Presentation by:
Dan L. Bratten, Lecturer
Computer Science Department
CSU Stanislaus


Streamlining Your Workload: Computer Methods To Evaluate and Inform Students

Working Abstract: From the submission of assignments via email to their return and the reporting of grades, feedback to the student can be handled electronically with a faster turnaround time and a resulting increased satisfaction for your students. Learn some proven methods to insure your students know where they stand all semester.

For several years now I have attempted to streamline the time-consuming and often tedious process of keeping students informed of their progress in class and keeping them apprised of my expectations. I will readily admit that this started out as a selfish endeavor but has proven to add to the student's satisfaction (or at least understanding) of my grading and has dramatically reduced the amount of time I spend each semester grading and providing unnecessary communication to students outside of class -- i.e., replying to an email question where the answer is provided online.

As a Part-time Lecturer I am particularly sensitive to the axiom "Time Is Money." Having been self-employed for over 25 years (and for that matter, I still am) I like to know how much time I spend on a task or job and then calculate whether I feel I am earning a fair contracted pay for the time I work. For instance, if I know that I can, on average, spend 6 hours per week per section for the thirteen weeks in the semester I can determine my hourly wage. Depending on the answer, I can feel good about it. When I first started teaching I think I was making just above minimum wage as I designed and tailored my instruction to meet my student's needs and my own. Realizing that, I quickly made some changes to bring my time spent more inline with my pay and my contracted duties.

While this may seem cold and unprofessional, I have received higher praise from students and my chair over the course of this transformation. I can now feel better about myself and consequently give my time more freely to my students when it is needed. It became a win-win situation -- one in which I find myself happy to be going into class each day.

I hope you find some of the uses discussed below beneficial to your job satisfaction.

Web Pages

I have nearly all class materials on the web at a
class home page. This allows students easy access to the syllabus, their assignment page, and the instructions for each assignment. This greatly reduces their tendency to claim they didn't know what to do in class. I have links to information and sites that they may find useful as well. I update the pages each semester to reflect date and specific instruction changes.

Online Testing

I use the
BlackBoard program which is provided and supported by our campus IT department. It allows me to post quizzes made up from the test bank supplied with my text and have them scored automatically. Students are given a one week time frame to complete a quiz. I am not able to link my database (see below) with BlackBoard to allow seamless transfer of scores but I am able to manually transfer the points in five minutes or less.

Blackboard (and the program
WebCT) contains its own grade database and allows the posting of web pages, communication with students, receipt of assignments, etc.. I choose to maintain my own database to primarily allow the online critiquing of speeches using a module I created.

Grading Database

I initially created my own grade database using
FileMaker Pro to allow students to check their points earned online. You can view a sample record at: http://grav.csustan.edu:591/OCE/ (click on View Your Points and enter an ID of ts000000.)

The database is manually populated each semester by importing student information from
MS Excel. I use Excel as an intermediary program to copy records from the campus BANNER system web pages listing of my class roster, reformat some fields, and then import to FileMaker Pro. Excel can also be used as your grading and attendance program but it doesn't allow the computational flexibility of a relational database.

I further expanded the database to include a speech-critique module to allow student presentations to be critiqued and scored by all in the audience. As a Communication's major and TA I saw firsthand the difficulty instructors had in compiling with anonymity even a few written critiques to return to students as feedback and a grade. By computerizing the critiques, I was able to require that each student (30 per class on average) enter an evaluation for each of their peers -- to include themselves. I made the critiques a graded assignment to insure participation.

Peer critiques are entered into the database and provide 40% of the presenter's grade. Scoring on five questions and comments are posted anonymously for each presenter to view. I also add my scoring for the remaining 60% of their grade and my comments. Feedback is immediate as each presenter can log in to view their scores online. You can view and enter a sample critique at:
http://grav.csustan.edu:591/OCE/ (click on Enter A Critique and enter an ID of ts000000.)

The database performs several other functions as well:

I use it to generate a listing of a student's initials (to be used for all assignments) which allows me to quickly check for duplicates

I use assignment fields in each student's record to note an extension for an approved reason or to note a late assignment.

I can track a student's progress by total points or percentages and sort and find records, as needed.

I have layouts setup to print forms used to record points on paper as necessary for backup.

I generate web URLs to become hyperlinks to each student's web page assignment. I will expand this to be a dynamic function hopefully this summer.

The database automatically generates a letter grade listing based on my points scale for the class and formats the output to match our official roster to ease grade entry at the end of the semester.

And most importantly, the database can easily be viewed on the web.

Email Usage

I use email to receive all assignments and to communicate with the class outside of instruction hours. Each semester begins with all students joining a
class listserv hosted within our department. Each campus should have listservs available through their respective IT departments.

The listserv gives me the ability to reach each student in a class using a single address. Students are able to self-administer their subscription to add themselves, change addresses, or unsubscribe.

Through the listserv I keep the class up-to-date on changes to assignments or scheduling. At times, I post computer news, virus alerts, and campus topics of interest.

To be able to quickly send replies, instructions, and results of graded assignments I use email templates. These are simply unsent email messages that I have in their own folder that I can open to copy and paste the required text into an outgoing message. Samples are interspersed below in-text or the entire page can be viewed

A sample use of email is when I send notification and instructions to the class listserv of an
upcoming exam. An email is also sent to a student listing their results.

Students are required (although "asked" is more accurate as some never get it right) to use their prescribed "ClassID" (e.g., CS4000-5) in the subject of all email sent to me. For assignments, it is a graded element. The use of their classID assists the handling of their mail in several ways:

First, all mail is filtered when coming into my Eudora mail program. Eudora is a cross platform (Win & Mac) application (available in free, sponsored, and paid versions), has been around for many years, and has one feature I find indispensable -- the ability to filter incoming attachments and place them into a specified directory on my computer where I can easily find them. Email messages are also filtered into specific mail folders for each class. And . . . Eudora doesn't suffer from the constant viruses affecting the Outlook/Outlook Express mail program on Windows computers.

Second, an
automatic reply (see sample) is triggered based on the classID. I have found this to be a great stress reliever for students to know that their email/assignment got to my computer and is not lost out in the space that is the Internet.

The use of filters is essential to deal with the volume of mail I receive -- often 200+ messages per day. Filters sort incoming mail into specific folders based on content and also direct junk mail/spam into a folder for easy deletion.

Handling Assignments

All assignments are received via email. This includes
MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. Both Mac and Win files are received and both are acceptable. Upon receipt, the student is automatically sent a reply. Their points (and deductions) are also sent using email. A sample of the grading form a student receives for the resume/cover letter assignment is here. For some assignments additional email is sent to confirm that an assignment will work for an upcoming speech.

After grading an assignment I send a
notice to the class listserv stating that points are posted in the online database for viewing. It also serves to remind students that their work may be late.

For other assignments,
instructions are sent to the class prior to the meeting date to give them an opportunity to complete a task at their convenience.

I also use an emailed
grade form for assignments that aren't submitted via email (in the case of their web page assignment.)

Finally, a
notification is sent to the listserv when I have completed grading at the end of the semester. This gives the student their final grade by looking up their points earned in the database and finding the corresponding letter grade on their syllabus.

I archive all mail and attachments from prior classes and have been asked for copies of a student's work by a student going back nearly two years. They were very happy that I had saved their work. I am still actively working on teaching them to save their own work in multiple locations. I guess that means there is a semblance of job security after all.


Dan L. Bratten © 2004