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Wheeler Conover
SE Kentucky Community college

What courses do you teach?

All chemistry from survey of general organic, biological chemistry all the way up to organic chemistry and also classic biochemistry.

How long have you been using Alta?

Two-three years.

Why did you start using Alta?

Someone from Knewton gave a talk to the chemists in the KY community and technical college system and I thought it sounded like a winner! So I decided to give it a try.

What do you like about Alta?

It encourages you to be wrong. It doesn’t penalize you for the wrong answer. It just says keep working at it, and wait until you master the material. In Kentucky, for close to 15 years, we have had a series of competency based learning classes called learn on demand (LOD). And we have used software in those classes where students keep working on the answer until they get it right.  I see Alta as a natural extension of LOD competency based learning.

How do you use Alta?

PuzzleHomework is 30% of the grade. My theory is that most learning takes place at home. And so if I’m going to have students do work at home and work hard on it, it’s got to be worth their time. When I first started out 25 years ago, homework was optional. That didn’t take long for me to change. I upped it to 10%. But then I also have the philosophy that if they’re not going to do it, I’m going to make them pay. Now I’m going to make them pay hard. And so now with it being 30%, if students choose not to do their homework, they are going to have a reckoning, as we say in Appalachia, they’re going to have a “come to Jesus” moment if they don’t do their homework.

Sometimes I open it (the homework) back up and students can work on it until they get it, but I don’t always let them do late assignments.

Do you get feedback from students?

I have students who say that it’s different than what they’ve done before. And they appreciate the fact that they can learn the material instead of being punished for not learning it.

Do students understand the adaptive nature of the product?

No, not at this point because there are too immersed in a system where it is right versus wrong and they just see that I’m different. And not only do they see I’m a different instructor because I’ve been at this for so long and I try to stay aware of what goes on around me in education, I’m also not the type of person who pulls out lecture notes from 40 years ago and gives my students the same class that their parents had. So they see I’m different and may not be able to distinguish that from the fact that they are using an adaptive product.

Do you create exams and quizzes in Alta?

It depends. I’ve been letting Knewton Alta do most of the exam creation. When we were meeting in-person, I was creating exams myself. But I would pull out questions from Knewton Alta and put them into an exam. Even now, I’m giving a weekly quiz (for each of eight weeks), I have to go in and create questions. I do find some gaps in the coverage of the question banks and so I need to fill them in.

What do students struggle with the most?

Everything. Their biggest struggle is not necessarily with the material. It’s the fact that they’re afraid to get something wrong. They are afraid they will lose their precious 4.0 GPA. They will not make a high grade on an exam and they don’t want understand that 85% is an A. That 85.1% and 99.9% is the same grade. That clouds everything they encounter. They are afraid of making a mistake.

They also don’t see the amount of time that it really takes to put in to learning the material.  Sure, they can go look it up on Quizlet, or Course Hero. So their reasoning skills. Number one are short at this point, but then number two, I have to remember that this may be the first time that they’ve seen the material and it is up to me to help them reason through their problems. It’s not necessarily the material per se, it’s the process of learning.

For example, in my current group, when creating the weekly exam, there was one concept that I had to give them three times, on three straight exams. When I went in and I checked the homework, they were doing the homework, but when it came time to write it back on the exam, they couldn’t do it. So I just had to keep after them until I was satisfied that at least the majority of them knew. Sometimes the repetition is not there—and students can mistake recognition for learning.

I also throw up the Knewton Alta to them every week. I make it available to every week and they don’t use it. And I also begin to wonder, is that a function of the fact that they worked on the concepts already in their homework, got 100% mastery and then they don’t feel that they need to go back and review the material a few days later.

Room for improvement

There are two things:

  1. I wish Knewton Alta would update their question banks. And like I said, still in some of the gaps, make some of the material that we see in match up with what you would normally see in a typical class.
  2. There is an awful lot of emphasis on minutiae in homework than I think that it really needs.

But overall, I think the system is geared more for conceptual learning. It deemphasizes numerical calculations and lends itself toward conceptual learning. And since it’s taken me that long to figure out which I didn’t really realize this until earlier this year that we say, “I don’t care. If you can punch numbers into a calculator, if you’re punching a bunch of numbers into a calculator and you don’t know what you’re doing, then what good is it?”

So I like the fact that it does lean towards the conceptual side of learning, but then again, where the gaps would come in is if they needed to take exams such as the MCAT or PCAT, and they need to learn things that they have not necessarily even seen the first time, there’s a little bit of a disconnect there.

I think sometimes there is too much detail on some things and not enough on others. When I go into the test bank, I can go into the questions and see nine of one question then nothing on another.