Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cheat-Proofing Exams II: Pros and Cons of Group Work

In the past week, I have finished grading my tablet students' individual and group exams. As in previous semesters, I returned annotated PDFs back to the students individually by e-mail - with comments left in the PDFs to show the points earned only on those questions where a student did not earn all of the points. Here is one benefit of group exams: although it adds a document to return to each student (I attached the graded individual exam plus the graded group exam to each e-mail), grading is faster because I grade the group exam and assign the same point values to each member of the group.

Student Attitudes and Perceptions

Although I have yet to fully analyze the post-exam attitude survey data, there are overall positive (or, at worst, neutral) findings about the effect of group exams on students. Although almost two-thirds of the class reported feeling more stressed than normal at the start of the exam and during the exam, the bulk of the class reported feeling normal (or more relaxed than normal) following the exam!

As expected, the distribution of how well students self-assessed their performance on the exam (before receiving scores from me) was normal (very bell-curve). However, the responses that most surprised me were to my inquiry about how frequently students accessed notes and other digital resources (notes, textbook, the web, etc.) during the exam. Less than ten percent of students reported using digital resources more frequently than they had imagined they would; two-thirds of the class used digital resources less frequently than they thought they would. Informal discussions with a couple of students seems to suggest that the reason for this was that they felt rushed during the exam.

At this point, I feel good: although I don't like having students more stressed than normal at the beginning of and during the exam, this might be entangled with this being their first exam with me. I might expect to see this effect dissipate as we complete more of this style of test during the semester. Further, if students are not accessing digital notes and content frequently during the exam, then perhaps this approach is, indeed, at least cheat-resistant. In fact, I was even quite frustrated to find that one student had solved one problem (on the digital annotation of a PDF) using long division, instead of using the calculator built in to the tablet!

Student Performance

However, how did the students actually perform on the exam? Individual exams were heavily skewed towards A and B grades, which is fine with me: I like to interpret this as an indication that I was successful at helping the students understand the expectations and to study and practice the appropriate content for the exam. The class average on the group exam was exactly the same as the average for the individual exam: 75%. Most importantly, although the addition of the group exam did negatively impact the overall (individual + group) letter grade on the test of four students, it also improved the letter grade on the test of three students.

Although there are additional post-test survey data to analyze, my broad impression of the quick look I took at the data were that, generally, given the option to write a dissenting opinion on whether they agreed with the group answer to each group exam question, students generally supported the group answer that was submitted.


My overall impression is that the group exams have broadly accomplished my initial goals:
1) group exams allow me to assess material and conduct analyses that would be difficult (or unfair) to ask individual students to perform during a one-hour exam, including higher-level Bloom's questions
2) although the novelty of the exam format might have been more stressful to students, the ability to collaborate with peers and/or access digital resources during the exam might have improved their post-exam attitudes
3) group work did not appear to cause a net increase in grades, but also did not have a net negative effect. Longer-term, if the groups maintain a stable membership (which I plan to assess), having established groups early in the term might have a long-term benefit to student performance if those groups study and strategize together.
4) group work, and post-test surveys on peer evaluation of group member contributions to the exam, provide me with additional data that will help me assess students' performance. These could, for example, be particularly useful data to return to when students ask me for letters of recommendation for medical school two years hence. I will have quantitative data to suggest to admissions committees whether students were generally found by peers to be engaged in group discussions, able to help resolve discrepancies, to help distill common themes in potentially disparate individual responses, and so on.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Cheat-Proofing Exams I

Today I was as nervous as my students for our first Genetics test of the semester. Today, after two semesters of teaching DISCOVERe (tablet computer-based instruction) courses at California State University, Fresno, I gave my first all-digital exam. I learned a lot (which, as you teachers already suspect, means that a lot went wrong). And, as you might also suspect, because I'm writing about it, there are some best practices to share!

The Background
As a geneticist, providing students with authentic experiences (even in the classroom) is one of my top priorities. One of the reasons I joined DISCOVERe is to ensure that all of my students would have computers in the classroom so that we could all practice analyzing and interpreting data. The first time I taught a genetics tablet class (which was my first tablet course), I hadn't done all of the things I should have done (like providing lots of deliberate exercises using digital workflows) to ensure that everybody was comfortable with taking digital exams. So, that class used almost entirely paper-based exams. There was no talking, no notes, and no tablets allowed during the exams in the tablet class.

The Theory
My goal is to have students demonstrate to me their understanding of the material by engaging in mid-level (and up) Bloom's: interpreting data, making predictions, applying knowledge in new situations, and being creative. I also feel like giving group exams for at least two reasons: 1) they help students collaborate and teach each other, which is extremely valuable, and 2) this also helps me observe students working in group settings (which helps me write letters of recommendation for those who ask!) To facilitate group exams, and to facilitate exams with tablets, I need to develop exams that are cheat-proof - and I also have to change my attitude: what we call "cheating" in the classroom is called "collaboration" in practice. I need to incorporate that into the classroom.

The Concerns
How many colleagues have asked me how I would prevent cheating on exams if I let the students have tablet computers? Plenty. And how did I respond? I told my students on the second day of class this term: I embrace collaboration. We know that employers want to hire people who work well in groups and who have excellent communication skills. The practice of scientific research has been making deliberate moves over the last decade (and more) to foster interdisciplinary collaboration - and I definitely subscribe to Woodrow Wilson's philosophy: "I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow." So, how can I have group exams, and incorporate tablets into exams (to access online DNA sequence databases and web-based analysis tools, for example), without facilitating cheating?

The Approach

  1. Individual Exam (80% of points, 15 minutes, no talking; open note/internet/textbook)
  2. Arranging into groups (5 minutes)
  3. Group Exam (20% of points, 25 minutes)
  4. Exit Survey (5 minutes)

Following my attitude adjustment, "It isn't cheating - it is collaboration," what do my tests look like now? We have a two-part exam (like I have seen at, in which students first complete an individual exam. They download a PDF of the exam, annotate it, and return it to me while we're all in the classroom. There is no talking, although it is open-digital-textbook and open-internet (no print materials allowed). As at UBC, I made the individual exam worth most of the test points (~80% in my case). This helps assuage fears about how group performance might impact individual performance. Additionally, the individual exams incorporate most Bloom's levels. The goal of this 15-minute portion of the exam is to distinguish students who have not prepared at all (the D and F students, say) from the other students. Students who have not studied might spend quite a bit of time looking up simple factual information and not earn many points in this relatively quick individual exam. Although the questions are fast to answer (often matching or multiple choice, for example), they do require reflection and application. Although this is an open-digital-resource exam, this phase contains no talking and also no audio. I don't want students distracting each other by playing movies, for example (say, of my lecture captures). I don't even let students bring earphones, because I can't guarantee that every student would have that resource. The individual exam should be first, so that any students who happen to arrive late don't miss out on the group exam time.

After the individual exam, students form their own groups of three or four. I don't choose the groups; I hope that students (if they don't already have study groups) will establish long-lasting relationships in the class by realizing that there will be additional group exams throughout the semester. The group exam is 25 minutes long. Here I differ from the UBC example. I don't give the same exam to the groups. Instead, I write a short exam that is worth ~20% of the total exam points and that builds on the individual exam. For example, I might ask the group to describe why they chose the answer(s) they did on the individual exam, or to perform group brainstorming (one of my favorite questions from today was: come up with three hypotheses to explain why this unexpected experimental result was observed). These higher-level Bloom's questions, making up a small portion of the points, are designed to help me distinguish the A, B, and C students. I adhere to the UBC example by asking each group to submit only one exam per group. So, the first thing each group does, after introductions, is to select one member to be the "scribe," who will write all of the group member names on the exam, annotate it, and submit the PDF to me.

Active learning at its best: during a group exam

After the group exam, I distribute an exit survey in which students rank each others' contributions and state whether they agree with the group consensus answers. This is where those who dissent can explain why. All of this serves a simple goal: to help me collect evidence of understanding the critical concepts.

With my unorthodox scheme of assigning letter grades (0-20% of points = F, 20-40% = D, 40-60% = C, 60-80% = B, 80-100% = A), this exam structure lets the individual student earn up to a B individually. Any additional points on the group section can push any student into the A grade range. Thus, one letter grade of points is reserved for students who are creative and work well in groups and know the material so well that they can apply it in novel circumstances (such as making predictions and formulating hypotheses)

The Execution
Here's where today was a mixed bag. On one hand, I (as always) had a backup plan. It turns out, today was the day when I had to implement the backup plan. And the only reason that we (the class and I) were successful today was because I had specifically had my students practice digital workflows on relatively trivial exercises, every day, in class.

My approach was that I had the individual and group exams prepared as PDFs. They were to be distributed, one copy per student, via Google Classroom. Before class, I had uploaded and saved the PDFs as attachments to draft Assignments. The plan was to press the "Assign" button one minute (or so) before I wanted every student to have access to each exam. I designed the exit survey in Socrative. I also, just in case, posted both PDFs to Blackboard; they were to become visible to students at designated times during the exam.

It turned out that, for whatever reason, although the students generally had no internet connectivity issues (every student in attendance did, actually, successfully submit their exam to me by the end of class), none of my devices (laptop, two iPads) were able to connect to wireless networks on campus.

So, prior to the exam, I was not able to launch the Google Classroom assignments. Even with my thunderbolt-to-ethernet adapter and the ethernet cord provided in the classroom, I still wasn't able to access the web (still working on why!) Apparently, Google Classroom assignments can't be launched by the Google Classroom apps (my iPhone wasn't able to launch the exams either!) So, I was at least able to tell all of the students to download the exam PDFs from Blackboard, which worked smoothly. The main drawback was that the submission of exams was to me, directly, by e-mail attachment of annotated PDFs. That means that I spent about 1.5 hours after the exam downloading attachments and renaming files in a consistent format with student names. With Google Classroom, all of this would have happened on the fly during assignment submission.

Alas, the network let me down today. But, being prepared won the day! Now I need to go grade some exams.

The Bottom Line

  • As always, have a backup plan.
  • As always, be progressive and be willing to try new (to you) things that others have proven can succeed!
  • As always, use practices in the classroom that will help students develop skills and proficiencies that are both universal and also relevant to your discipline!

Until joining DISCOVERe, I never thought I would see the day (today) when I would be able to ask every student in the classroom, during an exam, to analyze a 280-nucleotide DNA sequence by searching online databases to tell me which species and gene that sequence likely comes from! Today, I was transformed - and my classes were transformed forever. And, that DNA sequence came from the tra-2 (transformer 2) gene of Caenorhabditis elegans.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Hindsight (I): lecture capture best practice

Despite the title of this post, I actually saw this issue coming and yet did nothing. As Metallica sing in "No Leaf Clover," "The soothing light at the end of your tunnel was just a freight train coming your way."

One of my long-term goals of lecture capturing was to be able to re-use material I recorded (in office hours, in class, as exam and exercise keys, as pre-class videos, etc.) Had I really and truly appreciated how much video I would create in one semester (over 102 hours), I might have worked harder as I was generating those videos creating two ancillary resources that I am sure will improve the quality of these resources for enhancing student learning:

  1. captions (as I've been writing about so far this academic year here and here)
  2. tables of contents for the videos

Producing a Table of Contents for each video is incredibly important for you and for your students.

For you

When you want to incorporate a nugget of information (like that time you recorded the perfect explanation of why genetic linkage negates the expectation of Mendel's second law - independent assortment), it will be much easier to find if you have written (and computer-searchable!) contents of all of your videos. My Excel spreadsheet contains, at its core, three pieces of information:

  1. Topic (phrases, keywords, search terms, etc.)
  2. Video filename
  3. Time reference (i.e. 2:01 into the movie file)

For the students

After you create the ToC, add it to your videos on YouTube! This will help students quickly navigate to topics within that hour-long lecture video that they really want to watch again. Here's how:

1. In your YouTube Video Manager, select the "Info and Settings" button below the video at left:

2. In the text book for "Basic info," paste in your text Table of Contents. Mine, as you can see (below) is the video timepoint followed by a brief description of what is happening in the video starting at that time

3. After saving that text entry, when anybody views your video, they will see something like the below: YouTube automatically detects the time stamps you pasted into the Info box and hyperlinks to those time points in the movie. When one of my students wants to review the core concepts and vocabulary I presented in this lecture, they click on the "17:04" link in the Table of Contents and are whisked to that precise point in the video.

So, now that I've spent much of my Labor Day weekend "free time" cataloging video from previous terms, I'm advocating for being more deliberate at doing these mundane tasks as we go! Don't let it slide - if you want to capitalize on the digital resources you're curating, this is critical!

"Sucker for that quick reward," indeed. Nicely played, Metallica.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

STEM, Google Classroom, & fostering creativity

Yesterday, we had a fantastic time in Genetics. I believe that this partly stems from a concern I've long had about being a scientist: I feel that there are few opportunities for creativity in the sciences. If I've bent your ear on this topic before, you've heard me argue that the three times you get to be creative in biology are:

  1. when you title your manuscript
  2. when designing an oral or poster presentation (to an extent), and
  3. if you are so lucky, when you discover and name a gene (or, likewise, if you develop a clever acronym for some new technique)

Of course, those of us in the daily practice of science know that there are indeed more opportunities for creativity. This term, in class, I've been trying to address this potential misconception in a number of ways. The obvious one I pursued first is simply telling the students that creativity is valuable in STEM (and in genetics, specifically). Almost daily, I've been urging students to be creative, especially in:

  1. thinking about how to solve a given problem (I don't think a day has passed when I didn't say "there is not always one correct answer to this question")
  2. coming up with alternate interpretations to explain an observation. Critical thinking is a critical skill, and the first step to developing critical thinking can be thinking creatively and not blindly agreeing with the interpretation that somebody else has developed, simply because it sounds plausible.

But, it is easy to talk about this; much more difficult to put it into practice. Enter the tablets. I decided to make one of our earliest forays into creativity in genetics (not an oxymoron, as I've tried to establish, above) explicitly creative. My class is just starting to discuss molecular genetics, which has entirely to do with understanding the properties of the molecule upon which genetics is based: DNA. I've found in the past that a difficult alternative conception to overcome is how the structure of the DNA double-helix is related to what we commonly see in figures and micrographs as a chromosome.

The assignment

The assignment was straightforward: for class, each student was to identify a free drawing app that would let them import and annotate photographs that they found elsewhere. They were then to find a micrograph of a chromosome, and to draw their interpretation of how the double helix relates to a chromosome.

The use of tablets

My integration of tablets here scores higher than stage one (substitution of technology for another method) in the SAMR Model, but the way that instruction is enhanced by tablets might be subtle here.

Before tablets, I probably would have brought a printout of a chromosome micrograph to class and had each student draw on the paper. This would be simple Substitution (the "S" – the lowest stage of tech incorporation – in the SAMR model).

However, I wanted students to develop some information literacy skills by having to practice how to find a  photograph of a chromosome (I had suggested a Google Images search; some students used other methods). Plus, having each student identify his/her own image to annotate might have the additional benefit of making them more invested in the outcome, because they're involved in decision-making and customizing their experience from the very beginning of the assignment.

At this point, students having either a laptop or tablet in class could achieve this goal. But, My belief is that one of the most important benefits of the tablet is the ability to draw more naturally on the touchscreen surface than one might using a mouse or trackpad on a laptop. So, after students chose their photograph of a chromosome, they had the opportunity to annotate that image to draw me their understanding of what a chromosome is.

Google Classroom

Here's where the tablet can really shine (and also where I goofed on this first attempt at using Google Classroom to collect and share student-generated content). I'll post soon on using Google Classroom, but the upshot, for now, is that it is a platform for disseminating and for collecting digital content from students - much like Google Drive, or Box, or every other cloud-based drive, but with a very useful wrapper.

So, I created an empty assignment: attach your chromosome micrograph annotation. Each student, upon entering the web-based Google Classroom, sees a post about this assignment, and can attach an image. When they "Turn In" that assignment, the attachment is copied into my Google Drive, in a subfolder named after that assignment "Double Helix & Chromosome," which is in a folder named for my classroom "Fall 2015 BIOL 102." So, I get all of the attached work in one place, on my laptop, on the fly, during class, and I can quickly scan through the images and assess student understanding. This is where the power of every student having a computer (tablet or not) in class can really benefit the educational process! This is the same argument for using clickers, or Socrative, or other methods to poll students during class to get feedback (ideally anonymously) on the state of the class' understanding.

To make things more interactive during class, my instructions to the students were slightly different than this workflow. I asked the students to form groups of 3-5 students and to show each other their images. The groups served two purposes, I thought. First, if half of the class hadn't come prepared with their chromosomes annotations, at least those students would still be able to be involved in evaluation of others' images. Also, group discussion can be very valuable in helping to resolve any differences between the annotations that might raise good questions about the topic at hand (how the double-helix is related to a picture of a chromosome).

They had about five minutes to debate within groups which of the images might be the best response to the assignment, and the group-elected image would be the one that was uploaded to our Google Classroom. It was during the group work that I was pretty sure I had success on my hands. As I later Tweeted (from @rossbiology), "You've got learning when students are standing up & facing backward in class! Nice job #rossgenetics."

After the students uploaded their annotations, my intention was then to display student responses to the class via our video projector, and engage in some larger group analysis of benefits and shortcomings of some of the submissions. This time, this didn't happen, for two reasons. The first is trivial: I ran out of time. The second is critical:

Anonymity and Safety and Google Classroom - a best practice

As I mentioned ever-so-briefly above, I strongly value the idea of having anonymous feedback. This is mostly because I like to create a safe environment for sharing opinions. In a class of 75, sometimes some students just aren't willing to talk and to share, but I want their input, too. So, one of the benefits of Google Classroom is that the file attachments that students submit are named whatever they like (so the file names don't have to include the student's name or ID number, for example). This is true if you access the files through your own Google Drive.

However, what I hadn't thought about in advance was that I was projecting in class from my tablet, and I opened the Google Classroom app on my tablet. In this view, the names of all of the students appear in the app (which probably isn't the best way to adhere to FERPA). So, I quickly closed the app, and we went on with the rest of the class. What I should have done is also had my laptop connected to the video projector, and switched to projecting from my laptop, where I could simply open the Google Classroom folder in my Google Drive and opened all of the attachments directly.

In sum, although this incorporation of tablets might not score high on the SAMR model (let's debate! Leave a comment!), I really feel that the ability for me to collect student feedback digitally, in class, and to allow students opportunities to participate more deeply in critical thinking (i.e. by finding their own image of a chromosome to annotate) and to demonstrate their creativity using a tablet computer made this exercise a true success.

To close, I'd like to show off some of the creative work from this exercise. The below images, from students L. Farshidpour and D. Whittington (who agreed to let me highlight their work here), are great examples of how invested and creative students can be in the classroom with their tablets!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Accessibility and lecture capture II: video captioning

We're now a week into fall semester, and I have learned so much already! I'm teaching my third DISCOVERe (tablet-based instruction) course in three semesters; this is the second time I've taught genetics with tablets.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been feeling conflicted about whether to keep performing lecture capture, because of the huge amount of additional work it would take to caption those videos. I don't seem to have any visually-impaired students who have requested disability accommodations, so perhaps that buys me a bit of time to found out whether I can access additional campus resources to support captioning 150 minutes of lecture capture per week.

However, I'm still optimistic about captioning, and that's the topic for this post. I mentioned that I attended a Captioning workshop held by our University Communications group before the start of the semester. I'm here to share a few hard-earned best practices on incorporating accessible videos into tablet-based instruction.

Best practice 1: make short videos
Although I still intend to produce and post all of my office hours and class sessions, I'm starting small. The idea here is supported by pedagogy and practicality. For a flipped classroom, it is good practice to have students access material before coming to class. In my case, sometimes this includes screencast content I've recorded in advance. When I first started this process a year ago, my videos would occasionally run to thirty minutes, which is way too long! As I've been struggling to release myself from the burden of teaching content (replacing that with more authentic practice during class), it seems that the necessary pre-lecture content has shrunk as well! So far this term (four class meetings so far), I've created and captioned five short videos: two screencast videos teaching methods (one on using Google Sheets; one for PDF annotation) and three quiz keys. Baby steps! It is so much easier to caption a few short videos than one big one, I certainly suggest starting with short videos for both reasons: it is easy on you for captioning, and it is best for your pedagogy and your students: it forces you to focus on what is the most important concept to get across.

Best practice 2
YouTube Captioning is only efficient using this one weird old trick!
Clickbait aside, my first two captioning sessions were not efficient! Briefly, here's the outline for YouTube captioning:

  1. Upload a video 
  2. In the Video Manager screen, click the Edit button (with black arrowhead) 
  3. Select "Subtitles and CC" from the drop-down menu:
  4. Then the button "Add new subtitles or CC" and select a language: 
  5. and the button "Create New Subtitles or CC" (unless your video was produced from a script, in which case you can upload the script and use it to generate the captions.) 

Now you can start playing the video and typing the captions. Note that what I type in the text box on the right shows up as a caption in the video.

Here's where keystrokes are key. The captioning process works like this: you start your movie playing, and then you type in captions as you hear words being spoken. Hit return (or the giant plus "+" sign) to close that caption and start the next one, and then keep typing. It is really useful to use the tool YouTube provides to pause the video each time you start typing a caption (which is the default setting). So, I tend first to listen to the audio, about a sentence at a time, and then type that into the caption field and hit return. Then, I transcribe another sentence, and so on.

The slowest (sloooooowest) part about this process is re-starting the video playing once I'm done transcribing a phrase or setence. I initially thought that this requires mousing to the play button in the video screen, and then quickly (using the mouse) placing the cursor back in the text field to frantically start typing. It turns out, at least on my computer, that while YouTube does pause the video when I start typing, it doesn't automatically resume play when I stop typing (which would be a GREAT feature).

Then, I happened to discover (just by the way I mash keys when I type, I suppose) that the keystroke shift-space lets you pause and play the video while leaving the cursor in the text field for captioning. Use this keystroke - it is a huge time saver! Then, after I discovered that keystroke, I Googled "YouTube caption shift space" and found the YouTube help page I had tried (unsuccessfully) to find earlier. It turns out there is one other very useful keystroke: shift-left arrow rewinds the video in five-second increments, which lets you easily replay the part of the video you just watched and transcribed without your fingers leaving the keyboard.

Best (mandatory) Practice 3
At the very end of captioning, go back and rewatch the entire video, making sure the captions are synchronized appropriately. You can click-and-drag the caption text in the movie timeline (in the image below: the text box in the movie timeline beneath the video window) so that the caption text only appears during the times in the video when that phrase or sentence is being spoken. Hovering the mouse over the left or right side of each caption text box that appears in the movie timeline makes a handle appear. You can click and drag the handle to increase or decrease the horizontal size of the caption box (i.e. how long the caption appears in the video).

Finally, when everything is accurately transcribed and synchronized to the video, Publish the captions.

Best Practice 4
As a backup, I go back to Video Manager and download the text file of the captions I just entered (including their timings – a .srt file, which is automatically generated by YouTube after you've done all of the captioning work) to my computer.

The Bottom Line
The upshot of putting all of this work into captioning is two-fold:

1. For the audience members that need it, you're vastly improving their ability to access your resource. Even better, captioning can benefit those of us with reasonably good hearing, too! Especially in my discipline (and with me as a professor), I might occasionally have a tendency to speak quickly, especially when throwing around my disciplinary jargon. It is certainly the case that my students will benefit from hearing me say the words and also see the spellings of those words at the same time.

2. For us (faculty), we can leverage in the future these accessible resources that we're producing! I already have two short video "lectures" on using tablets in my discipline (for PDF annotation and Google Sheets for some genetics-related data analysis). Now I can easily use these videos again in future terms; I can incorporate them into a digital course packet; I might even wind up publishing them as scholarly/creative work!

If you have any questions about the details of the process of video captioning, please feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I'm always happy to talk!