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User Case Studies - Academic




Moving Placement Tests to Anytime, Anywhere

Scott Sutherland, Mathematics Professor, SUNY Stony Brook

Challenge: With time and resources in mind, to reduce the chaos and stress of their placement exam process.
Solution: Automated, web-based testing using Maple T.A.™
Results: • Completely automated their placement test process
• Greatly reduced the stress and chaos of registration day
• Students were better prepared and felt better about the exam
• Allowed professors to concentrate on the students and not the exam and timing



The Challenge


“The resources required to administer the placement exams are substantial.”
At the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook, academic success is as important to the university as it is to the students. They want their students to succeed, and the first step to ensuring they do is making sure they are enrolled in the proper classes. For this reason, Stony Brook's mathematics department administers placement tests every year to assess the student’s level of math knowledge and the appropriate courses. Maple T.A. can address all of these schools and situations, as it automates the entire process, including assessment through to diagnostics; enabling the placement test to be done anytime, anywhere. Stony Brook University is a perfect example of how Maple T.A. can substantially save time and resources.

Stony Brook’s mathematics department has been giving a placement test to every freshman and a large fraction of their transfer students for 15 years. They’ve developed a series of multiple choice questions ranging from arithmetic through to the end of single variable calculus.

The test is administered during orientation at the beginning of the year using paper-based Scantron cards. For approximately 14 years, Stony Brook University was faced with the logistical nightmare of conducting the test, scanning and recording the grades in their student record, and advising the appropriate course all in one morning, so the students could register in the afternoon. Not only was this process harrowing for the staff and faculty, the students often complained that they weren’t prepared, that they didn’t know they had to write a test, and therefore, the results did not represent their ability.

Stony Brook needed a better solution.

They wanted to be able to administer the placement test before the students came to orientation, and they wanted the students to be as prepared as possible for the test.
“Maple T.A. can address all of these schools and situations, as it automates the entire process...”
University administered placement tests are common practice, and normally occur in the areas of mathematics and science. This, however, is where the commonality leaves off, as the administration process for placement exams differ for almost every university. Some perform the test at the beginning of the summer, while some do it at the end or during orientation; some have the students come in to the high schools or universities to write it, while some send it to the students’ homes.

The resources required to administer the placement exams are substantial. It requires professors to create the exam, a dozen or more proctors to facilitate the exam, thousands of Scantron cards, staff to set up and clean up after the exams, staff to feed the Scantron cards into the computer or to hand grade the exams, etc.

Solution: Maple T.A.

For Stony Brook, using Maple T.A. was a natural progression since the math department has been using Maple™, the premier environment for teaching, learning, and researching, for 10 years. Scott Sutherland, a mathematics professor at Stony Brook, chose to work with Maple T.A. for many reasons:

1. Simplicity of adoption. He could drop his existing questions in without very much work, and without having to rewrite any of his questions. This allowed him to concentrate on how he wanted the exam to be presented to the students, rather than on getting the content and practice question bank in place.

2. The potential of Maple T.A.. The variety of question types and options, and the scalability of the program encompassed all the future plans and possibilities that Scott saw, making it extremely attractive.

3. The adaptability of Maple T.A.. Scott didn’t want his students to see the class module, since they weren’t in a class. He was able to, through the flexibility of the Maple T.A. interface, adapt the program to make it look the way he wanted and work in his setting, and in the end help his students.

4. Compatibility with other programs and content. It was invaluable to Scott that Maple T.A. was compatible with his existing publisher’s textbook content. The ability to mold the tool to fit into different applications, such as Blackboard®, was also appealing.

5. The copious number of question types, such as Maple-graded, standard, multiple selection, short answer/essay, matching, true/false, and mathematical formula.

6. The easy-to-run, straight-forward interface. Since the students who need to write the test are at home, and have a limited period of time to become familiar with the program, it was very important that the interface be intuitive and simple.

7. No need for students to install software or a browser. Maple T.A. is accessed through Web browsers for authoring content, taking tests, and for administration of tasks.

8. Interest in Maple T.A. from other departments within the University. If multiple departments are using Maple T.A., the professors can create a better knowledge infrastructure.
Stony Brook now includes with their math admissions package details on the math placement test, which is to be taken prior to orientation. Students are referred to the web site where they perform as many practice tests as they like, and then write the exam when they are ready. The organization of the actual test remained the same; the students were still timed, and had to perform the test before a certain date.

With Maple T.A. students were able to access a large test bank with practice questions that they could do as many times as they wanted before the test. They could then perform the test in a time that best suited them, when they felt the most comfortable and prepared.

The faculty and staff were able to quickly and easily compute the results. Scott said he had fewer problems with 3500 students in the first year of Maple T.A. than he did with the 700 students he has during the year using other software. Scott commented that he didn’t hear “I don’t understand how to make this work” from any of his students.

Maple T.A. has the capability to better assess the student’s level, as the interactive tool has the ability to move the student to an easier or more advanced module based on their performance in the current module.


The results were clear

The stress and chaos of registration day was greatly reduced. The faculty and staff knew when the students arrived at orientation which math class they needed to enroll in. They were then able to concentrate on orientation and the students, rather than facilitating a test. It was a lot less work for the administration, and Scott said there was “a net increase in satisfaction and happiness with the process.”

The students were better prepared. They had a chance to thoroughly practice, and write the test when they were ready. The feedback revealed that the students felt that the scores better represented their abilities.

Professors were able to concentrate on the students and the content of the exam, not organizing the facilitation of the exam and timing of the day. They were also better able to evaluate the test and the process, to see where improvements could be made.

Stony Brook has many plans for Maple T.A. in the future. They are not only planning to evolve their placement test questions, but they plan to start using it in their pre-calculus course in conjunction with the textbook content. They also intend to use Maple T.A. as a homework engine, including homework assignments. Several other disciplines-physics, chemistry, and economics-have also expressed interest in the tool, and the math department is more than willing to help them get started.

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