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We recently changed the title of Technology TA (Tech TA) to Client Success Specialist (CSS). While Tech TA was a title near and dear to many, as we’ve unified our support efforts across Macmillan Learning the time came to change the title so strongly associated with the Sapling Learning product to something reflective of the Customer Experience team within Macmillan Learning.


As we begin focusing our support efforts on all of Macmillan Learning’s digital products we wanted to choose a title that conveyed what we do. We help our clients be successful in their classrooms. We offer peer level support from subject matter experts who have all spent time in the higher education classroom setting. We work closely with our instructors to understand the goals of their classroom and help them use the tools we provide to meet those goals. We are uniquely suited to help instructors do this because in addition to being subject matter experts we are also platform experts. This allows us to understand what an instructor is trying to accomplish on a pedagogical level and understand the technical aspects of making the pedagogy work within our platforms.

I’m excited to see what Client Success Specialists will be able to do moving forward as Macmillan Learning continues to expand its digital footprint within the academic community.

Originally posted by Felix Ling, M.A.

When students take a principles of economics course, one of the biggest benefits is that the tools they learn can help them better understand and make sense of what’s going on in the world around them. As Kelli Mayes-Denker discussed a few weeks ago, one way to help students make that connection is to use news articles in concert with classroom discussions and/or Sapling Learning’s discussion forums. Another way to accomplish this is via blogs, which have proved to be a fertile ground for economic commentary, covering many issues relevant to your class, such as inequality,externalities, monetary policy, and international trade.

Your Sapling Learning course can help introduce your students to these debates by adding a blog block to your right sidebar, which then displays to your students the headlines and links to the latest posts of the blog(s) chosen. Your Tech TA has probably already configured your course with a blog, especially if you are using a textbook whose author has an economics blog.

Here's how it works


If your course does not currently have this block, or you wish to change the blog(s) presented by it, this is easy to do. Either ask your Tech TA, or follow these steps:

  1. Login to Sapling Learning, go to your course, and click “Turn editing on” in the upper right.
  2. If you already have a blog block and want to configure it by changing/adding the blogs displayed, scroll down to find that block. It may be titled “Remote News Feed” or “Economics Blogs,” or have the title of an economics blog along with five article links below it (see image to the right for an example).
  3. Then click either the “Add/Edit Feeds” link or the icon that looks like a pencil. Then skip to step 5.
  4. To add a new blog block, scroll down to the bottom of the right sidebar. Below “Blocks” there is an “Add…” drop-down menu. Select “Remote RSS Feeds” in this menu. After a moment, your course page will reload.
  5. You should now see the “Remote News Feed” block. Below it, there will be a “Click here to configure this block…” link. Click on that.
  6. You should see two tabs. If the “Manage all my feeds” tab is in blue, click on the “Configure this block” tab to switch there.
  7. You’ll then see a list of various economics blogs with checkboxes. Simply check the ones you’d like, configure the title of the block if you’d like, and then click on the “Save changes” button.

In the list to choose from, we’ve included a number of economics blogs (as well as economic news sources) that should be of interest to principles students. We’ve tried to hit all the bases, but it’s certainly possible that we left out the particular blog you want to add. In future posts, I’ll discuss how you can add a new blog to this list as well as discuss the relative merits of various economics blogs in the context of a principles class, but in the meantime, please talk to your Tech TA, who will be more than happy to assist you.

As a blog tends to have a point of view, you can present a broader perspective to your students by including more than one blog. A bonus from this is that many bloggers often engage in debates with each other, and your students can even participate in the debate when the blogs have open comments. You can encourage such participation by offering credit to students for posting comments on blogs and/or in your Sapling Learning forum.

You will, of course, want to grade on the quality of the contribution. You can configure the Sapling Learning forum to be graded, and there are a number of options available, including allowing students to vote themselves on forum posts. For blog comments, you will most likely want to review the comment yourself and grade it on criteria such use of reason and logic, supporting arguments with evidence, and employing concepts learned in class.

You might even really pique interest by awarding a large amount of credit to any student who manages to get the blog’s author to respond to them but if you want this to be realistically achievable, you may want to extend your site’s blog offerings past the bigger names like Krugman, Mankiw, and Cowen to include some lesser-known blogs such as Economics Help, Econbrowser, EconLog, and Noahpinion.

Becky Anderson

Prep for Fall

Posted by Becky Anderson Employee Jul 25, 2016

Just a reminder that the start of fall classes is around the corner and we want to make sure that you're ready. Is your class set up? Have you talked to your Client Success Specialist (formerly known as a Tech TA)? Assignments prepared? Syllabus organized? Let us know how we can help!

Keeping Students Engaged:

A Tale from Introductory Chemistry

(Part II)


By Kevin Revell, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Chemistry and Consultant · Sapling Learning



I’ve been experimenting with differentiated learning; that is, using different techniques to connect with students’ unique learning styles. As I mentioned in Part I, I’ve found using Sapling Learning’s online homework to be one of the most effective tools for student engagement, and it is fairly common for me to see >90% of my students doing their homework assignments. In this post, I would like to mention another technique which I’ve found helpful:  lecture recording.


I first tried lecture recording with my organic chemistry class in the fall of 2012. Our school has a subscription to Tegrity (other products like Echo360 are also available), which enables the professor to record a voice-over of the screen projection. I use a tablet PC in class and provide skeletal slides beforehand. During class, I would work through the slides, and record the conversation. Because it was recorded in a live class and unedited, the audio was rough in parts, but if the students missed a topic, they could go back and listen later.  


A few weeks into testing this out, our instructional technology coordinator let me know that my recordings had been watched 110 times! This was encouraging, so I continued it the following semester, in my large, introductory chemistry class. What I found was really interesting: while only 40% of my introductory chemistry students watched the lecture replays even once, about 10% of my students watched them voraciously. By the end of the semester, I had multiple students who had watched over twenty hours of class recordings. These results were included in paper published in J. Chem. Educ., available here.


I found that many of the heaviest users were international/ESL students. Through the semester, several of these students told me how helpful this was for them, since they sometimes struggled to catch the subtleties of what I said in class. In fact, by mid-semester, if I said anything in class without turning the recording on, anxious hands would go up, reminding me to hit “start”.


In the two semesters since, I’ve transitioned to recording content outside of class, and using it in either a flipped format, or simply having the lecture material available online for review. I increasingly find that students love the video format - it seems to be the preferred learning style for many in this generation.


What about the correlation between viewing time and class performance? From what I’ve seen, the highest performing students don’t watch the recorded content as much, perhaps because they get it in class the first time. I think that completing homework correlates more closely with performance. Still, I believe that recorded lecture content can go a long ways toward supporting struggling students by helping them catch up on things they may have missed. And the more ways we can help our students learn, the better.


Do you use online homework or lecture capture in your flipped or hybrid classroom? Tell us how these techniques have impacted engagement among your students in the comments below.

Originally posted by Tara Baxter, M.S.


Finding valuable learning tools can cost time and money, especially with the cost of educational resources rising higher and higher each year. Biologists are now in luck thanks to Scitable, an open, peer-reviewed science library and personal learning tool.

Although the content is focused mainly on genetics and cell biology, it’s applicable to most biology courses and specializations. Scientists at any stage in their career can build a profile, identifying their background and area of expertise, and use it to network with others in their field by joining groups and discussions.

Scitable provides relevant resources for anyone interested in biology. Budding scientists can find information about effective science communication and career paths, and professors and researchers can access peer-reviewed articles and current events in their field. The blog community at Scitable harbors an array of discussion topics for all audiences ranging from “Bioscience eLearning” to “Genetics of Dog Breeding” to “Microbe Matters.” Many of the posts feature relevant video content that may help pique students’ interests in different topics in genetics and biology by presenting information in the form that the digital native prefers: blogs and vidcast.

How to use Scitable in your course

One of my personal foci in science education is incorporating technology for digital native students. They are accustomed to a constant stream of bite-sized information, so blog posts and short videos can be an effective way to present information to them. This rides the coattails of informational videos and "now you know" style information (like TEDTalks) that are growing increasingly popular to people, young and old.

Scitable offers a unique resource that can help you accomplish this in your course: the ability to build a free virtual classroom. You can create a customized list of assigned readings, moderate class discussions, post announcements, and build a feed with top stories from Nature and Scientific American. This is the most direct way to incorporate Scitable’s rich stream of content into your course and engage your students in the real world of science using a medium that they’re comfortable with.

Scitable has a great mix of mini-review style articles and regular, high-level journal articles that are applicable to introductory courses, upper-level courses, and even biology seminars. The simplified mini-review style articles are a useful way to introduce new or undergraduate students to the style of journal writing without intimidating them with overly complex data. The articles are informative, short, and often include a scientific figure or table from the actual journal article. The information is presented in a way that is more approachable than it may have been in its original paper. It’s a good way for young students to begin considering novel concepts.


The eBooks and resource guides also provide a springboard for understanding and using some of the more complex and customizable online tools in genetics, like the UCSC Genome Browser. These types of resources can be incredibly effective for students taking courses that require hands-on work with tools that are used to conduct real experiments and studies. These tools are often daunting to students approaching them for the first time (even after they’ve had some exposure during class), so the dedicated guides on Scitable can also be handy.

Check out Scitable and its growing community of biologists. Whether you’re a professor looking for a way to engage your students, or a researcher who wants to stay connected with your peers, it could be extremely valuable to you!



Images from

Suppose your textbook asks the following question.

What happens in the market for oranges when there is a freeze in Florida?

This question could, and most likely does, exist in question banks written for every principles of economics text in North America. However, not all questions work with all textbooks. Set two texts side by side, and you'll quickly see that the differences run deeper than just the order in which topics are covered. Those differences are exactly what we look for when we create our templates.


So, how do we go about creating a template for Sapling Learning courses? Very carefully, going chapter-by-chapter. It can take between 20 and 80 hours to create a template, depending on how different the textbook is from its previous edition or market leaders.


Step 1: Read the Chapter

As we read textbooks, we pay close attention to what makes that particular text different from other texts for the same course.


What topics are covered?

Authors pick and choose from an incredible number of potential topics when writing a text, and it is important that every facet of every question is actually covered in the text at hand. Questions covering information the student cannot find in the text are frustrating for both the student and the professor who must deal with the complaints.


What order are the topics covered in?

Some topic sequences are can be very standardized, such as the developmental stages of an insect. But others can be presented in any number of sequences or groupings. Therefore, all the ideas or data in each question must have been presented by the time the student arrives at that particular question. Asking about a concept using background knowledge from chapter 15 in the homework for chapter 8 can be frustrating for the student.


What vocabulary is used?

The names and symbols in the periodic table of elements are the same in every chemistry text, but other fields are not so highly standardized. Those who know the synonyms and are comfortable using terms interchangeably might scarcely notice when an author uses one or the other, but less well-informed students will be confused by the use of different terms for the same concepts.


Step 2: Search the Library

Next, we scour our library for questions which are appropriate in both topic and language. Every distractor, every example, every term must be vetted as appropriate for the text, not just the question stem. Even the solution should be compatible to the text.


We also make note of the questions that we cannot find. The text might include an unusual topic or use unconventional vocabulary. Existing questions might include some detail this text omits, and so are unusable.


Just because we have questions about the terms a text uses does not mean we have questions suitable for that text. For example, in one case the term “binary fission” was presented in bold type in a biology text. Our biology team had authored several questions on binary fission, and so were not anticipating having any trouble covering this vocabulary term.


However, this particular text gave only a cursory definition of the binary fission and said nothing about the actual process. Now, the process questions are much more engaging than simple definition questions, so that is what our team had available. However, this meant that not a single existing binary fission question was usable for this text’s depth of knowledge.


Step 3: Edit Existing Questions

Often, we can fill content gaps by duplicating and then editing an existing question. This works well for small changes in vocabulary, or when only one example or distractor is inappropriate in what would otherwise be a good question for the text.


Here is an example from our general chemistry courses. These two questions are almost identical. The only difference is the vocabulary used. One asks for the “change in energy” while the other says “heat of reaction.” The data and the calculation are the same. Since textbooks vary on which nomenclature they use, both questions need to be available.




We often include two sets of terms in our questions so that one question can be used by different styles of textbooks. For example, many Sapling economics questions refer to “perfect, or pure, competition”. In other cases, we might have two, or even three, versions of the same basic question, each using a different set of terms. In this view of a section from our economics library, most of the externality graphs found under the different topic headings are the all same basic graphs with different labels.

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.45.37 AM.pngStep 4: Author New Questions

If a question cannot be found to edit, we author one specifically for the text. The template reviewer writes a detailed description of what is needed, sometimes even specifying which question type should be used.


This description is then taken by an author, who could be a member of our content team, a tech TA, or a contractor. While seeing to the needs of their instructors always comes first, most tech TAs are also highly experienced authors who enjoy helping the content team create questions when time allows.


Each question is reviewed by members of our content team for accuracy, clarity, appropriateness for the text, style, and grammar. Questions are typically reviewed by at least two people before being cleared for use. You can find more details on the authoring process in the article on the Authoring Process.


These new questions are then added to our library for use with other texts or by professors who want to customize their courses. We try to make sure all of our questions are written in a way which makes them broadly usable by avoiding references to specific statistics or examples, as these differ widely from text to text.


Once the newly authored questions are added to the appropriate assignments, the template is ready to go, and will be duplicated as the first step in creating a customized course according to the professor’s instructions.

Sapling Learning’s content is created by a team of educators and subject-matter experts. A typical question authored by Sapling Learning has passed through the hands of five people before it is placed in assignments and made available to professors and students. At least three of those individuals have Masters’ degrees or PhDs in the question’s subject area. We take care to ensure that questions placed in assignments and taken by students are of the highest quality, but the process of quality assurance does not end once an item has made it into active student assignments.


Periodic Review Process

Each year, the Content Team at Sapling Learning goes through a process we call periodic review. During periodic review, we gather, assess, and improve our most used questions, as well as questions not performing how we expected.


Every time a student makes an attempt on a question, that data is stored. For example, if a student makes three attempts on a homework question, gets generic (default) feedback for one attempt, specific feedback on the second attempt, and then gets the question correct on the third attempt, we don’t just record that the student got the answer correct; all of the tries are preserved.


During periodic review, we collect and organize all student data for questions we’ve authored. First, the Director of Innovation, Jon Harmon, compiles the summative question data, such as the number of students who got the question correct, the number of attempts needed to get the question correct, and the number of attempts students made before giving up on the question. The process of compiling the data takes multiple days on a very large machine. Five separate processors (the equivalent of five computers) are necessary. Jon monitors the process regularly and the machine produces a report every 100 items to ensure the compilation goes smoothly.


Once Jon has compiled the data, he passes it to the Director of Content, Clairissa Simmons, in a large Excel file. Clairissa makes sure the data is well defined, consistent with previous years, includes any data we may need in the future, and available for all disciplines within the Content Team. Next, Clairissa puts all the data into graphing and data organization software called Zoho Reports, which generates a standard set of graphs to compare across disciplines. From there, the subject-matter experts in the Content Team further refine and analyze the data to determine which questions need evaluation and improvement.


Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.07.06 AM.png

This graph plots the questions with the highest average attempts made by students so our content experts can identify which questions students struggle to answer, even with our feedback. In this example, there is one question that has a much higher chance of a student giving up.


Organizing and Prioritizing Data

Each of the subjects have a slightly different approach to analyzing the data because of the disciplines’ specific needs.


The members of the Chemistry team divided their questions into those most taken from the subject’s taxonomy, the questions from the subject’s taxonomy with the lowest scores overall, and the most used questions from other taxonomies. A minimum of 25 questions were updated for each subject based on that division: 10 of the top used, 10 of the lowest scores, and 5 from the most used from other disciplines.


The two Biology subjects, Genetics and Introductory Biology, are newer to the market and thus organized their reviews slightly differently. Because this was the first year of data to analyze, it was most important to fix outlier questions. They organized their questions into those most given up on, most taken, and those with the most attempts. From there, any questions that were in more than one category were prioritized for review.


For economics, the team wanted to know if their problem questions were in need of update or in need of removal from one or more templates. For a given question, they compared the data for the question in cases where it was written for the text to cases where the question was not written for the text (that is, the question was originally written for one textbook but was added to a template for another textbook). This comparison was done for average attempts, average score, the average number of attempts when the answer is correct, and the average score when the answer is correct. Questions with poor ratios were then reviewed to determine if they were in need of improvement, or if they just needed to be taken out of some templates.


For physics (including conceptual, algebra-based, and calculus-based) and astronomy questions, the team chose 1–2 questions with the lowest scores, highest number of attempts, and the highest percentage of giving up; 1–2 of the most-used questions; and 1–2 of the least-used questions to evaluate for suitability. Chemical engineering did not receive periodic review this year.


For all disciplines, much of the updating was done through deprecate and replace, that is, authoring a fresh question and replacing the old item with the new one in assignments. To keep questions between students fair, the change will be made prior to the start of the next semester if some students in that assignment had already seen the older question. This separation of questions helps confirm that the updates we make are helpful and improve the student experience because we can compare the data for the old question with the data for the new one next year.


Additionally, all teams must consider that other disciplines use their questions, which is why most of the teams looked at the top used questions from other disciplines. For example, an introductory chemistry course likely uses many questions from our general chemistry taxonomy. The student experience for those general chemistry questions could differ very much for students in the introductory chemistry course compared to students in a general chemistry course, so it’s important to check that we’ve appropriately placed questions from outside the discipline.



Findings and Results

Data obtained in periodic review can indicate if we need to fix an item, and if so, it can sometimes indicate what we need to fix. For example, in economics periodic review, several questions had good scores for students using the textbook for which the questions were written, whereas students using other textbooks did poorly. The fix for an issue like that is to remove the question from templates for texts we determine are a bad fit with the question.


For other questions, periodic review identifies an issue, but we need to look into the question to determine potential causes.


Biology Example

The following intro bio question had a high number of attempts per student and a high number of students who gave up on the question.


Biology Before.png

To improve the question, the biology team rewrote the instructions in the question stem to give more explicit instructions. They also changed the difficulty of the item from medium to hard to better reflect how challenging the question is. Finally, they revised the solution to be more approachable and easier to read by removing excess content and bolding key terms.


Biology After.png

Introductory Chemistry Example

Sometimes the best fix for an item is to change the module type. In an intro chem item, the original question was multiple select, in which all the choices were correct.


Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.17.00 AM.png

The chemistry team authored the question as a multiple choice question in which one of the answers is “all of the above”-style. This new setup is less tricky for students because it allows them to focus on content of the question. We also think it is less likely that students will second guess the “everything” response for multiple choice, since it is a specific choice, as opposed to an action of checking all checkboxes, which is not commonly correct in multiple select questions.


Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.17.35 AM.png

Again in this case, the solution was improved. This time, however, the solution was expanded.

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.18.29 AM.pngScreen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.18.54 AM.png

Physics Example

Finally, questions that are the top used are looked over even if their stats indicate it is a good question. These items often receive improved feedback, revised solutions, and updated art to increase the experience of the tens of thousands of students seeing it each semester. For example, the following physics question was updated throughout.


The question stem was simplified and the labels in the figure were made more clear.

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.20.40 AM.png

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.21.28 AM.pngThe introduction of art in the solution helps convey the concept of vector components.

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.23.10 AM.png

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.23.34 AM.pngImproving Periodic Review

Improvement does not end with just question content. We have always been careful to store more data than we knew what to do with in the moment. We can use previous years’ data as a benchmark when we find new ways to compile and analyze data.


This year, we refined the process for pulling the data so it can be more efficient. We also have more characterization of feedback this year, such as how often the default tab gets triggers per question is new (this helps us to identify items that need more specific feedback).


Eventually, we plan to allow the script to run continuously so we’ll have the most up-to-date information possible about the quality of our question libraries. For example, we might run periodic review on each new question after enough students to be statistically significant have tried it, instead of waiting until the end of the academic year. As we improve the periodic review process, we have even better tools to keep improving the content we provide for professors and students.

Our team of educators work in concert to craft original questions and feedback to provide you with quality content for your course. To create the exceptional questions instructors expect from Sapling Learning, each one goes through the hands of at least four people. The entire process takes an average of seven hours. A Sapling Learning question starts with a concept to teach a student, goes to an author, and then progresses through four different phases of review before being released to the ultimate reviewers, engaged students.


Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 8.54.47 AM.png

This diagram summarizes the general flow of Sapling Learning questions among contributors. Experienced authors may skip the functional review stage (although functionality is still tested by the content reviewer) and succinct questions often skip copy editing.



A question is born with a “spec”, the specification for an idea of how to cover a topic, from a content team lead or a professor. Each team lead is a subject-matter expert with a master’s or Ph.D. in their field of expertise. Using their extensive teaching experience, a team lead will typically design a spec to encompass a topic covered in multiple textbooks. The general idea for a question is carefully paired with a module type, such as multiple choice, labeling, or ranking, to present the optimal way to identify and address common misconceptions. Generating each spec takes about 10 minutes to find and match a question with an answer module to best address a concept and its misconceptions.


15.2 The Eye and Vision, Structure of the Eyeball, Order of Retinal Cells
Basic anatomy of the ganglion cell, amacrine cell, horizontal cell, and photoreceptor. Have students place them in order from the innermost part of the eyeball to the outermost. Ranking module.
-Team Lead



Every author at Sapling Learning is a subject-matter expert with either a master’s or Ph.D. in his or her discipline. Each author is assigned a set of specs each week. Just like any experimental science, the authoring process is both thoughtful and creative, and requires at least 5 hours on average. An author will check multiple sources to find common themes and language consistent with most textbooks. The author uses their own teaching and mentoring experience to identify common misconceptions while creating each question, answer choices, solution, and feedback.


I changed the question stem to be "outer to inner" vs "inner to outer" so it followed the pathway of light. I thought that made more sense, especially when explaining things in the solution.

-Contract Author


Sapling Learning questions are unique because the authors craft targeted feedback to drive the student from misconception to the solution. As the hallmark feature of a Sapling Learning question, we pride ourselves on our high quality feedback. Students love our homework because our goal is to guide students past their misconceptions. If they’re confused, the targeted feedback is like a digital tutor helping them identify how to get back on track. Every one of our questions also has a full solution. Each solution addresses the specific topic in the question. It is meant to explain and instill the method or reasoning behind correct answer and outline any common misconceptions. Students often find the solution a particularly useful tool when preparing for exams.


Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 8.58.41 AM.png

In this example of specific feedback added by the author, students will be given this feedback if they place “amacrine cell” over “horizontal cell.”


Authors are encouraged to use algorithmic variables, or “algos” while building questions. For each student that views a question, algos provide diverse answer choices. This reduces cheating, and pushes collaborating students to consider the concepts instead of the answer choices.  Algos are incorporated into many Sapling Learning questions, and each is carefully selected to ensure the variation is centered around a particular concept or misconception, while providing a distinct question that is pedagogically fair to every student. Our algos can also be linked together to provide targeted feedback and a solution that is always relevant for the student. In Biology, many of our algos are conceptual.


Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 8.59.44 AM.png

In this question, the system will pick one of three terms to display to the student to rank. Based on that term, a different pluralization of the term is also generated to make the solution more readable to students.



Once the author has finished the first draft, the question undergoes functional and content reviews. These are iterative editorial and revision processes between each reviewer and the author. These review cycles allow us to improve each and every question for the benefit of your students. The functional reviewer thoroughly examines the question, taking on average an hour, to ensure Sapling Learning’s rigorous standards are maintained. A functional reviewer will check to ensure that the question works correctly, the question and answer choices are clear, the solution thoroughly explains the correct answer, and any misconceptions raised by incorrect choices are addressed. Strict attention is also paid to the layout, format, wording and style of a Sapling Learning question.


After the question has passed the functional review stage, a content reviewer checks each question for content-specific errors. For about an hour, the content reviewer dissects a question to ensures it is clear, concise, unambiguous, and factually correct. Each content reviewer is a subject-matter expert with a Masters or PhD in the relevant discipline, as well as teaching experience. This depth of knowledge and experience with students ensures all common misconceptions are addressed in our feedback. The content reviewer also assesses pedagogy for each part of a question making sure the feedback, guidance, and solution are not open to misinterpretation by a confused student. Each piece of scientific art used in a Sapling Learning question also undergoes the scrutiny of a content editor. Each image is checked for scientific accuracy, notation, and style, as well as for accessibility, such as to visually impaired students.


Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.00.58 AM.pngEvery question has a detailed solution for the student. In this example, art was added to the solution to enhance student understanding.


Next, the question goes to a copy editor, who has a degree in English, experience editing STEM projects, and a strong technical background. A copy editor will spend approximately half an hour looking for spelling errors, grammatical issues, and ambiguous phrasing in the question. Typically, most syntax errors and typos that are not obviously content related are changed, whereas other queries about language clarity are noted for our content experts to review. Sapling Learning questions use specific verbiage and the copy editor highlights problems such as inappropriate use of anthropomorphisms, passive voice, and the appropriate use of parentheses, hyphens, and other punctuation. Each algorithmic variable is also checked to confirm it matches the context in which it is found.



The content team lead completes a final review of every question. The final review is the last check to ensure a question is functional, scientifically accurate, and that the language is appropriate to the topic. Only after their review, generally about 30 minutes, is it approved. Approval culminates in making the question live, which adds the question to the more than 20,000 already available in the Sapling Learning question bank. The live question is instantly accessible to any instructor or Technology TA, who can access the question by creating or editing an assignment in a course homework site.


Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.02.20 AM.png

In this example, the student is triggering the feedback conditions shown in the screenshot earlier.


Ultimately, the effort and energy we put into SL content creation totals seven hours or more per question. This means that the 2,200+ questions that are current live for our Intro Biology Homework solution equates to over 385 full-time weeks of work, or over seven years of content creation and development in man hours for a single discipline. Our efforts in passionately creating content for your course helps save you time so you can spend more of your day educating your students.

As students progress to upper division classes, they move away from the stylistic foundation set by introductory courses. Memorization of terms and concepts, while important for understanding, gives way to quantitative reasoning. This transition can be difficult for many students. The components in Sapling Learning questions supports students building problem solving, critical thinking, and data analysis skills. Each question has a carefully constructed stem, hint, feedback, and solution. Here is an example from a genetics question.

Question Stem

Take the question below, in which a student is given a trait of interest, the experimental setup, and the phenotype data for different types of crosses. She is then asked to predict the mode of inheritance from the expected offspring ratio in four distinct scenarios. The student needs to understand the “how” as well as the “why” for each allele interaction in these inheritance scenarios.




First, the student must read and understand the experimental setup. She must infer that the F1 progeny are all heterozygous because both parental strains were homozygous for a particular trait, in this case tail length.

The student may begin by tackling the autosomal crosses. The offspring of the F1 x F1 heterozygote cross can inherit any of the three combinations of dominant and recessive alleles; AA, Aa, or aa. When the short tailed allele is recessive only the aa genotype would produce a short tailed phenotype. When the short tailed allele is dominant, both homozygous AA and heterozygous Aa offspring present the short tailed phenotype. For sex-linked dominant and recessive modes of inheritance, the heterozygosity of female and hemizygosity of the male offspring differs from the mendelian 3:1 phenotypic ratio.

Preliminary Help

Let’s assume the student isn’t quite sure how to get started on this problem. She simply clicks “Hint” at the bottom left of the question page to open a panel with some additional information to help her think about the four concepts that are combined within this question.

The hint introduces the concepts of chromosome type and dominance type. The dominance type describes the relationship between different alleles of a gene. The chromosome type describes limitations based on whether the gene is found on an autosome or sex chromosome.

The hint also provides an action item of “Draw Punnett squares…” to put the student’s knowledge into action. If extra guidance is needed, a Punnett square interactive provides a workspace that will assist the student in drawing the squares using this method.

Targeted Instructional Feedback

Once the student clicks “Check Answer”, her answer is submitted and recorded. If she gets it wrong, Sapling Learning has already predicted possible misconceptions she might have with the concepts being tested and has provided targeted instructional feedback to guide the student from her misconception toward the correct solution.

One possible misconception is that the student may switch the concepts of dominant and recessive alleles. She is reminded that if the short allele were dominant, the heterozygote would be phenotypically short-tailed, whereas if the short allele were recessive, the heterozygote would be phenotypically long-tailed.

Another possible misconception is swapping the autosomal and sex-linked chromosomal modes of inheritance. In this situation the student is advised that a male is XY, so only one copy of the allele, on the X chromosome, is present to be expressed.


Each answer choice is also addressed with individually tailored feedback. For example, if the student does not correctly identify that an autosomal recessive mode of inheritance produces an offspring ratio “3 long : 1 short”,  she will be guided toward this choice. The feedback does this by indicating that heterozygous offspring would have long tails. It also address the distinction between an autosomal recessive and a sex-linked recessive mode of inheritance.

Worked-out Solution

Once the student correctly matches the expected offspring ratio for each mode of inheritance, and clicks “Check Answer”, she reaches the answer and solution. The solution lays out a clear and complete explanation of the problem. It guides the student through the logic of each mode of inheritance, with four Punnett squares illustrating the four ideas presented in this question.


To ensure that misconceptions do not persist, the solution also addresses incorrect choices, even if a student answered the question correctly on their first attempt. The solution and targeted feedback are saved for a student to come back and review, before class or even before an exam.


Impact to Students

Sapling Learning’s online homework for genetics aims to help students develop and apply a new skill: scientific thinking. First, we reinforce the concepts you teach in lecture by providing specific starting points for students to approach the problem that are easily accessible within the question itself.


Students need to infer data from the text and practice skills mastered in class to generate Punnett squares and solve the four related concepts. If mistakes are made, our targeted feedback corrects misconceptions and provides distinct guidance to the correct answer. This feedback can lead students to illuminating moments in the problem solving process.


Once the problem is complete, a detailed solution address all of the relevant concepts and works through the logic of each, allowing students to concept check and see how the problem should be approached as they journey away from rote memorization.

During Spring 2016, the chemistry team added over 350 new questions across their subjects and updated over 250 questions. In particular, Organic Chemistry gained over 150 new questions, mostly requiring students to draw reactions, and revised over 50 questions to have more specific feedback triggers. We have also begun releasing Vollhardt Organic Chemistry questions within our library. Look for more questions being added throughout the year!



During Spring 2016, the biology team added over 700 new questions across their subjects. Over 600 questions have been released this year for Anatomy & Physiology, bringing the total to over 1,500 questions. In addition, we used student data from the previous year to update over 150 Genetics and Introductory Biology questions. Updated questions received new and improved feedback, more concise and clear solutions, and better art. (Check out this gorgeous heart!)



During Spring 2016, the economics team added over 175 new questions across the subject and updated dozens more, as well as updating our course templates. McConnell Brue Flynn 20e in particular is “new and improved.” We also created templates for the new editions of Case Fair Oster and Hubbard O’Brien. Still under construction are four more economic news analysis articles.


During Spring 2016, the physics and astronomy team added or updated about 30 questions, and improved our support for several current textbooks. In addition, the OpenStax Astronomy textbook due to be released this summer is now supported in Sapling Learning. The new calculus-based OpenStax University Physics text will be supported in Sapling Learning when it is released later this year. We also completed more content for the new Physical Science course.



Originally posted by Andrew S. Campbell, Ph.D.

Academics like you are rarely satisfied with the status quo, and that extends to the classroom. Thanks to modern advancements, a lecture course can be adjusted, and even transformed, with the goal of increasing student understanding and retention.

At Haverford College, Professor Joshua Schrier is innovating his classroom to emphasize problem solving, creating a more efficient and lively learning experience. Hear how he uses tools like Sapling Learning to facilitate this general chemistry course.

IITS Technology, Innovation & Pedagogy series: Joshua Schrier, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Haverford College from Instructional technology on Vimeo.



Which techniques or resources do you use to engage your students? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Sapling Learning App gives an instructor the flexibility to change classwide and individual due dates. What would you do if a group of students approached you following a lecture to ask for more time on their homework? With the Sapling Learning App, you can simply pull out your phone and give an extension to the entire class. Or maybe you meet with a student during office hours and learn that they are struggling with a particular topic. Not a problem—all you have to do is pick up your iPad and quickly extend the due date for the individual student’s assignment using the “3 Days” or “1 Week” buttons.


Download the Sapling Learning App here, and learn more about it on our FAQ page.



Kristyn Brown

Lazy Days of Summer

Posted by Kristyn Brown Jul 15, 2016

As the school year winds to a close, our thoughts inevitably turn towards summer vacation...

Well, maybe not. Here at Sapling Learning we are busy getting ready the most hectic time of the year: “course creation season” in July and August.


Which means right now we must review our course templates to make sure everything is ready, especially texts with new editions. We compare the new edition to the old one to find all the changes, then we review the assignments to make sure every question fits the text in both topic and language.


We search the library for questions to fill gaps in our coverage of the text. If we do not find what we need, we author something new. Or, perhaps, copy and edit an existing question that almost works. We are also adding new Economic News Analysis assignments and links to Federal Reserve educational materials to every template.


If you have been using the same course for several semesters, or if your text has come out with a new edition, talk to your tech TA about getting set up with the most current template, so you and your students can take advantage of our freshest material.

One challenge for online homework systems is to evaluate and offer feedback—not only on the final answer to a problem, but also on the entire problem-solving process. The Sapling Learning physics team is exploring new ways to provide targeted feedback for multi-step problems. An example using the tutorial capability of our software is item 77360, which applies Newton’s laws of motion to a two-object system. The screenshot (image 1) below shows the problem setup.


To solve this problem, a student must complete several steps, including


  •    Drawing free-body diagrams for each object
  •    Choosing appropriate coordinate systems
  •    Resolving vectors into components
  •    Applying the second law of motion to each object
  •    Solving the resulting system of equations


The tutorial guides the student through each of these steps. Every step is designed to allow significant freedom of response while providing immediate feedback to reinforce the problem-solving process. For example, the first two tutorial steps require the student to draw free-body diagrams using our system’s vector drawing tool. The screenshot (image 2) below shows feedback for an incorrectly drawn diagram.


Other problem-solving tutorials currently in the Sapling Learning physics library include applications of energy conservation using Ampère’s law. Our physics team welcomes your feedback on these tutorials as we continue to develop rich problem-solving content. We look forward to hearing how these tools are being used to enhance learning in your classes.


Image 1:


Copy of Physics 10.1 Newsletter_2.jpg


Image 2:


Copy of Physics 10.1 Newsletter_1.jpg

Becky Anderson


Posted by Becky Anderson Employee Jul 14, 2016

Welcome to the new Sapling Learning Community! We're so happy that you've taken the time to check us out and we hope you like what you find. We are doing this single community in place of the periodic newsletters that you used to get. The hope is that we can provide you with more timely information, if we just post about it when it happens. We can also offer webinars through this site--and record those events for you to watch later. We are also highlighting a few Faculty Consultants--other instructors who use Sapling that you can use as a resource. And, most importantly, you can reach back out to us and to your colleagues to talk about teaching and implementation ideas. So we hope you enjoy the site and let us know what you think--and feel free to post any of your deep thoughts here!

Keeping Students Engaged:

A Tale from Introductory Chemistry

(Part I)


by Kevin Revell, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Chemistry and Consultant  · Sapling Learning


Just before the spring 2012 semester, I learned that I would be teaching the introductory chemistry class at Murray State University. I confess that I was less than thrilled with the assignment. It was two nights a week during my son’s basketball season, it was a large class that I had not taught in a long time, and it was largely freshman, with plenty of non-science majors meeting gen-ed requirements.   After teaching organic chemistry for so long, this was going to be an adventure.


To help things out, I decided to try a couple of new tools. For years, I had used a tablet PC in my lecture – posting skeletal notes before class, then fleshing out the concepts as we went through the class period. This semester, I decided to take this one step further and record the screen and audio for each lecture. And I wanted to use online homework. I had tried Sapling Learning in my organic course the semester before with terrific results. I was curious how this would translate to less-motivated students.


About four weeks into class, I began to notice a few unusual positives. First, in a room with a capacity of 144 students, there were almost no empty seats. Second, the students were doing WELL. Even in the second unit, I found that over 90% of the students were attempting the homework. This was not the high-attrition course I had expected.


Based on this, I decided to do a more systematic study: what was helping them succeed? How did the tablet-based lectures, the recorded lectures, and the online homework really contribute to student success? In order to investigate this, I began to correlate student performance with usage of the lecture-replay and online homework, and I administered a year-end survey to assess the student impressions of each tool. The full study was recently published in the Journal of Chemical Education, available here.


One of the biggest gains I saw was in the area of retention. In the previous five full-semester classes, the pass rate for this course was 71%. In my spring 2013 course, it jumped to 90%, with no significant change in the standardized test scores. Interestingly, the number of A’s didn’t change much. It turns out there are students who will work every problem, study aggressively, and get the A regardless of how the course is presented. The big jump was in the number of B’s and C’s earned. Based on these results, I believe that the combination of tools helped students stay more engaged, practice more, and earn a B instead of a C, or a C instead of a D.


And perhaps the most striking thing? Teaching introductory chemistry was an absolute blast. This semester, I actually asked to teach it again. I look forward to writing more on that in the weeks to come.

Originally posted by Kelli Mayes-Denker.

Have you had a student stop by during office hours only to mention that they "just don’t get chapter 5"? For a student, this specific chapter may be especially daunting. In reality, there are probably a few distinct concepts the student is struggling with, thus causing problems throughout the entire chapter.

Being an economist, it is important to find a way to more efficiently utilize office hours and maximize student understanding. For instance, I started asking students to email me to schedule a meeting during office hours. This allows me to be more prepared for them and target their needs.

In my preparation for the meeting, I could look up the homework scores in Sapling Learning and click on the score in the grade book to see detail of the student's work. Many times, the reality was that we could focus our meeting on specific questions to address the problematic areas.

With Sapling Learning, I can get the overall homework score and view each attempt that the student made on each question. It became increasingly helpful to walk through several of these with individual students, asking them specifics to gauge understanding and further remedy their knowledge of the content.

The outcome is a more efficient use of my time during office hours with the ability to focus the student in areas of importance as opposed to a general high-level review. With the student present, we could address the content, improve understanding and then spend some time getting to understand their interests.

Once I know a bit more about the student, these interests can be incorporated into lectures, class discussions and projects to further engage the student in the overall economics subject material. This created a winning situation for both of us.

Viewing student attempts in Sapling Learning: do it yourself or email your Tech TA to learn how

1. Go to the grades icon on the main page, left side

2. The grader report will open with all student showing, then click on a student score

3. Now you will see one student’s assignment and each question in the assignment

4. Click on a quick number at the far left, this will allow you to see all attempts for that question

The example below shows Linus Pauling’s assignment. Question 2 is showing with each of his 5 attempts. Click the incorrect or correct tabs at the top of the question to view each attempt.

Three tips to ease online homework headaches

by Mike Varela, Ph.D.

Tech TA - Sapling Learning


I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sapling Learning as a Tech TA for over three years. I’ve found that an initial time investment from the professor into the Sapling Learning course leads to the most successful of experiences for both the professors and their students. This investment can come in several forms. Believe it or not, this small time investment can return significant time savings throughout this semester and beyond, and it only takes three easy steps.


Communicate with your Tech TA


What separates Sapling Learning from its competitors is the level of customer service that we offer both our professors and our students. To ensure that we provide the highest level of service, Tech TAs need a level of guidance from their professors to create the best assignments possible.


Most of the professors I’ve worked with at Sapling Learning send me very detailed instructions about what they’d like to have in their course. For example, I’ve been given instructions to adjust grading policies, tailor assignments so that they are no more than 40 questions long, or even to create a course with assignments based on specific sections of a chapter rather than a single chapter assignment.


Course adjustments are best made before the semester begins so that students and instructors can hit the ground running. This is also why Sapling Learning Tech TAs contact professors weeks before their courses begin, so we can accommodate requests well before classes start. Tech TAs can alter courses during the semester, but it’s always more efficient to have the customizations done as early as possible.


Review the assignments in your course


Once the Tech TAs send out a course, professors should confirm that the questions contained in the assignments correspond to the material they plan to cover in their lectures. For example, if a professor asks a Tech TA to remove all questions dealing with elimination reactions, the Tech TA can make these changes prior to sending the course. Once these edits are completed, it is still highly recommended that the professor review the assignments just to confirm that changes actually meet their expectations.


Fortunately, Sapling Learning is easily customized, and questions can be added or removed at almost any time throughout the semester. If you have a question about adding or removing content from an assignment please contact your Tech TA.


Let Student Support Staff share the load


Throughout the semester, your students will undoubtedly have questions. We always recommend that students contact our Student Support at with any issues that they may encounter.


We encourage professors who get emails from students about Sapling Learning to direct their questions to Student Support. Our Student Support staff have science backgrounds and can help answer many of the students’ questions about homework problems or any computer issues that might arise.


Please note that neither our Student Support staff nor Tech TAs are tutors, so the answers we give students will focus on a single question rather than encompass an entire concept from their text.




Professors, if you have any questions, please contact your Tech TA. Students, please contact Student Support. Sapling Learning wishes everyone an excellent 2016-2017 academic year!

Every once in a while when I am speaking with other astronomy instructors, I’m asked if I know of any resources that would work well for supplementing labs. Many of these instructors don’t have access to an observatory or a planetarium, or they teach distance learning courses. An increasingly popular solution is to create labs where students use some form of planetarium based software.

Planetarium based software gives you, the instructor, possibilities for labs that are only limited to your imagination, and it gives students the ability to immerse themselves in the sky, even with their busy schedules.

Currently, my planetarium based software of choice is Stellarium. I favor it because the user interface is simple and easy to learn, and best of all, it’s free. It works on Windows, Mac, and even Linux, and it’s not one of those clunky open source programs that developers abandon; it was created in 2001 and has been updated as recently as July 2014. Stellarium has quality graphics that are rendered in real time using OpenGL. They even have a mobile app that can run on tablets.

Features of Stellarium

Stellarium utilizes a wide range of data for over 600,000 stars from both the Hipparcos and Tycho-2 catalogues. It has also compiled data from other catalogues to include over 210 million stars. In addition, it incorporates coordinates and images for both the Messier and NGC catalogues.

Students can interact with the universe and gather data by panning, zooming, and selecting objects in the sky. They can also select specific dates and speed up or reverse time from any given location. This can enhance their comprehension of the motions of heavens, i.e. diurnal motion, retrograde motion, circumpolar region, moons’ motion against the background stars, and even precession.

Currently, I’m learning how Stellarium can be used as planetarium projection system. It can do distortions for fisheye, stereographic, and spherical mirror projection.

You can find a full list of features here. If you would like a thorough tutorial of Stellarium, TheFrugalComputerGuy on YouTube has put together a good 3 part tutorial series (1, 2, 3).

How to use Stellarium in your astronomy course

In the online astronomy courses I teach, Stellarium is incorporated into several labs. For example, our Stars and Constellations lab uses Stellarium to teach students how to navigate the sky. We ask them to explore the constellations that are out during at different times of the year, as well as the circumpolar region. They learn about visual magnitudes of stars, do exercises to determine if they would be able to see a particular star or object, and perform distance calculations that can be checked with Stellarium. They also learn how to use different stellar coordinates in this lab.

In many large astronomy programs, lab space and availability are limited and it can be impossible to coordinate a make-up for a missed lab or a one due to a cloudy night. To combat this issue, I designed a cloudy night lab program at UNT. I adjusted each of our observatory labs so they could be completed with planetarium based software to maintain learning outcomes. Here is an example of one of my cloudy night labs.

There are endless possibilities for labs you can create with Stellarium. If you want a head start, a quick Google search will yield a lot of interesting results, as many instructors have already created quality labs. Some indicate you are free to use them in your course, but others require permission from the creator. Either way, pre-existing labs can give you some great ideas. You can also check out education resources provided by Stellarium’s Wiki.

Even if you already have your labs covered, Stellarium can also be used to enhance them. When I was teaching labs at UNT’s observatory, we used a similar planetarium based software, TheSky6 (now TheSkyX), to give students an idea of which stars, constellations, and planets were out and where they would be located in the sky. We also used this system for telescope control on some of our larger telescopes. When calibrated correctly, you can click the object on the computer screen and watch the telescope guide itself to the object.  This is especially nice for outreach events. Stellarium’s telescope control feature and can also be used for these purposes.

Before launching Stellarium in your course, it’s recommended to create modulated videos to demonstrate how to use the software and complete all exercises. In my experience, students tend to engage more when given video instructions versus written out ones (read is a four letter word these days, as one of my colleagues says). Specifically, screen recordings get the point across much faster.


Student Reception

At the end of each semester, I ask students to evaluate our labs. The majority always favors the Stellarium Labs. In several cases, I have had students share that they open it up to play around when they have free time. Sometimes I’ll run into former students who still dabble with Stellarium on occasion. They seem to enjoy freely exploring an open world, similar to many popular video games.



If you have any other questions or even suggestions you would like to share on this topic, please do so below in the comment section. If you are interested in some of the labs we offer that utilize Stellarium or any other lab ideas I have for planetarium based software, please feel free to reach out to me by email at



“Solstice Winter (Southern Hemisphere) - Stellarium” image by Marco Antonio from flickr under the Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license.

“Giving a lecture with Stellarium” image by Erik Newth from under the Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license.

This was originally posted by Kelli Mayes-Denker.

The principal-agent problem is often discussed in economics courses when looking at information costs and moral hazard. However, it is an issue that surfaces in every academic course. This concept is applicable to the example of professors choosing the textbook requirements for their students, and is increasingly relevant due to the rising prices of textbooks in recent years. Just last month, NPR examined the question of textbook costs in a Planet Money segment.

When a professor (agent) reviews textbooks and other learning resources, the choices made impact the students (principal). While it is the professor’s course, the unique differentiating factor is that the professor gets to choose how to spend the student’s money.

In a personal decision, one may weigh costs of a product by carefully determining the utility received in each option. However, when choosing textbooks, the student bears the cost, while the professor may be swayed by a variety of factors unrelated to price. These might include author philosophy, the amount of preparation for the course, departmental politics, etc.

How can you find resources that fit your teaching philosophy while remaining cost-effective for your students? At Sapling Learning, we understand this dilemma. Our focus is to provide a variety of textbook options so the best value can be determined for both you and your students. We call this freedom of choice. You can choose new or used editions from your favorite author, an ebook package, or even just stand-alone online homework.

Maybe you really like a specific author’s writing style, but the new edition of that textbook would cost your students $200 or more. We can adapt our assignments to fit that older edition, whereas the publisher would only allow assignments to fit the new edition. This simple option opens up tremendous possibilities for your students. They can purchase a textbook from the university bookstore or an online marketplace. They can rent a book, or borrow from a friend. If you’d like a more formal bundle option, we may be able to resell used copies of your textbook choice through our “Sapling Books” program, passing along more savings to your students.

Our textbook partners provide valuable ebook options at lower prices for students. Your students will experience the benefits of easy ebook interaction that boost learning, such as search functions, keeping e-notes, highlighting, skimming, and more.

We realize the options for course materials are numerous, and that multiple incentives drive each of us to make meaningful decisions. That’s why Sapling Learning gives you freedom of choice!