All entries for November 2005

November 30, 2005

On Seeing the First Snow…

Follow-up to A Dish Best Served Hot from Computer-aided assessment for sciences

… of his lifetime, Cameron asked: "Is it because of the snowman?". In Cameron's nice logic the dustman creates dust, the chairman makes chairs, and (for misogynists) woman brings wo(e)s — not sure about the hangman though.

November 28, 2005

A Dish Best Served Hot

As my source of inspiration pointed out while administering dinner to our 2-year old Cameron last night, the blog title applies as well to "student feedback" as to "revenge". Effective formative assessment not only provides feedback to the assessor, but more importantly, gives fresh food for thought and enlightenment to the one being assessed.

A week is a long time (as Harold Wilson famously said of life in politics) to wait to find out where you went wrong; even a day later, your brain has probably gone cold. But a computer can tell you within microseconds.

So here's a situation where computer-aided assessment (CAA) can have a clear edge over traditional marking; I say "can" because, to gain the edge, you must take the trouble to design the CAA questions intelligently and to PROVIDE THE APPROPRIATE FEEDBACK (always assuming your software allows it).

I have been trawling through a lot of CAA software lately and have been disappointed by the perfunctory nature of the feedback provided in many samples that put the software through its paces (for instance, a single tick or a cross in response to a set of answers to a 6-part question). But, of course, there are beacons of good practice too. Here are two that caught my attention:

FAST (Formative Assessment in Science Teaching) -- A collaboration between the Open University (OU) and Sheffield Hallam (SHU) aiming to improve student engagement and learning through formative assessment following these principles . The Project has a Science focus (Biosciences, Chemistry, Physics) and is funded through the HEFCE Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL4). There are 30 development projects, 15 at the OU and SHU and 15 more at 13 other HE institutions.

Mathletics (near the bottom of this link's page) — Among the many features of Martin Greenhow's approach to online assessment that commend themselves is the attention given to the pedagogy of question setting and providing detailed feedback. Using his CAA software for modules at Brunel, Martin discovered surprisingly that the feedback is used by some students as their main learning tool. Martin uses the idea of 'mal-rules' (reflecting common conceptual errors) to generate plausible distractors in multiple-choice or multiple-response questions, and more generally uses students' answers to make a informed guesses at their misconceptions and provide targeted feedback.

Please extend this list with other examples of good assessment pedagogy.

Unfortunately the inspiration dried up when I was prevailed upon to take over the feeding of the aforesaid Cameron, slotting in spoonfuls as he wielded a sticky mouse to direct Adiboo's onscreen antics. Just as well this is not a blog on good parenting.

November 22, 2005

No Comment!

"No comment!", the standby of the defensive celebrity, is a nightmare for the serious blogger. Buried none too deep in our bloggers' psyches is the desire to be noticed. Comments are our life-blood being ignored equates to rejection, failure. Where Scott Adams finds nothing unusual in 500 comments per blog, we are grateful for a meagre one or two.

I am therefore proposing a new service for bloggers called Commentary, initially offered in three packages:

Economy Class: Comments from other blogs with the same tags are randomly recycled as comments to your blog. This service is free and much superior to the undignified alternative of bribing or browbeating your friends and relatives into commenting on your blogs. (Maximum 10 comments.)

Frequent Blogger: You are offered a personal crew of aliases who regularly augment your blogs with pithy comments generated from a database of apposite phrases based on the words in your blog. A suitable program already exists. (Maximum 50 comments.)

All the World's a Blog: With this highly customizable service, you get to orchestrate a witty and lively debate in comments around your blog, with optional insults from egregious bigots, enthusiastic agreement and warm approval from like-minded observers of the human condition, and occasional interjections from famous names, such as Mickey Mouse, Tony Blair, Atilla the Hun, Bridget Jones, Renee Day "I-blog-therefore-I-am" Kart, and so on. (Unlimited comments).

The premium option takes blogging into another realm, and one over which you have complete control. When you are next told to "get a life", this could be your answer.

All that's missing is the appropriate software, so once again, E-Lab, it's over to you.

(Don't hesitate to comment.)

November 21, 2005


My late colleague, David Fowler, told me these two super-cryptic gems many years ago:

h,i,j,k,l,m,n,o (5 letters)
heggs (11 letters)

Computer Assessment in Need

Computer-aided assessment (CAA) will only flourish if it's easy to use. My preliminary travels around the Science Faculty have already revealed a gaping hole: some web-delivered CAA software that

  • is easy to author (knock up a test with 10 MCQs online in half an hour)

  • is easy to deliver (scheduling and reporting in the hands of the lecturer)

  • has basic functionality (standard question types, reasonable security, and provision of feedback to students)

  • is science friendly (allows LaTeX markup, graphics, maybe even some parsing of equivalent answers)

  • integrates well with the existing framework (Sitebuilder, Formsbuilder, etc).

How about Quizbuilder? Over to you E-lab.

November 16, 2005

Strange behaviour of the LaTeX option

Follow-up to No End of Right Answers from Computer-aided assessment for sciences

The code:
[latex] a_n=\left(1+\frac{1}{n}\right)^n$ [/latex] 
renders more or less correctly as

but when the dollar sign is removed, it renders like this

in my browser Firefox 1.0.7 on MacOS X.

November 11, 2005

No End of Right Answers

Writing about Equations in blogs from Blogbuilder news

Thanks to the new LaTeX option in Warwick blogs, I can hint at the clever things assessment software is doing nowadays to seek out deep learning, at least for mathematics.

For an exercise like: "Give an example of a sequence that converges to e", it can tell that


and infinitely many more such answers are all correct. Chris Sangwin's brainchild STACK can do this: STACK (System for Teaching and Assessment using a Computer algebra Kernel) is an open-source system for computer-aided assessment in mathematics and related disciplines; it uses the open-source computer algebra system Maxima.

Blogging Mathematics

Writing about Equations in blogs from Blogbuilder news

My thanks to those who have recently given us the abiility to render mathematics in Warwick blogs.

I can't resist the temptation to try it out. Tradition has it that the phrase "Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter" was inscribed on the door to Plato's academy. For a more modern mathematical motto one might choose Euler's identity:

e^{i\pi} + 1 = 0

linking in a surprising manner five fundamental, apparently-unrelated mathematical constants: 0, 1, i, e, and \pi. Hence the in-joke "We are number -e^{i\pi}" sometimes seen on mathematics students' T-shirts.

November 07, 2005

My Summer of Love

Follow-up to City slogans and climate change from Computer-aided assessment for sciences

Some wit is alleged to have said "Wagner's music is much better that it sounds". My Summer of Love (a BBC film directed by Pawel Pawlikowski) is better than it looked.

My film watching is usually confined to a DVD or video on the home TV and, more often than not, it's after 1 a.m. when the credits roll. Two measures I apply to a film's impact are

  • did I stay awake?
  • was I still thinking about it a week later?

My Summer scored on both counts. The film dealt with the infatuations of a sister and brother leading impoverished lives, the brother's infatuation with religion and the sister's with a spoilt rich girl. Both are exploited, both get hurt, and by the end the summer both are older and wiser. It was beautifully shot, movingly acted, and rose above the 'art house' feel that initially prejudiced me against it.

Just Cause Or Impediment?

If computer-aided assessment (CAA) means getting students to do their assignments and take their exams in front of computers, then there's precious little of it happening in the Warwick Science Faculty at the moment.

Why might this be? What are the barriers? The bottom line is the attitude of the person at the chalk face. Here are 12 uncomfortable questions a lecturer might (indeed should) ask before moving to CAA:

  1. How much extra time will it take?
  2. Will my department release me from other duties to compensate?
  3. How risky is it? How easy to get wrong?
  4. Do I have the skills to handle the technology and delivery?
  5. What support will I get?
  6. Will it improve student learning?
  7. Will students dislike it and protest?
  8. How secure it? Is cheating a problem if I use it for module credit (in summative mode)?
  9. Will it save time and money and make my job easier in the longer term?
  10. Will my efforts, even if they succeed, be recognised when it comes to promotion?
  11. Would I be professionally better off spending my time on research?
  12. Will it be abandoned when I stop teaching the module?

Your answers welcome.

November 2005

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