Saturday, August 7, 2010

A short wish list for online homework systems

I take it for granted that electronic homework systems cannot effectively grade any math problem that requires students to write coherent sentences.

All the electronic homework systems allow the possibility of students submitting answers that won't be machine graded.  This capability greatly increases the variety of types of questions that can appear in an electronic exercise set.  There is an issue of how students enter math notation and figures (hey, just let them  photograph their handwritten answers with their cellphones and upload the jpg file), but the principal reason that I'm reluctant to include such problems is the fear that grading online will be cumbersome.

There are several ways to make life easier for the instructor faced with grading a single "essay" problem from a large set of students.  First, the interface for viewing individual responses should be intuitive and effortless.  Don't make us click on a link to open one student's response and then have to close that file before opening the next. 

It would be better to have "zoomable" thumbnails of each student's answers spread across the screen, with mouse flicks or dragging to scroll.  Should the instructor have the foresight to provide a grading rubric for the problem, that rubric should be visible (or at least available) to the student when working the problem.

In many cases, the availability of the rubric could reduce the instructor's need for to make copious comments.  For further convenience, the instructor should have a few editable paste buffers holding common comments (like "You need the product rule" or "This is not an equation").

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A joyful conspiracy

Uri Treisman's Joyful Conspiracy from CarnegieViews on Vimeo.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is organizing a “joyful conspiracy” to help community colleges provide pathways to success for students who initially are placed in developmental mathematics courses.  The Statway will bring non-STEM students from the level of elementary algebra up to and through a transfer-level statistics course in one year.

The Statway 2010 Summer Institute brought teams from 19 community college campuses to the Stanford University campus July 25-30 to meet, share with, and learn from each other and from Carnegie Foundation leaders and consultants.  

We practiced the protocol for presenting, critiquing, and giving feedback on the lessons we will be piloting in the coming year.  Each lesson will involve students working on a rich task with clearly defined learning goals.  A key assumption of Statway is that statistics can provide a context for students to learn to think and reason quantitatively.  The necessary algebraic skills will be embedded within the lesson, rather than holding center stage.

Another core part of the instructional experience is that having students struggle with problems is desirable.  This student engagement, even when students do not discover or invent the necessary mathematics on their own, can be crucial to preparing the students for making sense of the central topic of the lesson.