By Lynn Conlee
In the five semesters since Associate Professor of Philosophy Mark Newman began using an online teaching tool in his logic class, the difficult course has not gotten easier but grades have gotten better. Why? “It allows me to spend more time teaching strategy and less time teaching rules,” he says. “Through the software, students gain a base-level understanding of logic. Then in the classroom, the genuine understanding occurs.”
Newman uses software created by Alpia, a company that teamed up with the publisher of his preferred textbook to offer a package deal on both products. Once Alpia receives a copy of Newman’s syllabus, the company preloads a “huge bank of problems” segmented as homework assignments for each day of class. Students log on to the site and, as they address each question, get immediate feedback on the correctness of their answers.
“It helps me in that I don’t have the problem of not being able to keep up with grading homework,” Newman says. “If I were having to grade homework assignments, it might be a week before I could get it back to them. By then, the learning opportunity has been lost.”
Homework assignments account for between 30 and 40 percent of a student’s semester grade, which is enough to ensure they complete the online assignments. The software logic problems help reinforce the rules of logic so that Newman can focus on the strategies involved in logic problem solving.
“I go into the classroom and say, ‘All right, let’s solve this problem.’ It’s on the board and it’s much like a chess game. We have to see the patterns and learn the strategies for making our moves. You have to be able to see five moves ahead. And so I can teach them that in class rather than having to say, ‘OK, this is a rook and this is your queen,’ and explain what those are. They already know the rules from the software,” says Newman.
What he has seen over the semesters he’s been using the Alpia software is a steady improvement in grades. The instant feedback students get while learning the ever-increasingly complex rules seems to help average and below-average learners the most.
“The A and B students are going to do well even without the software, but it’s the C, D, and even F students who benefit,” Newman explains. “Since I’ve been using it, I have given very few Ds in my logic class and I can’t even remember the last time I gave an F. And this is a hard class. The software has shifted everyone up.”
Newman is quick to note that, while the low-cost software cannot replace the classroom experience, it can enhance it. “It is technology working at its best at a liberal arts college,” he says. “It allows the weakest student to keep up with the strongest. And it allows the professors to spend more time teaching what we want to.