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V3I2: Math instruction evolves to fit the needs of today’s tech-savvy students

By: Sara Clark, Senior Mathematics Instructor & Academic Advisor, Oregon State University

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sudden shift from traditional, in-person teaching to remote online-only instruction in the Spring of 2020 was jarring to say the least. I was extremely thankful for my previous experience teaching online-only mathematics courses as it helped ease the transition. Fortunately, I have led instruction for both types of math courses over the years and while fundamentally different, I’ve incorporated aspects of each type into the other to evolve both to fit the needs of today’s tech-savvy students. I had already incorporated many online best practices into my in-person courses, including maintaining consistent due dates each week of the term, and having well organized weekly modules in our Learning Management System. While working to better align our online and in-person courses, however, one problem really became apparent: how to grade handwritten work from our distance students. This problem was solved with the online grading tool, Gradescope.

For several years, instructors in the Math Department at Oregon State University have been using Gradescope to grade the common, paper-based exams that we give to our large enrollment, multi-section courses. We scan and upload our students’ exams to Gradescope, which uses image capture and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology to group similar looking answers to each problem, such that the grader can quickly mark groups of answers as 100% correct, give partial credit, or provide written feedback on errors made.

The platform has enabled us to switch from using mostly multiple-choice exams to exams with questions that require fill in the blank, short answer, or long answer with work shown. We also no longer need to pass around piles of paper exams to be graded by hand.

This AI-assisted grading platform streamlines the overall grading process and as a result, we are able to grade more questions (where students are able to show their work) in about the same amount of time as grading previous exams that were mostly multiple choice.

Once the benefits of grading exams with Gradescope became clear, we began to look for ways to grade more handwritten work using the tool. Instructors and graduate teaching assistants began using Gradescope to grade in-class worksheets, quizzes, and written homework assignments. This allows our student to get feedback from clear rubrics on assignments very quickly, and our instructors benefit by having statistics on every type of question, not just multiple choice.

Students in a variety of our courses, from Intermediate Algebra to Vector Calculus and beyond, complete weekly written homework assignments that are generally graded for completion with the possibility of one or more questions being graded for correctness. The students then reflect on their assignment in a discussion board after viewing the answer key. These written homework assignments allow students to practice writing mathematic solutions in a very low stakes environment. The students can complete this reflection without looking at their corrected work, but it has become even more meaningful when they can use their graded work to add to their reflection.

Having this infrastructure with Gradescope, in place with our face-to-face and online courses, has helped ease the sudden transition to remote teaching. My remote students are still able to submit their written homework assignments wherever they are in the world, and we have also been able to have our students complete take-home style exams and submit their handwritten solutions electronically.

I have taken some time to look into some of the newer features of Gradescope, particularly the “online assignment” option. Using this, I can create paperless, timed exams that my students complete in Gradescope. Similar to my paper-based exams, I can ask multiple choice and short answer questions as described above, but the real game changer is the file upload capability. Students can snap a photo of their work on a question and then upload their handwritten answers. I often have my students draw graphs in Intermediate Algebra, and now students can photograph and upload pictures of their hand drawn graphs for grading. I also can include a question at the end of the exam that asks students to upload their scratch paper to show their work for possible partial credit to short answer questions.

There are always hurdles to overcome when adding a new technology to a course, and Gradescope is no exception. There was a learning curve to figure out the most efficient way to scan our students’ exams. We also had to slightly change the way we wrote our exams to help with the AI-assisted grading, but this mostly consisted of needing to add an answer box to most questions. We were, however, able to rethink our approach to writing questions and move away from multiple choice to the variety of other options. We were no longer limited to just 5 choices for multiple choice questions, like we were with pre-printed bubble sheets. All the benefits have far outweighed any hurdles.

Next, our online and remote students needed to learn how to scan their work, which was a much simpler task when all of our on-campus resources were available. Once again though, the best practices learned from the online courses helped with this obstacle. We discovered several apps that will combine multiple photos from a smartphone and convert them into a single PDF. Some of our scans still come in sideways or out of order, but these are exceptions and are easily fixed while grading.

All things considered, I can’t imagine running any of my courses without using Gradescope. The statistics collected for every exam question has given me true insight into my students’ performance and I no longer have to rely on instincts about how I thought they might have performed. With this grading tool, I am now able to give more targeted reviews to my students and adjust my teaching to the needs of a particular class.


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