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Skylar Carlson
University of the Pacific
Chemistry (about 60 students)

“Overall I love it!”

How long have you been using Knewton Alta?

I have been using Knewton Alta since the spring of 2020, when we had to do the switch to online learning. Having Knewton Alta at that time was great because it gave the students alternate instruction when we were short on additional help (e.g., tutoring centers were closed). Students didn’t have the resources they were used to, or that I used to be able to offer to them for extra help.

Knewton Alta “came in clutch” during the pandemic. I didn’t use it over the summer because the class meets every day and I felt that the turnaround time was too fast. Many of my students were working as well, and it was too much.

I used Knewton Alta again in Fall 2021 and really enjoyed it. It allowed me to not have to worry about homework. During the summer, when I wasn’t using Knewton Alta, I was reminded of how much it helps me. I forgot what a pain it was to have to grade homework!!

How do you implement Knewton Alta into your class?

For every class, students have a Knewton Alta assignment due 48 hours later. I have it set up so that they have homework due after my class. It gives me an extra little bit of time to cover material, but also it gives students a chance to ask me a question before or after class. Or ask a question for the whole class. The feedback I get from students is that they really liked the metering, meaning I’m giving them these regular chunks as opposed to when I did it all at once the first time I used Knewton Alta.
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I just find that students don’t work ahead.
We give students 20% for the lab, 10% for Knewton Alta homework, 10% for workshop questions or textbook questions, and then the last 60% comes from exams. I like to use it as a supplement, not as something I’m going to spend time going through with myself in great detail.

Knewton Alta drives my class. Each of the bullet points [in my syllabus] (see below) represents a Knewton Alta objective. I choose all the objectives that go along with what I want to talk about that day. One of the things I struggle with a little is making sure that the objectives I choose match the entirety of the content I am teaching. I try and keep the time allocations even. So I might have six objectives on one day and 10 on another, but I have chosen them so that, collectively, they take less than two hours each—which means I have four hours of homework each week, which I think is fair.

The way that I have my course schedule set up is that students can see the chapter, the Knewton Alta objectives for the chapter, and the days we’re going to be covering that material. Below that are all the textbook problems for two different editions of the book.

In the fall I don’t have the same support that I have in the spring, when I have students turn in their workshop or textbook questions. There’s something very different about hand-writing answers that I have found to compliment Knewton Alta quite well.

There are quite a few things I cover that aren’t covered in Knewton Alta, so I supplement the Knewton Alta objectives.

Student Feedback

One student marched into my office and said, “I don’t understand your lectures. I understand Knewton Alta better!” I said I’ll tell the developers that—they’ll be glad to hear it.

Students really seem to like the videos and tutorials that come along with the lessons because I pushed them to actually take the time to listen to those. I also have the students explain things to each other. I can only explain it to them the way that it makes sense to me, and their textbook presents it in a way that was reviewed and published. But it can be useful to go out and explain it to a study group or hear one of your colleagues explain it to you. And, lastly, going through Knewton Alta and/or YouTube allows students the opportunity to hear the content explained and described in different ways and helps them start to connect the ideas.

How important to you is the adaptive nature of Knewton Alta?

I think it’s super important. Some students really like it and other students are annoyed. I will say, however, that for some students, you can see that the first homework took them four hours and then every homework has taken them a fraction of an hour (half an hour or less). I see that some students get frustrated and instead of working through it; they seem to have given up on the platform and are just Googling the answers to try and get through it faster. So instead of trying to be a disciplinarian about it, I just say it’s your money, your experience. If that’s what you’re going to do, then there’s nothing I can do for you.
Diagram Description automatically generated with medium confidenceI have to remind them that it’s not a punishment, but if they get lots of things wrong, it means they didn’t get it, so they need to spend a little bit more time. The really challenging part is that I have some students who took an AP and they got all the points, but my school doesn’t give them credit for both semesters. So they’re sitting here bored out of their mind, having done really well in AP chem. And then I have other students who are struggling. They didn’t get any background in chemistry and are coming at this abstract thinking the first time and have no clue. They just don’t know what to do with themselves.


Which of your specific goals that you have as a teacher does Knewton Alta address for you?

I think it meets students where they’re at technologically better than any product that I’ve seen. As a book/paper learner, it’s hard for me to look in a classroom full of smartphone kids and tell them, “You’ve got to bust out your textbook and do text problems.” Having the YouTube links, the interactive learning stuff, and breaking it up into the pieces (metering) helps students both set goals and understand the component parts that work together.

Room for Improvement

Things I would change are:

I don’t like that I have to set up my outline and have everything done at the beginning of the semester and imported into Canvas. So I don’t know if that’s a crutch I’ve been leaning on too heavily. I may be missing a feature in Knewton Alta where perhaps I don’t need to sync it up through Canvas, and then I could make more on-the-fly changes.

The other thing that’s really challenging is that your first student to complete an assignment locks that assignment from being able to be edited. And then if I find out there’s an objective that sounded like it was aligned to what we were covering, but it ended up not being so, I can’t fix it.

If there is an objective that has absolutely nothing to do with what we’re studying, the students have to click through it in order to progress to the stuff that’s actually in our class. Something that I would like to see in future editions is that, instead of five objectives being locked and you have to do one, two, three, and four to get to five, it would be great if there were a way for students who realize they are stuck on objective two, to go to office hours for help on that one, but keep going and do and do three and four on their own.

I’ve not had a ton of time to experiment from the student side to see if they’re able to skip around. But I hear from students that they can’t move around. Then I have to excuse them for the whole assignment because the bad objective is parked in the middle and then they’re locked in, either clicking through it or Googling the answers or whatever they have to do to get through it. And it defeats the purpose of the whole endeavor.