Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Students refresh their maths skills in Vienna!

After high school, many graduates take advantage of their new-found freedom to seek employment or travel before continuing their formal education. When they return to their studies, they often come to the realization that they have not retained enough knowledge from high school to thrive at university. Professors at the Vienna University of Technology (Vienna UT) noticed in particular that many of these students were not prepared to pick up their mathematics studies from where they left off in high school. In addition, students joining the university came from different backgrounds with different levels of knowledge.

At Vienna UT, university-level mathematics courses are essential for programs such as Engineering, Economics, Computer Science, Physics, and Urban and Regional Planning. Proficiency in high school mathematics is expected of all students in these programs. To help the students whose math skills were not at the required level expected of high school graduates, the research group of Prof. Breitenecker at Vienna UT developed a refresher course that would be offered in the weeks leading up to the start of the semester, with the goal of raising students’ mathematical proficiency. This optional course would cover topics that were most essential to the programs participants were enrolled in. A diagnostic test at the beginning of the course identified concepts that demanded closer attention and steered the direction of the course for each student.

Since the course was held over a short period of time, the resources were simply not available to design and grade exercises for a large number of participants, let alone return results in time to provide effective feedback. In order for the refresher course to be most effective, a web-based assessment system with automatic grading capable of handling mathematics was crucial - this is where Maplesoft™, a subsidiary of Cybernet Systems Co was called in!

This is where Maple T.A. became an important tool for Vienna UT. “After a long period of testing different environments in commercial and open software we made the decision to choose Maple T.A. because of its powerful algebraic possibilities and the randomization feature,” noted Andreas Körner, Lecturer at Vienna UT. “The grading function, especially the automatic and prompt feedback to students, was also important. The programming interface allowed the adoption of the grading routine to user defined grading algorithms which helped to reinforce the didactical nature of the lectures. We invested time and effort in creating examples and tests, and with that we now have a system of assessment that is efficient, one that offers students a flexible way of completing tests, and instructors a smooth administration of lecturers.”

Maple T.A. is a powerful online testing and assessment system designed especially for courses involving mathematics. It offers features such as standard math notation, sophisticated plotting, free-response math questions, and intelligent grading, allowing instructors to truly assess student understanding of math-based concepts. Because it is designed especially for courses involving mathematics, it is particularly suitable for use in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. In addition, Maple T.A. is compatible with virtually any course management system, including Blackboard®, Moodle™, and Brightspace™ by D2L™, so it can be seamlessly incorporated into existing course infrastructure.

Following each session of the refresher course at Vienna UT, students could go to Maple T.A. to begin practicing what they learned immediately. Whenever students encountered problems they could not solve, they received hints and feedback in Maple T.A. that helped them work through the problem on their own. This feedback allowed students to refine their skills and ultimately master the concept without depending on a professor or teaching assistant. “Maple T.A. is an asset to staff and students especially during the refresher course,” Stefanie Winkler, Assistant, Vienna UT noted. “A large amount of students can work independently without generating more administration work.”

A comparison of the results from the diagnostic test held at the start of the refresher course and the final test showed vast improvements in students’ grades. The majority of students failed the diagnostic test at the start of the course. However, by the end of the course, results showed a significant shift: most students scored 70% or higher. Over the last few years, students’ test results have continued to reflect the same trend. “Since 2008 when we began the course, these test scores show a consistent increase in students’ mathematical skills year after year. Using Maple T.A. in our refresher course has been very useful. Maple T.A. made it possible to bring students closer to a level of mathematics necessary to successfully pursue their area of study,” Prof. Felix Breitenecker commented.

Since the refresher course was first offered to Electrical Engineering students in 2008, the program has been expanded to seven different fields of study. Maple T.A. has also been adopted into other courses at the Vienna UT, and students’ exams are now beginning to be administered online using Maple T.A. in some engineering courses.

Questions developed by the Vienna UT team, covering math topics such as Integral Calculus, Linear Functions, Vector Analysis, Differential Calculus, and Trigonometry, have been added to the Maple T.A. Cloud, making them available to all users of Maple T.A.

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