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6 Posts authored by: Jonathan Bratt

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.


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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.

Homework questions in conceptual physics textbooks are generally open-ended, requiring students to explain physical phenomena or concepts in their own words. Unfortunately, technology is not yet at the point where essays can be reliably evaluated by a computer. Instructors are therefore faced with the task of hand-grading dozens or hundreds of individual responses.


To address this problem, our physics team has created conceptual-level questions that test and enhance students’ understanding of physics while providing automatic grading and feedback.


For example, item 77772 deals with the polarization of light. To answer this question, students must visually identify the polarization state of light as it passes in turn through three filters. Each incorrect response triggers appropriate feedback (see image 1 below).


In item 62651 (image 2 below), students must complete the ray diagram for a converging lens. The vector drawing module gives students the ability to draw arrows anywhere on the diagram, while providing specific feedback when they are wrong.


These are just two examples of the many conceptual questions available in the physics library. Our goal in writing these is to engage students in a relatively open-ended context without requiring instructors to spend valuable time on grading. As always, we welcome your ideas, feedback, and comments.


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Jonathan Bratt

Requesting New Content

Posted by Jonathan Bratt May 31, 2016

The Sapling Learning content library contains a broad selection of high-quality questions, but there will likely be times that you can’t quite find the problem you’re looking for. When this happens, one of your options is to submit a request to our content team.


When we receive a request for a new problem, we first decide whether it would be a valuable addition to our library. If we determine that the problem would be a good addition, one of our subject matter experts writes it out in detail. The problem is written in full Sapling Learning style, including a complete solution and specific feedback. Next, the problem goes through at least two stages of internal review to ensure accuracy and quality. After passing review, the problem is added to our library.


From start to finish, this process typically takes about one week per problem, depending on the complexity of the problem. Questions involving graphics will generally take longer.


In 2015, about 80 of the new questions that we added to the physics and astronomy libraries were written in response to requests from instructors. Some of our best content has originated this way, so please keep the requests coming!

Jonathan Bratt

Interactive Graphing

Posted by Jonathan Bratt May 28, 2016

One of the features that makes Sapling Learning so effective is the high level of interactivity that many of our questions provide. This month, we highlight one of our most versatile interactive question modules—the Line Mover module.


The Line Mover module allows students to interact with a variety of graphs, changing the positioning of points or line segments on the graph by clicking and dragging. For example, students could be asked to construct a plot of an object’s motion by dragging points into place.


One question that illustrates this is item 105966 [see screenshot below], which was recently created in response to an instructor’s request. Given information about a rocket’s acceleration, students must construct a plot of the rocket’s position as a function of time by placing the given points.


In terms of the number of possible responses, this question is nearly as open-ended as a paper-based graphing question. Unlike a paper graph, however, Sapling Learning provides students with immediate feedback when they make mistakes. The question guides students toward the correct answer, identifying specific regions of the plot that are incorrect.


Other kinematics questions that use the Line Mover module include items 70072, 70788, 67476, and 106613. Take a look and let us know what you think!


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Before a new question goes “live” in the Sapling Learning physics library, it must first pass a rigorous internal review process. However, the question’s journey of improvement doesn’t end there. After a question begins to be read and answered by students, issues with it may become apparent. Sometimes, an instructor will suggest a correction or improvement to an existing question. When this happens, we evaluate and implement the changes as soon as we can. For minor edits, these fixes are often applied the same day.


Our internal content experts also work to identify and fix potential issues with existing questions. Each year, we compile comprehensive statistics on the performance of every question in our content library. Questions are ranked by how often they are assigned by instructors, how frequently students gave up or answered incorrectly, and many other criteria. Based on this data, certain questions are selected for revision or replacement.


We take the quality of our content very seriously, and it is our goal to be continually improving our existing questions, along with writing new ones. Your feedback is an important part of this process, so please don’t hesitate to contact us with your comments or suggestions.