Monday, December 13, 2010

Exporting Grades

We're actively testing the next release, but we wanted to give you a couple tips about exporting grades:

  • Set a due date for all activities (the due date could be just before you export them). Assignments in green italics (ie, assignments for which the due date hasn't passed) aren't included in the total grade. If you need to, you can set a due date, export, then remove the due date.
  • Move gray scores into ungraded categories. Gray scores are included in overall scores, but your students can't see them. If you have any activities that you decided not to use, make sure they aren't in your main grade category(ies). 
  • Similarly, move any unused assignments into ungraded categories. If your students don't have scores (if, instead, they have a -), that score isn't included in the course grade, but anything your students have a score in (including a 0) is included in the course grade.

If you need help with any of these options, your TechTA is ready to help, or just contact us at

Monday, December 6, 2010

Sapling Learning v1.13 Release Notes

Sometime in the next week or so (depending how soon everything passes our testing process), we'll release our latest update, version 1.13. This release includes several features that we hope will make your (or your students') life easier.

Activities (aka Assignments):
  • Bigger Assignments: Since we first created, screen technology has improved greatly. The laptop I'm typing this on has a higher resolution than the monitor I was using on a "top-of-the-line" desktop machine when I helped design the first version of the site. To reflect this change, we've updated assignments to scale to fit your browser window. We also increased the minimum size, so that superscript characters can't become unreadable.
  • More Info on Main Course Page: Students want to know two things when they come to their course: What do I have to do, and what scores have I gotten on the things I've done so far? To make that information easier to find, we've put it on the main course page. For you, we show Available From and Due Date information, and highlight assignments that are available to your students right now in green. For your students, we add their score on each activity, just like they'd see in their gradebook. 
Activity Editing:
  • Minutes: Minute will roll from 55 minutes to 0 minutes and 0 minutes to 55 minutes when setting due dates in the activity editor, rather than 55 minutes to 59 minutes (and then "stuck").
  • Scrollbar: We've made the scrollbar in the Library portion of the Activity Editor (hopefully) make a bit more sense. It's no longer hidden off the right side of your window.
  • Quick Editing: You can now set all available from and due dates on the "Activities and Due Dates" page, for (much) faster editing.
  • Due Date Extensions: You can also see a count of due date extensions you have granted to students for each activity on the "Activities and Due Dates" page.
  • Hidden Grades: If your totals include hidden grades (for example, grades on activities you decided not to assign), we'll tell you about those hidden grades, and help you fix them if you want to fix them.
  • Student Review Links: If you click "User report" from the gradebook, you can see individual-student score reports (useful, for example, for reviewing work with a student at office hours). You'll now be able to click the score on that report to go to that student's version of the assignment, just like you can in the "Grader report."
  • Logging In: We've improved the functionality of the login box at You can now use your tab key to move quickly between Username and Password, and you can click enter in either box to log in.
  • Support Email Link on Course Enrollment Page: We've added an extra link on the course enrollment page to help students find us if they're confused about what to do.
  • Icons for Common Filetypes: We added icons for common filetypes like Microsoft Word documents or PowerPoint presentations. If you upload files of this type, they'll now have an icon indicating what they are for your students.
  • Participation Reports: Go to "Reports" then "Participation report" to see when your students accessed any particular assignment.
  • Activity Reports Graph: Click any student's name in your gradebook, and go to "Activity reports" then "All logs." A graph of that student's activity now appears at the top of that page.
We have more exciting features in the works for next month's release, including the Activity Sidebar. If there's anything you'd like to see in an upcoming release, let us know in the comments.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Want More Questions? We Have You Covered

The central feature of is the content used to build your online homework assignments and quizzes. We assembled a top-notch team to write that content, composed of the people who wrote much of the content for other online homework systems. While we tried to write everything you might need for your course, you may want to ask something we don't have. If so, we have three options available to you: content requests, editing existing questions, and writing questions from scratch.

Option 1: Content Requests
The first place to turn if you can't find the question you're looking for is your TechTA. Usually, they have provided a link on the right side of your course(s) with information about how to contact them (or you can just call or email them as normal). If you describe the question you want, they can usually get it to you within about a week (but the sooner you let them know you'll need the question, the better). They'll check whether we already have what you want (for example, maybe we already wrote it for a different subject or for a different instructor). If we don't have it, they'll write it for you. Note that this is generally handled on a first-come-first-served basis, so it's definitely best to figure out what you want as early in the semester as you can.

Option 2: Editing Existing Questions
If you just want to put your own touch on an existing question, you can edit any question in our content bank:

  1. Open the assignment where you want to add the question (any assignment will do, but this way you can assign the question when you're done).
  2. Find the question you want to edit in our library. Usually you can use the magnifying glass icon in Your Activity. If you can't find it that way, click the brown book on the left side of the activity to open the Library, then browse through the sources on the left to find it. Tip: You can click the arrow next to the title of a book, chapter, or section to drill deeper into the Library, and you can use the filters at the bottom of the Library to limit the question list down based on title or description.
  3. With that question selected, click "Create a copy of a question and edit it" at the top of the window (the double-page icon pointed out at the start of this section). Your copy of the question will open in a new window.
  4. Make the changes you desire. Check all of the tabs of the question in case your change affects them. It's probably a good idea to call your TechTA the first time you do this, so they can walk you through everything and make sure you understand what everything means. Note: The question saves every time you change to a new tab (from Question to Correct, for example).
  5. Close the question, and reload the activity (your question will show up in the Library when you reload).
  6. Add your copy of the question. Unless you changed something on the "Information" tab of your question, it's most likely saved in the same part of the book as the original question (so you can find it the same way you found the original question).
  7. Very important: Double-click the question to view it as a student. ALWAYS do this to make sure the question works the way you think it does, no matter how certain you are. You might have missed something, and it's always possible you'll find a bug in our authoring. It's far better that you find mistakes before your students do.
  8. Remove the original question.
You can also edit an existing question to create something brand new. This might be a good idea for your first few questions, so you can see how our feedback and variables work. In some cases, though, it might be easiest to start from scratch.

Option 3: Writing Questions from Scratch
If you can't find a question close to what you want (or you don't want to deal with the variables and feedback in existing questions), you can write a question from scratch. We have more information about this on our support website, but these are the basics:
  1. Open the assignment where you want to add the question (any assignment will do, but this way you can assign the question when you're done).
  2. Open the Library (using the brown book icon).
  3. Click "Create a new question from scratch" (the blue + button at the top-right of the Library)
  4. Write your question. Be sure to include a Solution (the answer), a Correct tab (the answer with tolerance), and at least a Default Incorrect tab (feedback your students will receive if they get the wrong answer). After you start your first question, it's a good idea to call your TechTA to make sure you didn't miss anything.
  5. Close the question, and reload the activity (your question will show up in the Library when you reload).
  6. Find your question in the Library. Unless you specified a location on the "Information" tab of your question, the question will appear in the "Your Questions" topic in the first section of the first chapter of every book in the Library.
  7. Very important: Double-click the question to view it as a student. ALWAYS do this to make sure the question works the way you think it does, no matter how certain you are. You might have missed something, and it's always possible you'll find a bug in our authoring. It's far better that you find mistakes before your students do.
  8. Add the question to your activity.

Any questions you write or edit will be available in any future courses you teach, but they are private to only you. We have plans to eventually allow you to submit your questions to your colleagues for use in their courses. If you think you would use that feature, or have any questions about authoring, let us know in the comments.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Seedling: Activity Sidebar

This is the first article in the Seedling series. Seedling articles offer a preview of new features that are in the works.

Today's Seedling is a new suite of features for students working on assignments: the Activity Sidebar. The Activity Sidebar will consist of a series of drawers, each containing helpful information for students working on that particular activity.

We currently have at least 6 drawers planned: Assignment Information, Scoring Information, Technical Support, Help Entering Your Answer, Help With This Topic, Subject Resources, and Web Help & Videos.

The Assignment Information drawer will contain important information about the assignment: the name of the assignment, when it's due, any description the instructor gives it, and the grading policies that will be used on the assignment. Except for the scoring policies, all of this information is already shown to students in the current assignment view, but it can be a little hard to find; we'll put the information front-and-center.

The Scoring Information drawer will give students information about where their score on the assignment is coming from. We'll show students their individual scores on each question, with an explanation of why they received that score.

The Technical Support drawer will give students quick links to support topics, as well as an easy place to email our support team with any questions they might have. We pride ourselves on quick support replies, so we want to make it easier for students to find us.

Help Entering Your Answer will offer information about the specific modules used in the question. For example, if the question involves molecule drawing, this drawer will have videos explaining how to use the molecule drawing module.

The Help With This Topic drawer will contain links to helpful reference materials, such as sections from ebooks or online video lectures. These resources are keyed to the specific topic of the question. You can see some examples of these resources in the Resources button currently available in organic chemistry courses.

For each subject (such as General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Introductory Chemistry, GOB, Biochemistry, Chemical Engineering: Mass & Energy Balances, or Physics), the Subject Resources drawer will have links to general references pertaining to those subjects. These aren't keyed to the topic of the particular question, but might be helpful if students aren't sure where to start.

Finally, the Web Help & Videos drawer will contain the results of a targeted web search for the topic of the question. The web is a rich source of helpful information, but here we help students sift through that information.

The Activity Sidebar is being designed to be extensible, so that we can add additional drawers as new types of resources become available. If you have any ideas for resources that students might find helpful, please let us know in the comments.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Improving Questions: Sapling’s Quality Control Process

Sapling Learning is committed to creating the highest quality content, but we also devote a considerable effort towards maintaining and improving the efficacy of the existing questions. This post covers what happens to a question after it is "live" (available for use in assignments).

There are two opportunities for question revision during a question's lifetime: revision prompted by instructor or student comments, and revision through periodic, statistical reviews. The types of question flaws caught in each instance tend to be very different in nature.

Occasionally a Tech TA or Sapling Support will receive an email or call from an instructor or student alerting us to a potential error with a question. The question may have a wording issue, the tolerances on the question may be too tight, or, rarely, the correct answer may be incorrectly coded. Regardless, the issue with the question is often specific and the action is immediate: we may remove the question from the assignment, or replace the question with a corrected version.

There can be other issues with a question that are more subtle, and that is why we perform periodic, statistical reviews. During these reviews, Sapling analyzes statistical data for the questions that we have written. The question statistics include information about how many students have viewed the question, the average number of attempts per student on the question, the average number of points each student got on the question, and the difficulty rating that the original question author projected the question to have.* For each difficulty rating (easy, medium, and hard) within a discipline, we look for outliers—that is, questions for which students have taken significantly more or less attempts or have received more or less points than average for that difficulty rating. Those questions are flagged, and we examine the questions to see if we can find anything that might cause the unusual behavior. Sometimes the incorrect feedback could be improved, sometimes an issue only occurs for some values of a randomly generated variable, and sometimes question tolerances are too tight. In the instances where we cannot find a flaw in the question, we consider giving the question a new difficulty rating.

Quickly addressing potential question flaws, regardless of how the flaw is brought to our attention is one way that we continuously improve our question bank.  However, there are always opportunities to make this process better. As an instructor, what would you like to see us do to improve our content? Are there any statistics, like average time spent on a question, that you feel we should analyze when determining what questions should be flagged for review?

* The number of attempts on a question and the number of points received for the question are not necessarily giving you the same information if a question has more than one part.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Spotlight: Assignment Retakes

This is the first article in the Spotlight series. Spotlight articles take a closer look at novel or interesting approaches used by real professors in their Sapling Learning course websites.

For this installment of Spotlight, I’ll discuss three different ways that instructors have effectively used retake assignments in Sapling Learning.

Style #1: Each required assignment has an identical, optional retake where the variables within each question have been re-randomized. This style has been used at Central Arizona College, CAC, for their Introductory Chemistry courses for two semesters and their General Chemistry courses for one semester. The impetus for adopting this style was the desire to enforce due dates (to help students keep up with work) without promoting the habit of abandoning a topic after the test. For CAC’s online homework assignments in Sapling Learning, the initial assignment always has a due date somewhere between lecture and exam, whereas the retake is due on the last day of class. The higher of the two grades is kept in each case. Most students use the retake as a chance to improve their original score, others use it merely for practice, and others miss the original assignment entirely and need the retake to get any points at all.

Style #2: This style is identical to the first, except the retake has a penalty. At Clark College, where this style was adopted this semester for General Chemistry, the maximum possible score on the retake is 75%. Texas Tech University adopted this style for Introductory Chemistry with a maximum retake score of 80%. In all cases, the higher of the two scores is kept. The main goal of this style is to deal with students who miss due dates. The added benefit is that students who complete the original assignment on time can use the retake as optional practice. There may even be some students who complete the original assignment in earnest, but still score better on the retake despite the penalty.

Style #3: This semester at the University of Pennsylvania, there was a concern about the gap in abilities between students. A particular professor wanted to provide sufficient practice for his lowest-level students without giving “busy work” to the highest-level students. To solve this dilemma, we made the initial assignments quite short (5-10 questions) but included only difficult, multi-concept questions to cover an entire chapter’s worth of material in as few questions as possible. We also set very strict grading policies (20% deduction per wrong attempt as opposed to the usual 5%) such that a student could not do well on this assignment unless they really knew the material. The retake, in contrast, has the normal 5% deduction per attempt, and included 20-30 questions of all ranges of difficulty. As with the other styles, the higher of the two scores is kept in each case.

We expected to see students choosing to complete only one of the two assignments, and that a pattern would emerge of particular students always choosing the long or the short version. So far however, we’ve mostly seen that everyone tries both, at least to some extent. This could be because the students find the Sapling assignments helpful and like the extra practice. It could also be that even high-level students at high-level universities have a hard time judging their own ability. Either way, the students and the instructor seem pleased with the set-up. We plan to give a survey at the end of this semester to get a better idea of what the students really think of this method.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sapling Learning v1.12 Release Notes

When we released in Fall of 2008 as a homework system independent of any specific textbook, we decided to call that "version 1.0." Others had been using our software for a few years by then, but we considered what we were able to do on our own a brand new product compared to what they were using.

Today we released the 12th major update to our software. Version 1.12 started off as a simple, relatively small bug-fix release, but it grew into a bit more than that. Here are some of the updates you might notice:

Activity Editor:
  • Filters: You can now filter the question library by title or description, allowing you to find questions that mention particular words in those fields. For example, now you can find all questions anywhere in the book that mention "acetic" in the description, or that do not have the word "alcohol" in the title.
  • Locate in Library: Each question in Your Activity now has a "locate" button, allowing you to find that question (and other questions like it) in the question Library.
  • Layout: We've updated the column widths to better match how you probably use the tool. We also consolidated the scrollbars in Your Activity, making it easier to see what questions are in the activity.
  • New Buttons: Grades, Stats, and Preview have been integrated directly into the Activity Editor, freeing up space on the Activity Editor page.
  • Time Settings: Everything else in the system uses the Timezone configured in your User Profile, but the Activity Editor was using your computer's timezone. This caused some unexpected results, especially if the Activity Editor was unable to determine your computer's timezone. The Activity Editor now respects the setting in your profile, regardless of what your computer clock says (and therefore matches the rest of the site). The Activity Editor also now limits times to 5-minute intervals to match the rest of the site.
  • Undo/Redo: We've expanded the undo/redo functionality in the Activity Editor, allowing you to undo/redo any setting in Your Activity.
  • Safeties: A popup has always warned you when students had already started an assignment (and thus changing that assignment might have undesired effects), but now the tool "understands" those effects, and can guide you through the changes. For example, if you remove a question from an active assignment, the tool will warn you that you may want to let your students know about the change, and will immediately update your students' versions of the activity (and their scores).
  • Assigned Column: The first column in the Library half of the Activity Editor tells you whether or not a question is in the activity you're editing. Now you can use that column to add and remove questions, simply clicking the square to toggle whether that question is assigned.
  • Various Bug Fixes: Sometimes the hover text in the Library didn't match what your mouse was over, and sometimes clicking on the top edge of a question selected the question above it. These and other minor bugs have been fixed in the Activity Editor.
  • "Incomplete" Activities: In 1.11, we removed the "Submit" button from activities, instead logging student scores as they work on the assignment. In 1.12, we've updated the interface for assignments in your gradebook, allowing you to quickly see the difference between an assignment that hasn't been started, an assignment that's in progress, a completed assignment, and an assignment for which the due date has passed without the student finishing one or more questions.
  • Column Totals: The columns totals for assignments previously included in-progress assignments; now they only count completed assignments (or, after the due date, all assignments).
Activity Creation:
  • Removed Extra Settings: The Activity Creation screen (reached when you first create an activity or by clicking "Update this Activity" from the Activity Editor) had a few settings that didn't actually do anything for assignments. For example, we never removed the "Auto-Submit on Due Date" or "Prevent Late Submissions" setting that corresponded with the "Submit" button in assignments. We've removed these settings from Activity Creation.
Our developers are actively working on more features and bug fixes for release 1.13, including a large suite of features for students (those might not make it into 1.13, though; I'll have more about those here soon). If there's anything you'd like to see in an upcoming release, let us know in the comments.