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Birmingham University adopts online testing and assessment platform

16 May 2016

The University of Birmingham chose Maplesoft’s testing and assessment platform, Maple T.A. to encourage students in active learning and independent study.

The College’s use of Maple T.A. began when Dr. Nicola Wilkin, Senior Lecturer in Theoretical Physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy, and Head of Teaching Innovation (Science) for the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, incorporated Maple T.A. to address a constant hurdle in her classroom. Incoming students were extremely keen and very competent in mathematics, but had a variety of different qualifications and backgrounds. “Each student in my course was motivated and capable of handling the material well,” Dr. Wilkin expressed. “However, each student had different strengths and weaknesses. The skills they were bringing to class varied significantly, so keeping each student both challenged and supported required a lot of time and energy.” In order to most effectively reach every student, a blanket approach would not do. Dr. Wilkin incorporated Maple T.A. into her first year mathematics course to give students customised opportunities to practice, learn and test their skills.

During the course, students used Maple T.A., which the university has now integrated with the Canvas learning management environment, to practice concepts learned during lectures. The system’s adaptive questions, which channel students to different streams of difficulty based on their responses to previous questions, ensured students advanced to new levels based on their performance. Maple T.A. also allows Dr. Wilkin to give hints or step-by-step guidance through a problem so students learn from their errors. “We felt the feature set of Maple T.A. was the best on the market,” said Dr. Wilkin. “It supported my students in attaining the necessary skill level for year one mathematics. They were able to progress according to their own abilities and spend the appropriate amount of time and effort on concepts that needed more work. This self-tailored approach would not have been possible without Maple T.A.”

Another distinct advantage that made Maple T.A. attractive to Dr. Wilkin and her team is that Maplesoft provides the option of hosting the Maple T.A. server, taking out the worry of managing server performance and maintenance issues for the university administration.

By the end of the initial phase, Dr. Wilkin and others at the University were convinced they could use Maple T.A.’s powerful testing and assessment capabilities more broadly than in core mathematics courses. “Maple T.A. successfully proved to be a tool with great potential and we saw how it can benefit and improve our classes,” said Dr. Wilkin. “It became clear that we needed to introduce others to this software.” 

Bringing Maple T.A. to the entire College would mean making it the central testing and assessment tool for 800-1000 students spread over different subject areas. To make this possible, the university decided it would need to create a large repository of questions and question types that suit each group of students. Dr. Wilkin led the project, which was designed exclusively to create content questions in Maple T.A. for other schools in the College. Put at her disposal was a group of 12 undergraduate students from the School of Physics and Astronomy whose goal was to build and test a bank of questions that would be available for instructors to access once Maple T.A. was rolled out College-wide.

Faculty from across the College was very enthusiastic to be involved in the project. Once the team of interns became acquainted with Maple T.A., their to-do list was nothing short of extensive. The interns met regularly with instructors across the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences to discuss what content questions faculty members had in mind, and to brainstorm on how they could use the power of Maple T.A. to accomplish their ideas. Interspersed with team building breaks to practice juggling, the students created content questions across the board in STEM subjects such as Mechanical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Chemistry, Mathematics, Computer Science, Statistics, Physics and Astronomy, and many others. Maple T.A. also allowed them to transfer existing question from the university system using a simple copy and paste function. With the external hosting option, there was also no technical barrier to scale up the use of Maple T.A.

Regular feedback from instructors helped polish the content and also create variations for adaptive questions and assignments. Newly created content included course modules, test and assessment questions, proof of concept demonstrations, and tutorials. Each of the content pieces underwent rigorous stress testing, both within their group and within the various schools, in order to ensure they were bug-free and could be applied immediately in the classroom upon roll-out. At the end of the three month program, the 12 interns created a total of 750 questions for the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

The interns also went a step further to ensure Maple T.A. was easily adapted across the College. They customised the Maple T.A. code to make it more functional for the College’s faculty and students. They created coding to ensure authored questions would meet the assessment standards as outlined by the university. Additionally, they created an automated syntax checker to give students the confidence that their syntax would be correct.

This was a transformative project for the interns, who functioned more like a start-up company. They are so impressed with the power of Maple T.A.’s impact on student learning, that they have since become ambassadors for Maple T.A., promoting it across the College and assisting faculty with its implementation.

“With the seamless integration offered by Maple T.A., we have delivered summative assessments across a number of STEM subjects at the University and are expanding into more classes and subject areas as the year goes on,” noted Dr. Wilkin. “Maple T.A. enabled us to author a larger bank of questions with high level quality that would otherwise have not been possible. This content will enable students across the college to utilise assessment material with instant feedback for their learning and revision.” Based on this project, Dr. Wilkin was recently awarded a Teaching Academy Award in Educational Enhancement and Innovation. She intends to organise future projects to continually add to Maple T.A.’s presence in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

To learn more about why the University of Birmingham chose Maple T.A., read the Mapleprimes blog post:

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