Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Recording students

This semester I'm trying two approaches in my teaching that both involve recording students. One has students using screencasting to turn in their homework and the other has students making pencasts of their group work.

Screencasting Homework

I've been teaching fully online classes for six years now. In the past my homework collection method has involved students scanning their homework and posting it to my Learning Management System (homebuilt using PHP/MySQL). This works pretty well but it was hard to ensure students were doing their own work. In my in-class courses I solve this problem with daily quizzes based on a randomly selected problem from the assigned set but I couldn't find an easy way to do this online. One option would be to do timed quizzes in Blackboard or something but students don't have nice pen mice like I have and so they could only type their answers without the ability to easily write equations and draw figures. This year I decided to do things a little differently.

At the beginning of the week I provide the students with screencast solutions to six problems from the chapter. I make myself available until Friday morning to answer questions in the discussion board and in my online office hours about the concepts of the chapter and the posted problems. Then on Friday morning I post a single homework problem that is due Monday. The students need to solve it, scan it, and then do a screencast of their solution to turn in.

Here are some of the benefits of this method:

  • I only have to grade one problem per student per week.
  • I can hear the students thought process about the problem.
  • Even if they work together or cheat somehow they still need to put it in their own words.

It's been very interesting to see how a screencast often gets a different grade than the plain scanned document would have. It goes both ways. Sometimes I see a paper that seems technically correct but I hear them describe certain aspects incorrectly. I've also heard a student say all the right things while what they have written isn't technically correct.

I've gotten some good feedback from the students doing this (who happen to be teachers working on their physics teaching license) so I think I'll continue the practice. I've also branched out to in-class students, offering this method as a way to make up for missed in-class quizzes.

Group work pencasts

My newest toy this semester is a LiveScribe smartpen (actually eight of them). These pens are incredible! They record both what you write on the page and the audio happening at the same time. When you go back and click on a word it'll queue up the audio from that moment. You can also post "pencasts" that work the same way only on a web page so that students can access them. Even since I got my first one I've found plenty of ways to use it in my work. I originally wanted one to help me take better notes in one-on-one meetings with students where, in the past, I've found that I sometimes lose track of promises made by both parties. I certainly use them for that but I've also used my pen at campus-wide speakers, doctors appointments, department meetings, and yes classes. What I want to write about here, though, is how I use them in class.

Here's a breakdown of my hour-long general physics class periods:

  • 10 minutes for a quiz on a randomly selected problem from the previous class period.
  • 10 minutes to recap the material for the day (often prompted by a randomly selected summary posted by one of my students).
  • 15 minutes to answer all the questions posted by my students on the material for the day.
  • 20 minutes for groups to work on the problems assigned (one of which will be randomly selected for the quiz next time).
  • 5 minutes for the groups to record a pencast of a roadmap (not a solution!) for the problem they worked on.

After class I post all the pencasts so that all the students have at least a sense of how to do all the problems when studying for the quiz. A typical day's daily outline will then have links to all the pencasts along with links to screencasts I've posted on the material and any resources I've found useful.

The students seem to have fun with these pens. They've made several suggestions for how best to use them including hitting the record button when I come around to their group as they're still trying to understand the problems. I now have eight pens in total and I look forward to finding more ways for students to use them in the future.


  1. This is awesome! Thanks for the great ideas! Do you have any sample student work (screencasts and group pencasts) that you would be able to share?

  2. If you click on the "typical day" the linked homework problems show you examples of the in-class pencasts. As for student screencasts of homework, here's an example: