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Students Work Harder and Are Happier At Galway University

Rossella Proscia, Marketing Director at Cengage Learning EMEA, talks to Brendan Kennelly, Head of Economics Department at NUI Galway, Ireland on his experience of assigning and grading student work electronically.

Date: April 2007

The National University of Ireland, Galway, is one of Ireland’s most successful institutes of higher education, with 15,000 students and over 400 academic staff. The Department of Economics at NUI Galway, headed by Brendan Kennelly, has 22 full-time teaching staff, including 5 professors, who are also actively engaged in research. The department promotes a climate that integrates teaching and research as well as theory and empirical applications. Mr. Kennelly has been teaching Principles of Economics courses for almost 10 years. Most of his teaching has been in Ireland, at NUI Galway, but he also spent three academic terms teaching economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

A Common Problem

Mr. Kennelly remarked that teaching introductory courses to classes in excess of 700 students almost invariably means unmanageable workload for lecturers and tutors involved in delivering and grading assignments in conjunction with teaching classes. Until recently, students of economics at NUI Galway had to complete ten assignments during their course. Collecting and grading such a high number of assignments was however impossible; therefore teaching staff would only review two assignments per student. These would be selected at random and then graded by a pool of up to 15 tutors. The consistency of grading was invariably an issue, given the high number of people involved. Pen and paper assignments and random selection may well be common methods of coursework in large classes, but many agree these systems have more pitfalls than benefits. Students complain that they don’t receive feedback in good time, lecturers bemoan time pressures in having to compile questions for coursework and tutors feel under pressure, because they have to juggle preparing students for assignments with their own learning needs.

For Mr. Kennelly, the solution to his problem of managing coursework with large classes came gradually. “Whilst teaching in the US, I heard about Aplia, a system for assigning and grading student work online. I knew the system was linked to my adopted textbook Gregory Mankiw’s Economics. When I came back to Ireland, I came across a reference to Aplia on an Economics blog and decided to try it out for my new class the following semester”.

Founded in 2000 by economist and Stanford Prof Paul Romer, Aplia is an educational tool dedicated to improving learning by increasing student effort and engagement. One of the benefits of this technology is the fact that it can be customised to user needs. In this instance, the Aplia software was adapted to suit Mr. Kennelly’s newly adopted text: Principles of Economics, by Gregory Mankiw and Mark Taylor, a local adaptation of the well known text, published by Thomson Learning. A few months later, the new system was rolled out to the Principles of Economics course of the academic year 2006/7.


Conclusions, One Year On

Introducing Aplia’s assignment and grading system made a great difference to the administrative burden of teaching staff: tens of hours spent grading assignments from students suddenly dropped to zero. Lecturers were finally able to spend more time preparing lessons and less in compiling assignment questions. The new system simply requires lecturers to select questions from a menu to match each individual assignment. The Aplia system is predicated on frequent, self administered and self assessed tests. At NUI Galway, this reduced the need for weekly practices in advance of assignments, saving the University money spent in part time teaching. In keeping with the Economic Department’s ethos of combining theory with practice, lecturers availed themselves of the opportunity to run experiments in tutorial settings. Using Aplia, lecturer David Duffy divided his class in two camps, and assigned experiments to illustrate the laws of demand and supply over prices and to illustrate what happens to the market in situations of scarcity of common resources. Students responded positively to practical experiments with theoretical models.

Perhaps more interestingly, students went from having to complete ten assignments per course to having weekly tests. And yet they reported higher satisfaction rates: the additional effort was rewarded with immediate feed back. Summing up on his experiment with online learning, Prof Kennelly said: “In March 2007, we conducted an online survey of our Principles of Economics students. The response rate of over 50% was in itself a success, but what surprised us most was the rate of preference expressed for the system. We found that students enjoyed using the system to a rate of 5/6:1. The vast majority of students rated Aplia higher than pen and paper and concluded they would recommend adopting the assignment and grading system for future classes”.

At the heart of this success is the fact that online learning means flexibility: students don’t have to be on campus to do the assignments. They can dedicate as little or as long as they like to a session. Statistics and experience show that students have different learning styles: some prefer to short intensive sessions, other a prolonged effort. Online learning systems allow users to complete tests in parts, using down time in between lectures or at odd hours. Above all, students need immediate feed back on their work, as this gives them the opportunity to address learning gaps before it is too late. The Aplia system was also used by the Department of Economics in an economics course taught to part-time business students who were being taught in a blended learning format. The system is ideally suited for this kind of learning.

The verdict’s clear: the e learning experience at NUI Galway was a successful one because lecturers, tutors and all the teaching staff believed in the online system adopted. Students’ approval quickly followed because the new system offered them a better and more functional service.