Want Some Free Red Pens?

I’m about 75% through this round of midterm exam grading. Overall, I’m down to around 100 students in total, over three classes. I’ll give four midterm exams and a final exam at the end of the semester. This requires a lot of red ink.

A while ago, I read an inspiring article in the MAA FOCUS called “Abandon the Red Pen!” written by Maria H. Andersen. The article was about digital grading. Since I read it, digital grading has been a dream of mine. Ideally, here’s what I’d like to do with the pile of exams currently sitting on my dining room table:

  1. Students take exams in class, on paper, like usual.
  2. After students turn in exams, magic happens. I end up having a PDF file of each individual exam paper, titled something like “StudentLastName-Calculus-Exam2.pdf”
  3. I dump all of the PDF files into a Dropbox folder and then I do all of the exam grading on my iPad.
  4. Once I’m done, I save each file as “StudentLastName-Calculus-Exam2Graded.pdf” and then more magic happens, and each student gains access to their graded exam — perhaps over e-mail, or through the file server in our Learning Management System, or some other solution.

Overlooking the requisite magic requirements, let me explain why I’d prefer this to offline grading:

  • I wouldn’t have to carry 100 exams home, keep them away from my toddler, make sure I don’t lose any to black hole of my desk, try to avoid spilling coffee on them, etc.
  • I would have a complete digital record of a student’s work. Occasionally a student comes to me at the end of the course and says, “I just checked the online gradebook. It says I earned grade X%, but I am certain I earned grade (X+4)%.” Sometimes they are able to produce the test paper and the gradebook indeed has an error. Sometimes they aren’t able to produce the test paper, and I can’t do anything for the student. Having a digital PDF file of every graded exam would solve this issue immediately.
  • In the unfortunate case of dishonest work, I would have a clear record. (For instance, if a student modifies their test paper after it is graded and returned, and then asks for more credit on a problem. This has happened in the past.)

But the most important reason I’d love to switch to digital exam grading is that I could give better comments in less time. On the current test, all students had to solve a similar “Optimization” problem involving having a constrained amount of fencing to build a backyard of area A. For the most part, students fell into one of three categories: (A) Response entirely correct; (B) Response entirely incorrect or missing or blank; or (C) Response partially correct, but some errors were made. In category (C), there were only about three types of errors: That is, everyone who made a mistake made one of the same three mistakes.

Digital grading would allow me to type up a full response as to what the error was, why it was not correct, and how to fix it. I would only have to type the response once. I could save it as a JPG file. Then whenever a student made that particular error, I could just “drag and drop” the response onto their test paper.

Also, eventually I’d have JPG stamps for the big “Top 100 Algebra Errors”, things like sqrt(9+16) is not the same as sqrt(9)+sqrt(16). I would never have to write anything about this mistake again because I could just drag and drop the explanation JPG!

Now, the tricky part: How do I get the magic to happen? The photocopy machine in my department is quite happy to take 8 pages, scan them to a PDF, and e-mail them to me. So, for a particular student’s exam, I could undo the staple, run it through the copy machine, and I’d be done. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do this en masse very efficiently.

Suppose I have 100 exam papers, each 8-10 pages. How do I remove all of the staples, run each one through the copy machine individually, and rename the files? This process seems very easy, but I estimate it would take about a minute per exam. At this point, I’d rather spend 100 minutes doing the grading than 100 minutes dealing with the paper shuffle. Hence I need magical elves. Or graduate students.

Since I haven’t figured out how to do this first step, I haven’t given much thought as to how to “hand back” the graded files. I’m sure there’s probably some easy way to do this in our LMS, so maybe it wouldn’t even require magic.

Do you have any ideas about how to do the first step (i.e., scan each individual exam paper to PDF) that doesn’t require magic, graduate students, or administrative assistants? I’m happy to send you all my red pens in trade for such information.

Making Twitter Useful at Work

Following the FTI last May, I focused my Twitter account on feeds relevant to my professional life. I am still trying to figure out exactly what “professional” in this context means — right now, basically it means, “Stuff I like reading on Twitter while I’m at work.” Here are some “people” I follow:

But the most useful part of Twitter has been connecting with other math professors and math educators. I’ve found out about really fantastic resources from them, and I have no idea how I’d ever learn about things without them.

Great things I learned about via Twitter:

  1. The open-source graphing plotter “Graph”: http://www.padowan.dk/
  2. This open-source, free, activity-based calculus book: http://opencalculus.wordpress.com/
  3. How to do Origami in Geogebra: http://www.geogebratube.org/material/show/id/883
  4. Why we need more women math majors: http://kinlin.com/blog/2012/09/why-we-need-more-women-math-majors/
  5. The Wolfram|Alpha Chrome extension: http://wolframalpha.tumblr.com/post/33907023300/download-the-wolfram-alpha-chrome-extension
  6. The QAMA Calculator that now sits on my desk: http://qamacalculator.com/
  7. Everything written in Casting Out 9s is fantastic: http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/castingoutnines/
  8. GVSU’s Screencast channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/GVSUmath/videos?view=1

Friendship Policy

I have my first course meetings this morning. Right now I’m enjoying a one-hour break between classes in what will become my Office Hours once students figure out what Office Hours are for. I thought I’d take the time to write about an important topic I covered during today’s PreCalculus class.

A Very Important Course Policy:

One of the notable policies I have on my syllabus is called my Friendship Policy: Students in my courses are required to make two friends from class. For those of you who, like me, haven’t been a college student in a number of years, this policy may seem very silly and totally unnecessary! However, the policy has an important function at fixing a “problem” I noticed a few semesters ago.

Before class, I would find students sitting on benches in the hallway for several minutes waiting for the previous class to end. There would be, say, ten or twelve students all from the same course, standing in the same hallway, and it was library silent. No person was talking to any other person! Instead, every single one of them was texting someone on their phone, checking Facebook on their iPad, playing a game on their laptop, etc. Eventually they would all enter the same classroom and continue their technologically dependent anti-social activities.

When I pointed this out to my students, they had never noticed this phenomenon and they didn’t understand why I thought it was weird!

“Back in my day,” says the professor…

There were no cell phones. In order to fill the awkward silence, students in my classes would talk to each other, real-time, face-to-face. Sure, we would talk about course-related things like homework or exam studying, but we would also talk about social activities or sporting events or movies or whatever. This is how we made new friends.

I realize that students in my class have lots of friends. (Otherwise, who would they be constantly texting?) But I still have not figured out how they make new friends. Hence the birth of my Friendship Policy:

Friendship Policy:

You are required to make friends with students in this class. If you are absent from class, your friends will be very happy to lend you their notes to copy! In fact, I think cooperative learning is so important I am going to leave blank space on this syllabus for you to write down the names of two of your class friends and their contact information.

After explaining all this to the students, they usually look at me with confused faces until I say something along the lines of, “Friendship Time: Commence!” and then stare at my wristwatch expectantly. Within seconds, the room explodes in conversation. Occasionally, I have to nudge some of the shy students in the right direction.

Results and Analysis

After several classes over several semesters, this policy seems to make a big difference. First, no one sits before class in techno-quiet. They talk to each other, get to know each other, and occasionally I have caught them teaching each other how to do math problems. Second, I no longer get e-mails asking, “What did you cover in class yesterday?” Third, I learn a lot from my students by participating in before class conversations. For example, in this morning’s class, one student is here on a golf scholarship from Sweden! (How awesome is that!)

I still have two more classes this morning. We’ll see how those groups take to forced friendship-making time.

iPad in the Classroom


Here at the College, one of the subgroups of the IT Department is TLT: “Teaching, Learning and Technology.” Check them out on Twitter: @TLTCofC! For a full list of their programs, check out their blog at http://blogs.cofc.edu/tlt/. One of their functions is to offer equipment check-out for staff and faculty at the College. Last semester (Spring 2012) I was able to check out an iPad 2 from early February through the end of final exams. I was teaching three sections of our 3-credit “Elementary Statistics” course (MATH104) and one section of our 3-credit “Linear Algebra” course (MATH203). I abandoned the use of chalk boards in favor of lecturing on the iPad.

My Pre-iPad Lectures

For the last few years, I moved to using ELMO-style document cameras instead of board-based lectures. Originally I made this swap because the particular classroom where I had been assigned had a only tiny blackboard and I realized I would spend half of the class time erasing the board. But after a couple weeks of ELMO use, I was a big fan. Instead of presenting material while facing away from the students, writing on blank paper using pens under the ELMO camera allowed me to face the students for the entire class period. Doing this enabled me to catch many “I’m confused!” facial expressions from students who may not have felt comfortable voicing their concerns. Also, I was able to keep track of exactly what we had completed in any given class period since every day I walked out of the classroom with a written record of what we had done. It turns out that the ELMO cameras are going out of favor. I think this is because of the cost versus use computation done by the people in charge of budget decisions (but I’m not entirely sure). The iPad was the natural place to end up.

What I Do Now

As my class prep, I produce PDF files of class lecture notes for all of my courses. I upload the PDF files to our learning management system (called OAKS at the College of Charleston). My students can access the files on a password protected site. I don’t require my students to print out the notes, but I’d say about 95% of my students do print the notes and bring them to class because they find them useful.

Meanwhile, I load the PDFs onto my iPad and then project them in the classroom. I use a stylus to annotate the notes and my students write on their printed copies. The best app I’ve found for this purpose is GoodNotes. Currently I am using a Bamboo Stylus, which isn’t perfect but works well enough.

I have found it useful to name my PDF files like this: 104-ch7s123.pdf The “104” designates the course and “ch7s123” means these notes cover Chapter 7, Sections 1, 2, and 3. Last semester when I was teaching three different sections of the same course, I made three copies of each PDF file in GoodNotes and named them 104-ch7s123-05.pdf, 104-ch7s123-12.pdf, and 104-ch7s123-14.pdf for sections 05, 12, and 14. This helped since sometimes the classes wouldn’t be on exactly the same problem and each class I could re-load exactly where we had been the day before.

I hope the information below will help!

Hardware and Classroom Requirements

Classroom requirements:

  • A digital projector and a screen
  • VGA-in connection
  • A desk

To bring to class:

  • An iPad. I am now using a college-owned iPad3.
  •  My stylus
  • A dongle — It connects the iPad to the VGA input for the projector

Useful Apps

  1. Dropbox (Free)iTunes Store: http://itunes.apple.com/app/dropbox/id327630330

    Website: https://www.dropbox.com/

    Dropbox makes it easy to sync files across different computers (and the iPad). They have a free desktop application that installs as a directory, something akin toC:\Documents and Settings\My Documents\Dropbox

    which allows for easy “drag and drop” functionality as well as the ability to save files directly to your Dropbox. You can also share your Dropbox (or just part of it) with other people by extending them an e‑mail invite. Good reasons to consider this would be sharing course materials among colleagues teaching the same class, or to store joint files produced during collaborative research. The “Basic” service is free and gives 2GB of space. You can upgrade Dropbox to 50GB ($99/year) or 100GB ($200/year).

  2. GoodNotes (Free; or Paid version $3.99)iTunes Store: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/goodnotes-notes-pdf/id424587621

    Website: http://goodnotesapp.com/

    The best feature of GoodNotes is that it behaves well with the projector. The projector will display only the PDF file and not all of the annotation features. (That way, my students don’t see me messing around with choosing different pen colors or highlighter widths.)

    GoodNotes easily syncs with Dropbox, which makes moving files from where I produce my notes (my computer in my office) to where I need them (my iPad in the classroom) simple.Another feature that makes GoodNotes great is the little “write here” box at the bottom of the screen. This allows me to write using big lettering, but it appears as a normal size on the screen. Writing in 12pt font using a stylus can be a bit tricky. In essence, what the “write here” box allows you to do is to write in 48pt handwriting but have it appear like you’re writing in 12pt handwriting instead.

    As an aside, a recent version of GoodNotes had an unhappy bug where all files would appear blurry when projected. This was a bummer for my class that day! I contacted GoodNotes customer support and they got back to me in eight minutes! That was amazingly fast and I was impressed. They knew of the problem and fixed it within a couple of hours, and took the time to update me about how it was going. Thanks, @GoodNotesApp!

  3. CourseSmart (Free)

    iTunes Store: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/etextbooks-for-the-ipad/id364903557


    CourseSmart is an eBook subscription service. Digital textbooks can be rented for 180 days. As an instructor, you can get free subscriptions to most textbooks. You will need a CourseSmart account. If you have used any other digital Pearson product (e.g., MyMathLab, MyStatLab, MathXL) your same login information should work on CourseSmart. If not, you can register as an Instructor here. You need to register from a computer (not a mobile device). Once you register, you can add different books to your eBookshelf. Once books have been added, the CourseSmart iPad app will allow you to access them. You can browse through them, flip to a particular (printed) page, take digital notes in the margins, put a “sticky note” down on a page, etc.

    CourseSmart is a great tool to avoid bringing the textbook with you to class every day. I have found this app useful in cases where a student will ask during class about a particular homework problem, or in-text Example.

    I have many books in my eBookshelf. I have several “Elementary Statistics” textbooks to browse through when I need more example problems, project ideas, etc. This is the digital solution to having bookshelves in my office with thousands of pounds of textbooks I don’t need.

    The one downside of the CourseSmart app is you need a live internet connection. On the “Wireless only” iPads, this means you can only access the textbooks while you have a wireless internet connection. So if you were hoping to read the Linear Algebra textbook while on a flight, this won’t work.

    Students can download the CourseSmart app and purchase a digital textbook subscription. Here is a pricing comparision for “Elementary Statistics (11th ed.)” by Triola.

    MSRP:  $160.00 (new book)

    Amazon:  $125 (new book with MyMathLab), $115 (new book), $75(used book)

    CourseSmart:  $63.99                                   (eBook)

    MyStatLab with eBook:  $82.00               (eBook + online homework)