Skip navigation
All Places > Macmillan Learning Digital > Blog > 2016 > June

How to start flipping your course: part 3


Originally posted by Rebecca Celik, Ph.D.


What’s the most important part of an experiment? Results. Flipping a course should be treated like any other scientific investigation, and the best way to measure its effectiveness is by analyzing student outcomes. In the final installment of this series, Dr. Amanda Brindley, University of California, Irvine, shares her results and how her flipped general chemistry course altered the engagement and success of her students.

Flipped classrooms engage students in active learning


Most students are used to vegging out in lecture, especially in a huge lecture hall. A flipped classroom really forces them out of their comfort zones. On in-class assignments, they all work together with at least one other person. . . but that has been problematic. The first time I taught this way, I had a lot of difficulty getting them to consistently collaborate with classmates, and one of the main complaints on the midterm evaluations was that “the people next to me won’t talk to me.”


But now I make a big deal of the fact that if your neighbor refuses to work with you it’s your responsibility to move and find new classmates to sit with. Discussing the concepts with peers is a big part of the learning process. I’m fine with a little bit of chaos and moving around to make sure that happens. What I end up with are a group of individuals in the back left corner of the room who refuse to interact; you are never going to eliminate that completely in a 400 person class. I do spend extra time up there trying to engage them, but they only stay on task if I am in the general vicinity.


The rest of the class does commit to working together. And that’s much better for me, too, because when questions arise, there will be five people in a group who have the same problem. I’m not trying to get around to 400 individuals. I can more quickly identify topics that everyone is stuck on by talking to a handful of groups; and then I can stop and address the entire class to help clarify and move things along. So, everyone gets a lot more accomplished.


Assessing for accountability


One of the biggest problems I have with the flipped classroom is accountability, in part because of the very large size of the lectures I teach. I’m currently trying to deal with that issue by using pop i>clicker quizzes, but there are a few things I dislike about that approach. First, clicker quizzes take up valuable class time. Also, I have caught some students sharing clickers or taking clicker quizzes for other people. I’m sure there are others doing the same thing.


What I’d like to do in the future is make a low-difficulty Sapling Learning assignment to go with each video lecture that students would do on their own outside of class after watching. The feedback the system offers and the opportunity to take as much time as needed to think about quiz questions and even go back to re-watch parts of the videos would even the playing field for the students and allow me make the quizzes worth enough to encourage more students to do the assigned pre-lecture preparation.


What did the teaching evaluations say?


It’s funny, because in terms of teaching evaluations, I got the same numbers in both my flipped and regular classes; but I got a lot of whining in the comments about the flipped classroom style. A large number of them made it clear that they didn’t actually like it, however many made it clear that they did. It was very mixed. But that didn’t really surprise me.


My colleague did a survey with her flipped classroom students, and they responded that they didn’t prefer flipped classroom to traditional lecture, but that they would recommend flipped classroom to a friend. I’ve also seen a variety of polls from other groups of students presented at conferences, and the results are always pretty similar.


Students complain about flipped classrooms, but they do learn more and end up more successful in the course, and they do recommend it to others. The second [time] was much more positive, but still divided. I attribute much of this to discussions I had with them (read How to start flipping your course: part 1), but also because the student makeup consisted of more at risk and underprepared students. The flipped class method seemed to resonate much better with students who know that they do not learn well in traditional classroom settings.


Numbers speak louder than words


Follow up discussions with students from the second course were much more positive. They enjoyed the class more, and while many still said the flipped class method wasn’t their preferred method of learning, the students who spoke negatively of it did so from a “personal opinion” standpoint.


I showed them the class average for the first midterm from the previous quarter, when I’d taught with a flipped classroom, and the average from an earlier quarter taught the traditional way. It’s tough to argue with a 69% average versus a 60% average.



Want to learn more about flipping your course? Visit and join the community of flipped chemistry educators, today!

Sapling Learning is committed to creating the highest quality content, but we also devote a considerable effort towards maintaining and improving the efficacy of existing questions. This post covers what happens to a question after it is "live" (available for use in assignments).

There are two general opportunities for question revision during a question's lifetime: revision prompted by instructor or student comments, and revision through periodic, statistical reviews. The types of flaws caught in each instance tend to be very different in nature.

Occasionally, a Tech TA or Sapling Learning Support will receive an email or call from an instructor or student alerting us to a potential error with a question. The question may have a wording issue, the tolerances on the question may be too tight, or, rarely, the correct answer may be incorrectly coded. Regardless, the issue with the question is often specific and the action is immediate: we may remove the question from the assignment, or replace the question with a corrected version.

There can be other issues with a question that are more subtle, and that is why we perform periodic, statistical reviews. During these reviews, Sapling Learning Tech TA’s analyze the statistical data for the questions that we have written. The statistics for each question include information about student views, attempts, average scores, and information about thetriggered feedback. For each difficulty rating (easy, medium, and hard) within a discipline, we look for outliers—that is, questions for which students have taken significantly more or less attempts or have received more or less points than average for that difficulty rating. Those questions are flagged, and we examine the questions to see if we can find anything that might cause the unusual behavior. Sometimes the incorrect feedback could be improved, sometimes an issue only occurs for some values of a randomly generated variable, and sometimes question tolerances are too tight. In the instances where we cannot find a flaw in the question, we consider giving the question a new difficulty rating.

Quickly addressing potential question flaws, regardless of how the flaw is brought to our attention, is one way that we continuously improve our question bank.  However, there are always opportunities to make this process better. As an instructor, what do you consider the hallmarks of our best content?

Last week we invited 14 instructors to our New York offices so we can learn more about how they are using our digital offerings in their classes, and so we can get feedback on some new things that we are thinking about as well. As part of this event, all the instructors had to submit a prospectus and then give a 15 minute presentation on that same topic. You can see all the presentations in the community (under content -video - search for techedweek), but what I was most impressed by was how much everyone was trying to think of new and different ways to engage their students and energize their classes. Erica Duran talked about using technology to "flip" her composition class. Nicholas Fernandez talked about how he assigns everything in LaunchPad, so students can study the content areas that interest them, while all learning the skills of psychology research. Don Ehlers talked about using the SQ3R design to redo his large intro psych class. And those are just three--but all of them are great. If you get a chance, check out one or more and let us know what you think of the presentation--and how you are changing your class. (Hopefully we'll do another TechEd Week next summer, and you can apply then to give us even more insight into the innovations that you are trying out.) Prepare to be inspired by these instructors--and we look forward to being inspired by you!

How to start flipping your course: part 2

Originally posted by Rebecca Celik, Ph.D.


Video is, of course, the preferred medium for delivering flipped lectures, but creating one from scratch can seem intimidating. Amanda Brindley, Ph.D., a faculty lecturer at the University of California, Irvine, has recently flipped her class. In part two of our blog series, we asked her to pass along some advice for curbing your video anxiety.

How long does it take you to make your videos?


Video lectures took me a ridiculously long time to make initially. I think it took me about 8 hours per 20 minutes of lecture for the first couple I created . . . and they still weren’t as good as I’d have liked. I’ve gotten much better, though, largely because I’ve learned how to edit much faster.


What do you use to make your videos?


I use Camtasia with the PowerPoint add-in for everything. For non-math topics, I just use PowerPoint as a slideshow. For math-based problem solving, I actually do the writing on my surface tablet as I record. I can’t write on an iPad, though my colleague uses her iPad with Doceri. The pressure-sensitive pen with my surface tablet works much better for me. It’s more like the Wacom tablets that artists have been using for a while.


Do you script your recorded lectures?


I learned that I absolutely have to script my lectures before recording. Recording a couple of unscripted lectures made me aware of all of my annoying little speech habits that go unnoticed in a live lecture but seem to become more pronounced when I don’t have an actual audience to interact with. It  prevents me from falling into those bad habits, like saying “so” too much.


Scripting also helps keep the videos short and relevant. Putting objectives at the beginning and end of each video has also become a must for me. It keeps the expectations for the students clearer and keeps the video much more on task, which also shortens the time and makes it more apparent if [a lecture] needs to be broken into multiple videos.


How do you make the editing process more efficient?


Scripting makes the editing process go much more smoothly and saves time by preventing a lot of editing from being necessary in the first place. My approach is to record until I make a mistake; then I stop the video and restart the recording. That way, when I piece everything together, I know that my mistakes are right at the end of each clip; so it’s easy to find and cut out that portion. And editing in Camtasia is great. It’s extremely intuitive.


My colleague, who has been doing a flipped classroom in her organic lectures for longer than I have, does things a little bit differently. She keeps a running list of timestamps where she makes mistakes or wants to redo something, and then she just re-records the parts she needs and replaces the old segments with the new ones. Both ways seem to work well!


My biggest problem with recording right now is sound quality; there is a lot of background noise in my office and in my home. I find that [recording in] my office with giant blankets around me to dampen sounds in the background works best . . . but it’s not ideal, obviously. I’m working on finding a better place to record before I start the videos for my other course.

Three years ago, the Sapling Learning physics team began working on a project to add conceptual questions to our physics library. These questions are designed for use in courses for non-science majors, and focus more on understanding physical concepts than on calculating physical quantities. Although these questions are written with conceptual physics courses in mind, they have proved to be just as valuable in algebra- and calculus-based introductions to physics.


Today there are more than 500 conceptual-level questions in our library, covering a wide range of physics topics. We continue to add new questions regularly, giving particular attention to content requests submitted by instructors.


We have also added over 80 new quantitative problems to the physics library in the past academic year. These include simple one-step computations, as well as multi-step analytical problems. During the same time period, our astronomy team has added and updated more than 180 fantastic questions—some of which feature brand-new images from recent NASA missions.


Future newsletter updates will spotlight our favorite new content in each of these areas. Join us as we dig deeper into specific topics, answer modules or question types, and explore how Sapling Learning can enhance student learning in your courses.

Students often find chemistry more engaging when the concepts they learn in the classroom are connected to real world applications. Sapling Learning strives to provide questions that not only cover the concepts learned in the classroom, but also questions that apply these concepts to applications students might encounter in their everyday lives. One area where we have recently added questions that apply chemical concepts to real world applications is batteries.


In the spotlight question, which is targeted for use in general or introductory chemistry courses, an image of a Leclanché, or dry cell, battery is given. Students are asked to provide the half-reactions that occur at the anode and cathode during the discharge of the battery under basic conditions. To complete the question, students must take what they have learned about electrochemistry and apply it to the operation of the battery. The electrochemical concepts tested in this question include balancing oxidation-reduction reactions and identifying whether oxidation or reduction occur at the anode or cathode.


This question along with the other new questions on batteries can be found in section 17.5 Electrochemical Applications of the Sapling General Chemistry taxonomy or section 16.5 Batteries in the Sapling Introductory Chemistry taxonomy. To access the library, just follow these instructions from the Sapling Learning help pages. These instructions have details on searching in the library and finding similar questions. Your dedicated Tech TA can also assist in finding questions or providing information on newer questions.

Originally posted by Kelli Mayes-Denker on August 11, 2014.

As an instructor who has taught a variety of economics classes, both principles and intermediate, I find that making the connection to real life application is key.

In daily life, economics surrounds us and can be found through the evening news or even during a shopping trip. For the principles student, these concepts need to be connected from the text to real life to inspire a search for economics examples outside of the classroom.

You can find relevant articles by searching the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, The Economist, Time or Newsweek. Each of these can be another way to add the connection outside of the class that makes an impact for life.

For instance, in my classes using forums, articles and videos have been effective ways to make this connection while providing additional ways to engage students beyond the traditional lecture.

Forums for fun analysis, interactivity and connection

In Sapling Learning, forums can be created allowing students to comment on current events and apply analysis tools learned in class. My classes tend to be structured week by week allowing students to examine 1-2 chapters of content per week. Then one application of that content is analysis on the forums.

For instance in talking about supply and demand, the students might be given a current event article on a relevant hot topic such as Amazon, Tesla, Google, etc. The students can read this article as an example illustrating what they have just learned. Then it is their turn to go to the web and search for a relevant article related to supply and demand. They then post the link for others in the class to see and comment with a bit of analysis of why this is interesting and how it relates to that week's content.

Making forums part of your class: do-it-yourself or email your Tech TA

1. Find several current event articles and then determine which chapter of your text they would best align to illustrate the content for that week

2. Go into Sapling Learning and Turn Editing On (found on the top right side of the main page)

3. Find the week that the article aligns with and then click Add An Activity from the drop down under that week, then select Forum.

4. You will be directed in a new page to Add a New Forum Topic where you can name the forum with a title and enter the web link of the example article with instructions for students to find an article and do their own analysis.

5. Click Save and Continue and your forum will now show under the week you originally chose. Shown here in week 1 as Forum: Student Bio and Introduction and then in week 2 as Forum: Provide a Microeconomic Current Event.

Although it may be summer and a slower time for many colleges and universities, for our technology team, it is the busy season. I have posted about most of these elsewhere, but here’s what you can expect for changes for the Fall 2016 semester (all in one post).


  • Faster, more reliable user experience and faster page load times
  • Updated LearningCurve (with a new look, new functionality, mobility, and meeting WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards)
  • Small changes to the onboarding process for students (as part of a larger project to make getting into our products easier)
  • New diagnostics (for some English products)
  • New quiz creation flow and question filters (for some products, as we migrate this to ALL products as they release over the coming years)

Once the summer is over, the teams are going to continue to work on all of these projects (as the work is never done) and more (to come). We hope you like what’s happening at Macmillan Learning. Now enjoy the summer while we return to the salt mines...

Originally posted by Rebecca Celik, Ph.D on July 17, 2014.


How to start flipping your course: part 1


When Dr. Amanda Brindley, faculty lecturer at the University of Califoria, Irvine,  flipped her general chemistry course for the first time last fall she encountered challenges that are common to newcomers in the flipped community. She sat down with us to share her experience and pass along some of the tips and tricks you’ll need to start flipping your own chemistry course. Part 1 of this blog series will help you plan your flipped classroom journey.


What is the format of a flipped course?


For those who are unfamiliar with flipped courses, they employ a teaching style in which students review lecture materials at home in order to  prepare for class time devoted to group discussions, assignments, and activities.


Amanda delivers lectures via her own custom-made video podcasts. She includes a five-minute recap of the relevant video lectures at the start of each class meeting before getting students engaged in active learning.

I jump into a demonstration or two that serves as an analogy for the big concepts we’re focusing on that day. I have a few students come up and help me, which gets them out of their seats. When possible, I also use animations or simulations as a follow up-- PhET has some amazing ones.


After that they start working on a worksheet for that lecture. About half of the worksheet is conceptual and follows up on the demonstrations and simulations we just looked at; the other half is problem-solving oriented.


Normally I make the worksheet extra long, since running out of activities would be a bigger problem than not finishing all of the examples. I clearly state on, say, two of the questions that we may not get to them, but they are included as extra examples just in case; then if we don’t cover them I post answers online. But I only post answers to things we haven’t gotten to in class.


Sometimes I'll post some additional follow-up to questions we did get to, if I thought we went too quickly through something during class, or if the students seem confused; but I make better annotated answers for the ones we don’t make it to at all. I almost always have to post solutions to the challenge questions, and some of those are very hard. I usually say something on the website or document—that they’ll need to know it by exam time, but it’s a “challenge” now because of the timing. Other things really are above the level of a gen chem course, in which case I make sure they know they won’t see them on an exam for this class.

Prior to class, I write up hints for all of the problems on the worksheet and make those available so that students have a starting point. They work together in small groups with their neighbors.


Use online homework and/or clickers for assessment


Amanda uses Sapling Learning for her online homework system, which offers easy access to assignment analytics. She packaged it with i>clicker to use as an in-class gauge of student comprehension. The homework and pop clicker quizzes served as low-stakes summative assessments.


Homework for a chapter is always available to the students in Sapling Learning and is due 4-5 days after we’ve gotten through all the material for that chapter. At the end of each class period, I post a list of the Sapling Learning questions from that chapter that they should be able to complete. I also list some additional questions from the book as optional but recommended practice.


I use clickers at the beginning of some of the lectures as pop quizzes to make sure students really are watching the videos in advance, since that really is necessary for them to get the most out of the in-class discussion and activities


I also use clicker questions in the middle of the discussion of the worksheet questions as a way for me to get more feedback on how things are going. Clickers also automatically serve as a means to take attendance.

Devote an entire lecture period to explaining the flipped ideology


Amanda’s first semester of flipped students didn’t understand what they needed to do to be successful in a flipped course, so she adjusted her approach.


In the fall I had a harder time getting students to actually do the outside-of-class work that’s necessary for a flipped classroom to work… a lot of them had a "why does she expect us to know this before coming into lecture" or “isn’t it her job to teach us this” attitude.


This winter I headed that off a bit better by devoting a lecture to selling them on the idea and being crystal clear about “what I expect from you” and “what you should expect from me.”


One of the main things I stressed was that I did not expect them to be an expert on the material or to know how to approach all of the problems coming into lecture; but they were expected to try all of the in-class activities, even if they initially failed miserably at some of them.


And the students in my [second] group really did seem to take that to heart; they had much better attitudes about flipped classroom, at least in terms of preparation and participation. The 50 minutes spent being up-front with them about the methodology was 100% worth the time.

Amanda turned her typical “syllabus talk” into a scavenger hunt in her course website via a custom Sapling Learning homework assignment. This is a “best practice” tactic in the distance learning community as well.


The amount of emails I get asking me about things that are on the website has probably dropped by 80%! I think they got a lot more out of it, too, since it requires them to actually try out all the functionalities of the website and navigate to all of the important areas, including the FAQ page.

Visit for more resources and blog discussions.

So I will confess that I didn't watch the Tony Awards when they were telecast, but there was so much discussion afterwards that I decided to watch some of the snippets. You can see them at Watch Online - - The American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards® - Official Website by IBM  . So what was inspiring about these? First off, I'm always amazed a people who can sing and dance and act--all at once! (I can barely do the pat your head / rub your belly thing.)  I had no idea that James Corden was talented enough to do that opening number. The fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton (story, score, songs) and it is such a unique musical, with a hugely diverse cast--and he wrote a sonnet to his wife as a thank you when he won a Tony! Steve Martin worked on Bright Star, after a career as a comedian, novelist, actor, and more. The kids singing, dancing, and playing musical instructors in School of Rock were fabulous. The stories behind The Waitress and Shuffle Along are fascinating (and a bit sad as well). I'm sure there are more stories, but I don't know that I can take more inspiration today.

Alex Kaufman

Combatting Cheating

Posted by Alex Kaufman Employee Jun 8, 2016

Cheating on homework: how can you stop it?


Originally posted by Rebecca Celik, Ph.D.


Today’s students have access to more online information than ever before, and with that access comes increased opportunity for cheating. Whether we use online technology in face-to-face courses or teach distance learning classes, we cannot afford not to be thinking about cheating. In fact, we must do as much as possible to prevent it. While the emphasis of this post is on cheating in the context of online homework, online sharing of homework solutions is just the tip of a very large iceberg. There are websites dedicated to making old quizzes and exams available for students taking the same courses from the same professors (e.g.,,, It doesn't take much time to find PDF copies of entire textbook solution manuals available for illegal download. Search Craigslist in almost any city with a college or university and you'll find people offering to take entire online courses for students for a price.


Many schools provide on-campus exam proctoring services for distance learning courses and make-up exams, and companies like ProctorU and Kryterion offer similar services online for a fee. However, homework typically plays a different role than exams, serving as a low-stakes formative assessment that gives students a chance to practice new skills and receive valuable feedback. Ideally, the student will learn from their mistakes and demonstrate a deeper level of understanding in the future. Likewise, students should complete homework outside of class on their own time and, usually, at their own pace. Therefore, by necessity, homework assignments are almost always unproctored.


Most of us are aware that students can and do post solutions to online homework on websites such as Chegg or Cramster. This is true for any homework method, including pencil-and-paper homework. So, how does Sapling Learning help to prevent cheating? Where possible, Sapling Learning homework questions are randomized so that different students have different answers. This way, students who work together must communicate how they solved the problem rather than just the final answer. Additionally, questions may be pooled to add even more variability between students. Pooled questions assign similar yet unique problems, preventing them from sharing exact solutions.


The grading policies an instructor chooses also influence how likely students are to turn to cheating. In my experience, the best way to deter cheating is to keep the homework low-stakes. That is, I make homework worth only a small percentage of the course grade, and I keep the grading policy relatively lenient (i.e., low attempt penalty and high number of attempts). That way students are less incentivized to cheat on homework, and those who do tend to fail the tests and the class. Think of the homework as a learning tool for students rather than strictly summative assessment. Sapling Learning excels in this capacity. If you’d like, you can also set the solutions to be hidden until after the due date. However, you should consider that students often benefit more from the learning opportunity worked solutions provide if it is presented immediately after attempting a problem, when they still have a clear memory of their approach.


Another concern involves extra dummy accounts, which some students set up in hopes of obtaining correct answers to submit through their legitimate accounts. Anticipating this possibility, Sapling Learning makes it easy to remove fake student accounts. You can access and download your Sapling Learning roster. Use this process: Course Management > Participants > Export roster to open in Excel or similar software. This process allows you to compare the list of registered users in your Sapling Learning course to an official class roster from your school. Once you have identified a student to remove, click the Remove button found on the Participants page. When you are asked about refund options, keep the first option selected: the student will be given a refund, credit, or nothing as appropriate. Alternatively, your Tech TA can assist with the roster comparison and account removal process: send your Tech TA your final class roster after the add/drop period ends, and he or she can check it against your Sapling Learning roster and remove any accounts that do not belong in the Sapling Learning homework. At that point, your Tech TA can lock enrollment or set an enrollment password so that new students can’t enter without your permission.


Finally, when it comes to searching for homework solutions online, Sapling Learning solutions are much more difficult to find. Our team of experienced educators create our questions including all feedback, hints, and solutions. As a result, there is no risk of students obtaining a solution manual with all of the answers in one place, because such a thing simply doesn't exist. Compare this with a publisher-based online homework system, where the majority of questions are end-of-chapter questions with solutions widely available. In addition, solutions cannot be printed, making it cumbersome for students to share answers to problems.


The ultimate benefit of Sapling Learning’s approach to online homework is that students typically find it more efficient to learn the course material than to cheat on problems. Students are met with a mastery-learning approach, targeted feedback, and detailed solutions. That, in turn, makes Sapling Learning uniquely suited to prepare students for your proctored exams.


Have you tried other methods to combat cheating? Let us know in the comments below!

Every spring, we use student usage data to comb through our library of questions, looking for those that students struggle with the most. While some questions are simply difficult—even deliberately so—others might need to be reworded for clarity, or to make the feedback more helpful.

One example is a money creation question using balance sheets. The data shows that 33% of the students who worked this question in 2015 gave up before arriving at the correct answer, which flagged it as needing review. We found that the feedback addressed the changes to reserves, loans, and deposits, but then included only one response for incorrect changes to all other accounts: “Not every account is affected by the deposit and loan.”

This is too vague to be helpful, so we added five new feedback responses, including:

“The entry for the bank's property is incorrect. The bank did not buy or sell any equipment or buildings.”

Questions with lots of answers, like this one with eight balance sheet entries, need to be very specific about the error in order for the student to learn from the mistake. Real student data is a powerful tool we use to improve our questions as well as students' learning experience.