Case Study: Pam Thomas at University of Central Florida

As mentioned in recent articles by the Chronicle of Higher Education and New Scientist, one of our newest SAGrader users is Pam Thomas at the University of Central Florida. UCF is the second largest brick-and-mortar university in the country and it’s getting larger. U.S. News & World Report lists their student-teacher ratio at 31:1 while over 7% of their classes have 100 or more students, according to the State University System 2012 annual report.

In October 2009, Pam Thomas was one of two University faculty members selected as Large Class Faculty Fellows by the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. The Fellows were tasked with providing support to teachers of classes with 100 or more students through workshops, consultations and the discovery of new tools.  As part of her research, Pam came across SAGrader in the summer of 2010.

“We had looked into multiple other systems,” Pam said about discovering SAGrader, “but this we determined was our best opportunity to assist students to learn and simulate activities that can go on in smaller class sizes. It was also easy to use and cost effective.”  We helped Pam set up a small pilot study with her introductory biology class to give her some hands-on experience with the system.

For Pam, SAGrader addresses many of the challenges associated with teaching and learning in large classes. Students need more opportunities to write and develop their ability to express themselves, reinforce course material and improve higher thinking skills. But in large classes like Pam’s — her biology class can enroll up to 1,200 students — grading all those papers is simply not feasible. Neither is providing each student with personalized feedback, despite its learning benefits.

Hoping to address these challenges and encouraged by the results of the pilot study, Pam fully integrated SAGrader with her Introductory Biology class last spring. After the first assignment, the results were intriguing.  Asked to construct a response rather than choose from a list of choices, students couldn’t hide what they did and did not understand. “When confronted with a blank space,” says Pam, “you can actually see the process that the student goes though and identify exactly where the help is needed.”

For the first time, Pam could see exactly where each student misunderstood: “I have been able to rapidly identify areas in which my students need help prior to testing or the next lecture.”

Pam went on to assign six more SAGrader assignments, covering topics like hypotheses, math, genetics and chemistry. By doing some manual grading in conjunction with the program, Pam was able to show that SAGrader was over 99% accurate on most of the assignments, and more consistent than TAs grading the same assignments.

Convinced of its grading fidelity, Pam relished the opportunity to offer a better learning experience for each of her students.  “I really like being allowed to provide feedback to my students,” Pam tells us. “Without this type of automation I could never provide feedback to 1,200 students in a timely manner.”

Perhaps most exciting, students in Pam’s class increased their final test scores by 12.5% compared with previous semesters. Quite an impressive improvement!

Moving forward, Pam is excited to expand her use of SAGrader into additional classes, like the genetics class she is teaching this fall. Despite growing classes, Pam is able to give her students plenty of writing practice and personal feedback, without generating mountains of papers to grade.

Pam’s advice to instructors considering SAGrader is simple: “You will be amazed at the ways in which the system will allow you to assist your students.  My colleagues formerly told me my quest to find a system like this was impossible. It was not. I only wish I had found SAGrader 5 years sooner!”

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