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Transforming Education

Student-developed digital tools to enable rapid feedback and reduce workloads

Project Enhance and the work of the student and graduate digital learning assistants/developers enabled the University to transition to a virtual learning environment quickly, and reduce the workload on academic staff. This collaboration is continuing to refine our approach and deliver ongoing benefits for our students beyond the pandemic.

In the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences (CEMPS), for example, a group of Digital Learning Developers (DLDs) and academic staff have been meeting fortnightly as part of the Automated Assessment Group. The group aims to address a key need identified both in the college and the wider university: how to reduce marking workload for academics by automating it where possible, and improve the student experience by facilitating more timely and thorough feedback.

Josh Aldridge worked with his fellow Mathematics DLDs to promote Numbas - a web-based question-creation tool - to help solve this issue. “The key strengths of Numbas are that it uses LaTeX to display mathematical symbols in their proper form, it can be imported into ELE (Exeter Learning Environment) with just a few clicks, and questions have the option to include detailed advice and feedback sections,” Josh explained. “The latter is crucial, since to automate the marking we also need to automate the feedback, otherwise academics will still be spending lots of time going through the students’ assessments.”

Numbas was already being used in the Mathematics department, but only on a couple of modules. “We felt this was an underuse of a powerful, free tool,” said Josh. “So we got to work making questions – converting physical worksheets into digital ones by inputting them, with some code to randomise variables, into Numbas and including feedback.

“Since the Automated Assessment group spans CEMPS, we did not limit this to maths. We delved into pages for Natural Sciences, Physics, and Camborne School of Mines, which all have maths at the core of some of their modules. We spent a long time ensuring the example questions we created were airtight, since any errors might put academics off using it because, of course, if there were errors or marking problems when the questions were put to students this could cause major problems.

“Once we had drafted up a bank of around 25 solid questions from a range of mathematics topics, we rigorously checked them with the help of some of our Digital Learning Assistants. We then organised training sessions for interested academics within the Maths department, using a PDF walkthrough worksheet we created to help users get to grips with the niches of the tool, so that interested academics could start making their own questions and figure out how it all worked. As much as we would have liked to create all the questions for them, we knew we did not have capacity, so one of our aims was to leave departments in an advantageous position to continue using Numbas after our time as DLDs ends.”

In July 2021, over 70 academic staff from across CEMPS attended a showcase of all the projects developed by the Automated Assessment group. Josh and his colleagues also ran a follow-up workshop on Numbas for around 20 academics, using the PDF worksheet to give them an introduction to the tool. Another smaller introductory session on Numbas was held in September 2021.

At the University of Exeter we're conscious that adopting new technologies and ways of working can inevitably take time, particularly with all the other changes the pandemic has brought to our personal and professional lives. Josh is both confident and realistic about the progress they’ve made. “This has not been a sweeping, transformative swing in the digital direction in formative assessment marking across all CEMPS or Mathematics,” he said. “But then we did not expect it to be. We have been asked by some to convert more worksheets to Numbas-friendly digital ones, while others have gone away to work on Numbas on their own, and some will be looking at how they could adopt this new process next academic year."

He concludes that we “have planted a seed. We have given academics an idea of what can be achieved, the help we can offer in doing this, and the time that can be saved. We believe this will have a positive impact on reducing marking workloads in the future.”