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You can also hear Dr. Fleur Zeldenrust talk about her experiences using here.
Ranked as one of the best traditional universities for general bachelor programmes in the Netherlands, by Keuzegids Universiteiten 2020, Radboud University has been delivering quality education for almost a hundred years. Since 2019, Radboud University has joined the Times Higher Education Europe Teaching Ranking that compares universities based on their performance in the field of education. Radboud University scored a 24th place in a field of 258 universities.
Fleur Zeldenrust is an assistant professor at the Department of Neurophysiology, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior. Apart from doing research as a Computational Neuroscientist, Fleur also teaches mathematics to first year biology students for the course ‘mathematics for biologists’.
According to Fleur, for most of the students coming into her course, mathematics was never their primary concern during their time in secondary education since their focus was mainly on biology.
“The students have a very diverse background. For those coming from dutch highschools, some have done mathematics A and some have done mathematics B. We also have quite a large number of incoming international students and these students also come from a multitude of different schooling backgrounds.”
When Fleur started designing this course in April 2019, one of the biggest challenges that Fleur faced was to design a course that would be suitable for this diverse group of students.
“You don’t want to make it too hard for the ones who don’t have a lot of mathematics background but you do want to keep interesting for the ones that do.”
This challenge of dealing with a large group of diverse students was further amplified in 2020 due to the lockdown and social distancing protocols of COVID-19.
“My first worry at the beginning of this period was, if there are no lectures or tutorials, how do I keep contact with my students and how do I keep track of them.”
Essentially, Fleur wanted to make sure that despite the lack of physical contact hours, she was still able to keep track of her students’ progress and intervene when they approached hurdles in their respective learning journeys.
Another big challenge that was brought on by COVID-19 included the task of administering secure formative and summative assessments. While there was the obvious solution of remote proctoring, Fleur and her team at Radboud thought this was very invasive when it came to student privacy as well as counter-productive to student learning and performance.
“There are real privacy issues when it comes to proctoring. Students have to install software that is able to get access to all of the files on your computer, which tracks who knows what, and then stores them in databases that are not in Europe. So European law doesn’t apply. Some students also said they felt very uncomfortable and stressed out if they had the feeling that someone was watching them the whole time.”
As a last note, Fleur also mentioned that for most of her tests, she allows students to use formula sheets and calculators. Most proctoring solutions work based on eye-tracking software that gets triggered if they notice ‘suspicious’ eye movement.
“Problem with that is that my students are not always watching the screen, they are looking at their formula sheet or their calculator. So because of this, remote proctoring softwares get way too many false alarms”
To deal with the problem of a diverse study body, Fleur decided to assign preliminary learning material and tests before the official course began.
“Basically before the course started, we said this is the level we expect you to have. We gave them two tests and we said you can do these tests as much as you like but I expect you to understand this and if you don’t then here is the material you can practice with. This typically included topics like exponents and fractions and other similar topics.”
Since the Bolster Academy tool comes with randomizable questions, students who retook these initial tests were always provided with new test questions with each new attempt. This way not only did the students get the opportunity to retake tests, but Fleur was also able to make sure that a student’s test scores were an actual representation of their mathematical understanding since students were not able to score higher simply by memorizing test questions and their respective solutions. On top of that, all the assigned practice material came with automated personalized feedback, which also helped students further strengthen their foundational knowledge without having a teacher looking over their shoulder.
When it came to the transition to online teaching as a response to COVID-19 protocols, half the job was already done for Fleur since all of the class materials were already online. All of the theory and practice material was online on the Bolster Academy tool and she had also recorded all of her lectures from the last year. As said before, the challenge now was to make sure she still had a good overview of her students’ progress.
“It’s really strange when students are no longer on campus and you don’t see them anymore. So it becomes very easy to miss any problems that your students might run into.”
With this in mind, Fleur started administering weekly diagnostic tests that tested her students on all the topics that were covered in each respective week. Every student had 3 attempts to pass each weekly diagnostic test and the pass scoring was set to 75%.
“But if they would have any trouble, they could just contact me to get extra attempts or an extension. This was just a way to keep track of them. So if they didn’t take the test before the deadline or would fail a test, then they wouldn’t contact me but rather I would contact them.”
Fleur was able to easily administer these weekly diagnostic tests without too much extra effort on her side because it’s very easy to create these tests by pulling from Bolster Academy’s existing database of randomizable exercises. All of which can be then automatically checked and graded.
Lastly, when it came to the issue of maintaining academic integrity during remote summative tests, Fleur used the Bolster Academy tool to have students upload their accompanying hand-written notes to their answer attempts.
“of course, they give their answers in the electronic program but they still normally do their derivations by hand. So now we asked them to upload them, so for every question, I want to see some notes. It can just be a small comment or something but just something to help me see your reasoning.”
Apart from the above measure, Fleur also used the randomization function of Bolster Academy to make sure every student got a randomized order of questions for their assessment as well as randomized variables for each specific question. In other words, every student got a different sequence of questions and while each specific question had the same skeletal structure across all tests, the specific variables of each question were different for each student.
When it came to her diverse classroom, Fleur found the self-paced aspect of Bolster Academy quite useful as she was now better able to deal with the different levels between students.
“Students with a lot of background knowledge can quickly go through the material and show by means of tests that they have mastery of the material, while students with less basic knowledge have the opportunity to practice almost endlessly because the assignments keep randomising.”
The weekly diagnostic tests were also a big success in her classroom, Fleur realized that this might be the best way to ensure that there is always some type of communication happening between her and her students.
“This way, I was able to actually get into conversations with students and ask them what was going on and sometimes problems surfaced that I didn’t even think about. One student turned out not to have a laptop. Another student had a hard time focusing. Some of the international students went back home, so they were just settling in. We were able to discuss all of this and more. It might sound weird but the weekly tests became a point of contact. So that went really well”
Fleur also found that by having students upload their own handwritten notes to their digitally administered tests, she was also providing the students with another learning opportunity.
“I made them check their own exams. So basically after they do their exam and after I go over it, I just give them their results and also what was wrong and what was correct, so they could see the correct worked out solution and compare that with their own notes. This means that they really learn from their exams. They see what they did wrong and more importantly at what step they went wrong,”
In the end, Fleur’s class was such a success that Fleur ended up receiving the Junior Teaching Award of the Teaching Institute of Biosciences of the Radboud University for her work with the course and the success of her students.