Friday, February 27, 2009

Teaching as Testing

Folks are always surprised that I let my students take most of their tests online.

Colleagues ask me . . .

  • Aren't you afraid that your students will simply look up the answers without studying?

    • Afraid? NO! I'm hopeful that they will look up the answers they don't know. By doing so, they are studying!

    • Students quickly find out that it is far more efficient for them to study first, then take their online test. Before long, they are only "looking up" the really tough ones that are helping them discover what they forgot to study . . . or didn't really learn well when they studied.

    • Students also find that many of the items on the test are not simple regurgitation of facts that can simply be "looked up." Perhaps they do need to look up some facts, but also have to process the information before the items can be answered successfully.

  • Aren't you afraid that students will get help from other students? Or even other experts in the field?

    • Afraid? There's that word again. Hmmm, are my colleagues really that fearful themselves?

    • No! If they are really stuck, I want them to collaborate to find the answer. We all know that collaborative learning is highly efficient, right?

    • Experts? Do they really know that many experts who are willing to help them answer every item on every test? Even if they do, isn't that also collaborative learning? Isn't this how I want them to solve problems in the "real world" in their careers? Aren't professionals expected to consult with experts to solve a problem? What a great skill they are learning!

  • Aren't you afraid that your students will print and save their tests and pass them along to other students?

    • Oh, I'm so so afraid. Not. I want them to print out their tests! My tests come up one question at a time and when all the questions are finished, each test is automatically graded (correct or incorrect; the correct answer is not given to them), and may be printed out. They are then advised to find the correct answer to the questions they missed.

    • The reason they want to find the correct answers, besides their love of learning, is that they get three attempts at each test (the highest score of the three "counts").

    • In correcting their answers, they again have the opportunity to collaborate with their peers in the course, outside experts, or . . . heaven forbid . . . me!

    • I use huge test banks of items, of which only a few are randomly selected to appear on each attempt of a test. It would be a major effort to reconstruct the whole test bank . . . so much time and effort that it's far easier to simply learn the concepts. Besides that for most items, the elements (choices, matches, examples) also appear randomly within each item, so memorizing items wouldn't help them as much as you'd think. If they did find and memorize all the items? I think that in the process, they'd be actively studying the concepts . . . right? Why would I be afraid of that?

    • I do delete, alter, and add to the test banks on a regular basis so even passing an accumulated set on from year to year wouldn't help them much, either. (This sounds harder to do than it is.)

  • Three attempts? Won't they just "wing it" the first time, then use the first attempt print-out to ace the second attempt?

    • Yes and no.

    • Some of my students do strategically wing it for the first attempt in order to assess the type and quality of test items I'm shooting at them. Then they use that knowledge to help them figure out how I'm approaching the course objectives and what kind and depth of understanding they need to be successful. Good for them!

    • As I stated earlier, each attempt is very different from any other attempt that they or their peers will be taking. I'll explain more about how randomization of test items and choices works (and how to do it yourself) in a later post to this blog. But with relatively few alternate forms of items in the test banks, I can produce literally millions of different tests. So they cannot really simply memorize answers. All they can do, alas, is learn the concepts if they want to prepare for their next attempt.

    • Remember, I want them to use previous attempts of a test to prepare themselves for the next try. That's called studying.

    • By providing three attempts and accepting their highest score, I can see what their best effort really is.

  • So the students cannot possibly cheat?

    • Not easily! What many folks would call cheating, I call collaborating and learning from your past mistakes. Like in the real world, eh?

    • There is one type of cheating I do recognize: they cannot have another person take their test for them.

      • If I have 9 online tests, each with up to 50 (really tough) items, and each with up to three attempts possible (a total of up to 1350 difficult test items) . . . who in the world are they going to get to do that for them and do it successfully?!

      • My course management system does have some information (time-stamping, etc.) that can give me hints about possible cheating.

      • Their peers (and my colleagues who supervise the on-campus computers) are watchful for this behavior.

    • We talk together about academic integrity and about how we all need to prevent academic dishonesty in our course (this helps more that you might think). We even run through case studies regarding academic integrity as a small-group discussion exercise.

    • According to my new favorite book about teaching (and I have few favorites in that genre), What the Best College Teachers Do
      , the best teachers don't worry so much about cheating. Instead, they work hard to foster a trusting relationship with students . . . one that students will be unlikely to violate trust by cheating. And recognize that one cannot completely erase dishonesty from any group of humans, no matter how well you foster trust.

They do get some in-class exams, as well. So there are points at which I do a summative evaluation of their learning in a more traditional manner. They do much better at those now than they ever did before I started using online testing. The proof is in the pudding, as they say!

OK, this is just to the the discussion going! Comments, anyone?

(Remember, I'll have more details on how I do some of this in later blog postings.)

Want to know more about online assessment of learning? Check this out:

Assessing the Online Learner:
Resources and Strategies for Faculty
(Online Teaching and Learning Series (OTL))

More money for technology?

Will the new federal stimulus package boost education technology?

According to a recent article in Edutopia . . . the answer is yes!

The article Stimulus Package to Quickly Impact Education Technology states that "Education technology gets a $650 million boost under the economic-stimulus plan, more than doubling the current federal budget for it and proving that President Barack Obama's commitment to technology is more than just words."

For the full article and related links, check out:

Edutopia also has a great listing of online resources for finding grants to fund educational technology. Check it out at:

Friday, February 20, 2009

My clicker case

I used to think that clickers were stupid.

Wow, was that stupid.

I had some early bad experiences in worshops that used old-style clickers that didn't work very well . . . they were infrared (IR) systems that needed to be pointed directly at the receiver (which seldom works) and couldn't really handle all those responses coming in at one time.

And well, I just didn't get how it would help me or my students.


Extensive research has shown that clickers (student response systems) work. OK, really? Yes! Just introducing the use of clickers in your course can improve student performance by 20 % or more. Wow. That's not something I should just ignore, right?

Then I realized that the best college teachers continually get feedback from their students on whether they "get it." And a fun and easy way to do that is with clickers.

[I learned what the best college teachers do by reading the book What the Best College Teachers Do.]

And I learned that the new generation of clickers . . . the RF (radio-frequency) type . . . don't have any of the technical problems of the early types of clickers.

So I did it! And, wow, am I glad I did.

I mentioned in a recent article in this blog that I'd tell you more about my experiences with clickers in my classroom. It turns out that my friends at i>clicker . . . the type of clicker that I found works best for me and my students . . . just recently posted my experiences in a case study at their website.

So go visit my case study on their website in Faculty Case Studies (be sure to click on Biology to see my case listed). Then you'll learn more about why I'm now such a big fan of clickers!

Can you meet me . . .

Here's an issue every academic--students, faculty, and administrators--wrestle with all the time: arranging meeting times.

Students want to arrange times for study groups or lab partners to get together for a review session. Or perhaps arrange a time to meet a professor when the usual office hours don't work (or are booked).

Faculty need to arrange meetings with students, colleagues, book reps, or within professional organizations. Same thing for administrators.

Then there's arranging when a good time to hold a campus event might be.

Here are a few FREE online tools that can help do this easily and efficiently . . . and therefore painlessly!

Here's another one that I've used as a virtual "sign up sheet" to staff a booth representing a professional organization at a conference:

Check out each one. It'll only take a few minutes . . . they're simple and straightforward. Then decide which one will work best for you.

Do you have any of these . . . or another site (or another method) . . . that works well for you! PLEASE share your reviews and recommendations!

Friday, February 13, 2009

New clicker book!

My friend Derek Bruff's new book Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments has just been released.

I first met Derek at the inaugural Clicker Conference last fall at the University of Louisville (KY) during the cocktail reception . . . where all the significant learning at any conference occurs, right?

He told me about his book and how its creation evolved . . . how he interviewed some of the best teachers using the best approaches . . . and I couldn't wait to read it! Now that I have it in my hands I can't put it down. I'm still not finished yet, but I've already learned a lot more than I knew before about the "best practices" in using classroom response systems.

Derek sees the goal of clicker use as an increase in student engagement and participation in the course . . . that is, a more active style of learning.

Here's a sample of topics from the book:

  • Engaging Students with Clickers

  • Assessing Students with Clickers

  • A Taxonomy of Clicker Questions

  • Teaching Choices

  • Technical and Logistical Choices

  • Why Use Clickers?

Be sure to check out Derek's blog Teaching with Classroom Response Systems.

I'll have more on my own experience with clickers . . . and what I learned at the Clicker Conference . . . in subsequent posts.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Anki Learning System

This is a great tool for learning the terminology of any discipline . . .

My friend Jane Zeiser told me about this tool. Jane is a foreign language professor and her students use it to learn their vocabulary words.

It's called Anki and it's a FREE program that creates a database that is something like a virtual deck of flash cards. Students can load in (and share) their terms and learn them by practicing with them.

The program is SMART because it uses a proven algorithm to repeat items that are missed in a pattern that promotes efficient learning. As the student learns, the program alters the pattern to focus on the terms that need more practice . . . without forgetting to review the terms already learned.

Anki can be downloaded and used on a PC or Mac, it can be used on a mobile device (such as an iPod, iPhone, or SmartPhone), or on the web.

Of course, memorizing the meaning of terms is just the first step in thoroughly learning a new discipline . . . but a very important first step. Success with the first step leads to success during the rest of the journey, eh?

Please "comment" on this article if you've already had experience with Anki . . . we'd all love to hear some first-person reports!

Find Anki at

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It's a trial offer, of course, meant to get you interested in the organization and its goals. And you probably will, considering coverage like this (from their website) . . .

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Let us know what you think by leaving a comment at The Electronic Professor blog.