University of Oregon with a PhD in pure Math. I then taught at the University of Maine at Farmington for three years before coming to the University of Mount Union. I was fortunate to be able to do some teaching while I was a student, so I knew that was the path I wanted to take.

What is your teaching philosophy?

Make it real! If I am teaching probability, I start with expected value and do some actual games in class. This shows the students that counting arguments are useful. When doing weighted averages, I use quarterback ratings from football as an example. Sometimes I will start a mathematical topic with an example that is somewhat unexpected, so the students can become familiar with an application before they actually understand the mathematics. I try to teach concepts by relating them to real-life situations, when possible. I believe that all students are capable of learning, but that learning takes place more effectively when students have understood contexts and applications.

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

I try to use as many examples as I can from different disciplines. In a precalculus class, I may use examples from sociology or psychology. I always try use examples from sports and music. I hope never to give the students the feeling that my class is being taught in isolation from other disciplines. Math relates to every discipline on a college campus.

I also provide rapid feedback to students through frequent quizzes, tests, and other assessments. In class, I ask students questions and expect the participation of all students, whenever possible. I frequently ask students to work out problems on classroom whiteboards, and I assign graded WebAssign homework every day. I have many office hours for students, and I make certain that my students are aware of campus tutoring that is available to them.

What are your best practice suggestions for using WebAssign?

I like to use different forms of assessment. Some quizzes are in class and some are timed assignments on WebAssign. My assignments are due at midnight the day before every class. In this way, it is not likely that students will try to stay up until 4:00 a.m. the night before the assignment is due. I assign problems from different sources. The result is that the student will see different ways to ask for the same information. For example – find y’, find dy/dx, find the rate of change of y w.r.t. to x, find the slope of the curve, etc.

One thing that I always thought was odd when I was a student, is that teachers would tell us to get a head start on studying and not wait until the last minute, but they would only conduct reviews in the last class before the exam. This makes it likely that students will wait until the last minute to begin preparing for the exam.  If I give an exam on a Friday, then I assign a review on WebAssign the Friday before the exam, and I make it due on the Thursday before the exam at noon.

I make sure that “Practice Another Version” is enabled after the due date, so that they can work out the tough problems again. I believe that this helps to prevent a lot of procrastination. I send a gentle reminder to start the review early. Having the students see the review early shows them what material they are responsible for in enough time for them to get help if they are behind.

What role does technology play in your teaching?

I use the usual things like Excel, PowerPoint and Mathematica. But, I also have the students Google different topics and see what they find. For example, I might ask: “How many YouTube videos are there on integration by parts? Watch two of them and tell me what you think.”

What do you plan to achieve during your sabbatical?

I will be writing questions with a sports theme that require different math skills. Although many books have been written on the connections between mathematics and sports, I have not found one that provides many useful examples for students who do not have a strong interest in mathematics. Creating a collection of sports-related questions that teach basic skills and are both interesting and useful is at the heart of my sabbatical project.

The questions that are typically available for statistics classes are basic and uninspiring, dealing mainly with mean, median, and mode. Writing my own types of interest-based questions would help to provide students with more relevant content and more interesting delivery of the material. I have also found that most of the sports-related questions are focused on baseball, basketball and football. However, there is some very interesting mathematics in sports like cricket and bowling. So, on my sabbatical, I will need to learn about some sports that I am not currently familiar with.


We want to hear from you! Do you use similar teaching methods to engage your students. Will this collection of sports-themed questions help your students learn? Respond in the comments section below.

Using Formative Assessment to Support Large Classes

One professor’s solution to engaging 600 students in one semester

John D. Hopkins, a senior instructor of physics at Penn State, is a seasoned educator who has taught everything from middle school science and math to college-level physics. Hopkins, who is certified in PA for Physics and Mathematics, has taught for 17 years at the university level.John Hopkins

Hopkins has developed a student-centered classroom where his lectures, materials, and activities are designed specifically to address any student issues and support learning. To achieve his goals, Hopkins uses formative assessment tools, as well as direct student feedback. The challenge is that Hopkins has well over 600 students in his two classes and formative assessment requires him to collect vast amounts of data throughout the semester. He must evaluate comprehension, assess learning needs, and monitor academic progress. He also strives to avert mislearning among his students, so he routinely analyzes individual student data to quickly identify and correct any issues.

Technology plays a critical role to enable formative assessment in Hopkins’ classroom. For 15 years Hopkins has used WebAssign to support his student-centered teaching style because it automates a number of tasks, including instant grading and data collection. What’s more, WebAssign offers a robust variety of additional content and resources to reinforce learning comprehension.

With WebAssign, Hopkins can quickly assemble and sort through student data to find topics or concepts that are causing difficulty. He can then give his students timely feedback on their work or adjust his classroom lectures to focus on a difficult topic. One of the features he relies on is the Grades Response Summary, which monitors student progress on each question. Additionally, WebAssign’s instant feedback and Practice Another Version feature, which provides students with multiple versions of each problem, are useful tools for students. “There’s nothing worse than having a student believe for a week or so that they’ve been doing problems correctly only to find out that they were mistaken. Immediate feedback helps to eliminate this and encourages students to seek help prior to mislearning a topic,” says Hopkins.

WebAssign is also helpful when a student misses class. Hopkins has multiple recitation activities that are designed for students who legitimately miss class. The makeup activities provide the same type of practice as the “in class” activity. This has eliminated a large number of makeups and helps individuals to stay on track during the semester.