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With Gradient, professor gets students to apply course concepts in writing

Larry DeBoer

By using Gradient, an online writing and peer assessment tool developed by ITaP, agricultural economics Professor Larry DeBoer can now incorporate writing assignments into his large lecture course.

Agricultural economics Professor Larry DeBoer always thought students in his macroeconomics course would benefit from applying course concepts in short written essays. But with more than 300 students in his lecture course, administering a writing assignment seemed impossible.

Gradient, an online writing and peer assessment tool developed by ITaP, changed DeBoer’s mind, turning an impractical aspiration into a manageable course staple.

By providing an organized and structured digital platform for students to evaluate each other’s work, Gradient makes writing assignments a viable option for large enrollment courses. Using Gradient, DeBoer now incorporates multiple writing assignments into his course each semester. The assignments give students the opportunity to apply high-level analytical skills and draw conclusions from real-world economic data.

“Information in the real world doesn’t come at students in nice multiple choice questions,” DeBoer says. “It comes in free-flowing forms. With Gradient, students can get credit for applying course concepts to real issues in a form they will encounter the rest of their lives.”

Each assignment in Gradient is composed of four main parts. Students are required to write and submit an essay; evaluate and answer questions about three sample essays of varying quality selected by the instructor; score three anonymous peer essays; and, finally, assess their own essays.

Within Gradient, the instructor provides a template for the assignment, giving students an objective guide on how to write and evaluate the essays. Gradient also allows instructors to set parameters for how far off a student’s scores or answer choices can be to receive points. Peer assessments are weighted based on how well a student evaluates the instructor-scored sample essays.

“It’s just amazingly clever how Gradient works,” DeBoer says. “The instructor decides the criteria and scoring parameters for each assignment, but it’s students that drive the tool.”

Leveraging Gradient has helped DeBoer shift the emphasis of his course from encouraging students to acquire knowledge to encouraging them to apply knowledge, a change that has resulted in better scores on high-level test questions.

“After using Gradient for a year, I’ve found a correlation between students who do well on Gradient assignments and those who do well on the final exam,” DeBoer says. “This suggests that students do have the ability to recognize whether their classmates’ writing is coherent, informed and intelligent or isn’t.”

ITaP web application programmer Casey Wright, who helped develop Gradient, assisted DeBoer through the initial process of creating assignments, providing ongoing support as needed.

“We aim for our applications to help solve real-world teaching and learning problems, and we make sure faculty and students receive the support they need to successfully use our tools,” Wright says. “Gradient requires thoughtful planning on the part of instructors, but ITaP is there to coach them through the process.”

Faculty interested in learning more about Gradient can contact ITaP’s Informatics group by sending an email to studiohelp@purdue.edu.

Gradient is one of nine instructional apps created by Studio by Purdue, an ITaP initiative designed to improve student success through the creation of digital tools. The apps can be used by instructors or students to enhance the traditional classroom experience.

Writer: Jonathan Hines, technology writer, ITaP, 765-496-7998, hines18@purdue.edu

Source: Larry DeBoer, professor of agricultural economics, 765-494-4314, ldeboer@purdue.edu

Casey Wright, Web application programmer, ITaP, 765-494-5791, caseyw@purdue.edu

Last updated: July 7, 2014