[EAS]Aspects of Good Teaching

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sat Sep 23 17:27:56 EDT 2000

Subject:   Aspects of Good Teaching

Dear Colleagues -

Apart from its astonishingly clumsy title (all too common on the
Internet) the method of online education support described in the
abstract and article below is one that ought to be explored much
more than it has to date, by proper partnership between course
instructor and technical staff.

Such partnership needs to be carefully nurtured, because it is not
the automatic result of providing comprehensive technical services
in a University. Far from it. To think adequately deeply about
synergy between each other's roles, technical staff need to be
seriously involved with day-to-day actual teaching, and faculty
need serious personal awareness of technical opportunities. Almost
always this comes about only through actual collaboration and the
constructive example it can set for others.

We are talking about drawing on the insights of experienced
instructors in a given subject for dealing with those often diverse
conceptual mismatches that impede the learning of a given concept.
In my area of electronic circuits and design I have seen this
spectrum _increasing_ in recent years. Pre-college education seems
to have lost important nutrients. Among the students in my classes
there are now more, and often strikingly different, impediments to
understanding. In this regard new instructors and teaching
assistants will be hard pressed. And the experience of senior
faculty often retires with them.

Like many of you, I have my reservations. Yet exploratory work on
methods of bringing technology into tutoring, as in aspects of
expert systems, means that one is led to deeper thinking about how
students think, which then also enhances the in-person teaching, as
opposed to thinking just about automating course administrative
functions, which can lower the intellectual and motivational tone
of the entire teaching process. 

All best,  --PJK

|  Peter J. Kindlmann     |  Prof.(Adjunct), Director of Undergrad.  |
|  Dept. of Elect. Engrg. |  Studies and the Morse Teaching Center   |
|  Yale University        |  tel.(203)432-4294, fax (203)458-3803    |
|  New Haven, CT 06520    |  email: pjk at design.eng.yale.edu          |
|        http://www.eng.yale.edu/EE-Labs/morse/about/pjk.html        |
(from Edupage, September 22 2000)

Grade Grinder, a software program developed by Stanford
University Professor John Etchemendy, provides real-time tutoring
for students working on homework assignments in their logic
classes. Etchemendy and co-developer Dave Barker-Plummer believe
the software's role as a tutor distinguishes it from software
that merely scores students' work, an application that Etchemendy
characterizes as dangerous because it encourages only the
simplest forms of pedagogy, such as multiple-choice tests.  The
tutoring program eliminates the need for instructors to grade
their students' assignments--a tedious, impractical process in a
field where a question may have several hundred correct answers.
Etchemendy believes that Grade Grinder best demonstrates the
potential of distance learning, alleviating unnecessary work
while not completely eliminating teacher-student interaction.
Although he and Plummer sometimes monitor the system seeking ways
to improve it, he says it is secure, and a student's instructor
will be able to view only those answers the student finally
submits. The software has handled nearly 220,000 assignments
since its 1998 launch. (SiliconValley.com, September 22 2000)


Published Friday, September 22, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News 

Grade Grinder brings logic to online learning

Special to the Mercury News 

Stanford Professor John Etchemendy doesn't know Nathan Lemp, a
senior at the University of California-Berkeley, but he has just
watched him master his homework for a course in logic. Etchemendy
didn't even leave his desk.

Etchemendy is dialed into Grade Grinder, an Internet-based grading
service he developed with a Stanford University senior research
engineer, Dave Barker-Plummer.

Grade Grinder doesn't just swallow homework and spit out a score.
It's a virtual tutor, giving students instant feedback to address
the shortcomings of any wrong answers before they submit their
final work via e-mail. 

For students who repeatedly use it, Grade Grinder is "like having a
teaching assistant sitting over your shoulder, saying 'That's not
quite right -- why don't you think about it this way,'" Etchemendy

Lemp, a chemistry major, agrees. "It makes it easier. You don't
have to ask someone when you've gone wrong."

While the Stanford campus is still quiet (the fall quarter kicks
off Monday), Etchemendy entertains his teacher's instincts by
watching Grade Grinder coach students from more than 80 schools
already deep into the semester. In less than a minute, assignments
pour in from the University of Minnesota, University of Illinois
and University of London's School of Computer Science. Since 1998,
the system has processed upward of 220,000 exercises.

"Sometimes I see the first submission and think this student is not
going to make it," Etchemendy says. "But there's nothing more
rewarding than seeing a student in the middle of the night go from
a position of complete confusion and end up with an exercise where
every answer is correct." 

Grade Grinder originally was devised to save instructors from the
tedium of scorin logic exercises -- in which any given question can
often have hundreds of possible right answers -- and to free them
for more face-to-face time with students.

Etchemendy and Barker-Plummer developed the Internet system in
conjunction with a textbook and software for introductory logic
courses called Language Proof and Logic. Etchemendy is also
co-author of the book and the accompanying software, the latest
evolution in his 16-year research on how to develop better teaching
techniques for logic.

But letting computers score students' work was an educational
minefield that Etchemendy, who chaired the university's Commission
on Technology in Teaching and Learning, was determined to avoid.
"There's a danger in adjusting pedagogy to fit technology," he
says, where questions easily answered by multiple choice become the
only questions asked.

So instead of actually grinding out grades, Grade Grinder churns
out practical advice. "The exercise is incomplete because you
didn't submit Proof identity 1," reads one common response. That
same response might come from a human instructor days, even weeks,

Before Grade Grinder, Cindy Stern, a philosophy professor at
California State University-Northridge, didn't have students turn
in the homework assignments in Symbolic Logic. She simply didn't
have the time to grade them. "Now students can get feedback
instantly and I can see the patterns of what a bunch of students
are having trouble with," Stern says.

Indeed, Grade Grinder isn't completely devoid of human-like
personality. Right answers are greeted with praise. "Your world is
a counter example to the given argument. Bravo!" reads one message.
Another correct message response cheered, "Bless my collar button!"

Grade Grinder, a centralized system, itself is subject to constant
feedback. Etchemendy and Barker-Plummer continuously monitor its
advice to students, making changes when they encounter a glitch.

Most students, however, remain unaware that Etchemendy and his team
at the Stanford Center for the Study of Language and Information
are at times "peeping" in on their homework from afar. But privacy
is something Etchemendy and his colleagues keep top of mind as they
fine tune Grade Grinder.

Unlike the Stanford developers, instructors are able to see only
the results the students have asked to have sent to them. And the
developers, Etchemendy says, only peek in an effort to improve the
system. "I'm not following any individual student's progress, but
only checking to see whether Grade Grinder is providing accurate
responses," he says.

Although Grade Grinder isn't classic distance education, Etchemendy
believes it could be one of the first programs to provide the "best
of both worlds." Grade Grinder will never replace the human
instructor, but the software can free instructors and students from
tedious interaction so that they may spend their face-to-face time
exploring deeper conceptual learning.

When the school year starts, Etchemendy is taking a break from
teaching to serve as Stanford's provost. But through Grade Grinder
he'll still be able to keep tabs on thousands of students. Seeing
the influence of his teaching method on so many students continues
to overwhelm him. Says Etchemendy, "It comes home to you in a way
it doesn't when you simply send a book out into the world."

Deborah Claymon is a San Francisco freelance writer.

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