I started developing educational software because I wanted my students to learn more. Specifically, I wanted students:
My efforts grew into Aplia, which I founded in 2001. This document gives you an overview of how to get the most out of Aplia's products. To use them effectively, it helps if you understand the model and strategy that guided their development.
Once you've got the big picture, you might want to look next at a related document called "Tips for Teaching." It lists some specific suggestions from the hundreds of professors who have used Aplia in their classes.
1. Encouraging Regular Work outside the Classroom
One simple observation drives everything else: student effort is the most important factor in determining student success. Students do want to learn, but unfortunately, most of them do not have a realistic sense of either the amount of effort that it takes to learn a subject or the optimal way to allocate their effort over time. Slouching through lectures and cramming for exams doesn't work.
We all know that if we assign frequent graded homework assignments, students will exert more effort and spread it more efficiently over time. To achieve these effects, the homework need not count for a large fraction of the course grade, but it has to count for something. In addition, it must be graded in a consistent fashion, due by a firm deadline, and followed by quick feedback.
Contrary to what we might think, students do not object to more homework. They report that they learn most from courses with frequent assignments. They seek out these courses and give them higher evaluations. (For a discussion of the importance of assignments, see the first chapter of Richard Light's Making the Most out of College: Students Speak Their Minds, Harvard University Press, 2001. In this book, Light summarizes many years of research on what makes for a successful college experience.)
Although this recipe for a successful course is easy to describe, most instructors don't follow it because doing so on their own would take too much time. Some try to partially follow it, but this can be worse than not following it at all. Most students don't do optional "self-assessment" or "suggested" assignments. Piles of uncompleted optional assignments reinforce a cycle of procrastination and avoidance that undermines learning, confidence, and satisfaction. Graded assignments that are turned in weeks later or graded on some perfunctory and inconsistent basis by teaching assistants are a constant source of student frustration.
Your Aplia course has either Grade It Now or practice and graded problem sets, both of which enhance understanding of the concept by providing immediate feedback for the student. With Grade It Now, students receive immediate, detailed feedback each time they attempt a question, after which they get the chance to try again with another, similar question. Students are discouraged from guessing, since the score is averaged from each attempt.
If your course supports practice and graded problem sets, the Aplia framework lets you choose to assign any item in practice mode (with immediate feedback) or graded mode (with feedback as soon as the grades are recorded). However, to get the full benefit from these materials, you must assign at least some items—preferably many items—in graded mode. The section titled "Creating Multiple Paths," which appears later in this document, explains how practice assignments can help create an easier path for students who are having trouble, provided these assignments are used together with graded assignments.
Once you put an assignment in your course outline, submission, grading, and feedback all happen automatically. The only thing that you must do is make sure that the scores on the homework assignments play at least some role when you assign grades at the end of the term. The experience of many users suggests that counting homework for 10% to 20% of the overall grade is sufficient for the assignments to have the desired incentive effect.
Machine-graded homework questions, which are designed to create incentives that induce effort outside the classroom, do not serve the same function as free-response or essay questions, which are designed to assess student understanding. A good course usually contains a mixture of both. Through the Aplia framework, you can assign, collect, and view student essays.
2. Getting Students Actively Engaged
Student effort is the key input in the educational production function, but not all types of effort are equally productive. Per unit of time, more active engagement leads to more learning.
Listening to a lecture is a relatively passive learning activity. Reading is not much better. Solving precisely framed problems, alone, with pencil and paper (or increasingly, with keyboard and mouse) is better. Struggling with less concrete problems is better still. In addition, some amount of talking and doing, with peers, is a powerful complement to solitary effort.
Typically, active strategies require some passive learning activities as preparation. You can't solve problems if you don't know the definitions or haven't seen sample solutions. Nor can you participate in a discussion. As professors, we often fall back into lecture mode because students haven't done the reading and don't have the base we need to implement the more active strategies.
Problem Sets on Lecture Topics
This is where machine-graded questions can be particularly powerful. Machine-graded problem sets, even relatively mechanical ones, force students to do some preparation. They have to at least think about the question. If, for example, they don't know the definitions, they will have to do a bit of reading.
If you assign problems on a lecture topic to be due before you cover the material in class, students will come to class better prepared. You can then get them more actively engaged and don't have to worry about whether you have covered all the material.
There are many possible active-learning strategies—discussions of current events, demonstrations, group activities, "one-minute" papers. These kinds of activities are more engaging for both students and professors. (Students will definitely be more engaged in class if you are, and few of us can get excited about lecturing one more time on a familiar topic.) The constraint that keeps most professors from active-learning techniques is the pressure to cover the basics for students who come to class unprepared. Graded homework can remove this constraint.
3. Creating Multiple Paths
Another way to engage students in the learning process is to ensure that everyone is working at his or her level. One way to do this is by offering multiple paths for them to follow. We've used two strategies to create multiple paths for students: problem sets created using Grade It Now, and paired practice and graded problem sets. To determine whether you have Grade It Now or practice and graded problem sets, please contact your regional manager.
Problem Sets with Grade It Now (in select courses)
In the Course Outline, you will see graded problem sets. These problem sets have been created using Grade It Now.
Grade It Now problem sets offer students up to three attempts to answer each question. The Grade It Now questions enhance understanding of the concepts by allowing students to receive immediate, detailed feedback on each attempt before giving them the option to try again on a similar problem. Students are encouraged to continue learning at their own pace and are discouraged from guessing because their final score is the average of all attempts, and each attempt is a different variation on the question.
Paired Practice and Graded Problem Sets (in select courses)
In every topic, we have two parallel problem sets. We suggest that you assign one in practice mode, which gives students immediate feedback about whether their answer is correct, together with an explanation of the reasoning behind this answer. Assign the other in graded mode, so no answers or explanations are revealed until after answers have been submitted for a grade.
With a practice and a graded set, good students can do only the graded problem sets and skip the practice set entirely. Students who are less sure about the material can start the graded problem set and refer back to the practice problem set if they reach a question that they don't know how to do. The students who are least secure can work straight through the practice set before even attempting the graded set.
The practice set helps weaker students prepare for the graded set and gives them a no-risk setting for getting started. Aplia gives you the option to assign everything in practice mode, but experience clearly demonstrates that most students, especially the students who most need to put in some extra effort, won't do optional problems unless they are preparation for graded problems with a looming deadline.
It is possible to get students to do work outside the classroom, to be engaged in learning, and to follow customized paths, and you can do so without spending too much additional time. Just follow these guidelines:
Following these steps will increase the effort students put into the class and, consequently, improve their performance. Your in-class discussions will likely be richer. with a larger percentage of your students aware of the concepts and issues being discussed. And you will spend less class time teaching the fundamentals that should have been learned prior to enrollment in your course. All this means less time spent on "catch-up" and more time spent engaged in a quality teaching experience.