Collecting Learning Notebooks in an Online Course

Jun 4, 2012 by

In a prior post, I discussed how I’m using Learning Notebooks to encourage students to carefully think through the mathematical steps and notation for solving problems.

I promised that I would explain how students complete this assignment in an online course, so today I’ve made a video, Collecting Learning Notebooks in an Online Course to show you the process I’m using inside of Instructure Canvas.  The process should be similar for other Learning Management Systems (though it may not be quite this easy).

Here’s the process.  Students still complete their Learning Notebook exactly how they do in a traditional class. I encourage them to keep a Table of Contents so that they can quickly find their assignments and make sure they are complete. Again, this was discussed in a prior post. The turning in part is a bit different for an online course.

I want to collect ten random problems from the students. So first, I create a Question Bank (or test bank) of 18-20 problems.  The problems look something like this:

Example problem from the Question Bank. [click on image to enlarge]

In the actual assignment, I tell the Quiz to pull ten problems at random from the Question Bank.  This is a timed assignment, and I figure that 45 minutes should be plenty of time to take 10 photos or scans and upload them, even on cruddy Internet like mine.

How do students take their photos?

  • Digital cameras
  • Webcams (I required them for this course)
  • Scanners
  • Multi-function printer/scanners
  • Cell phone cameras

How do they get the image to the quiz?  They have to get the image to their computer screen and then use Jing to create a URL for the page they want to share.

Here are a few examples [click on the images to enlarge]:

Handwritten student work shared with a camera.


Handwritten student work scanned and shared with Jing.


Handwritten work shared with a webcam and Jing. (permission granted by student to share photo)

Then I grade the quizzes. Done!

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Hard-learned Tips on Screencasting

Sep 17, 2011 by

My latest column for MAA Focus, Becoming a Screencasting Star, is now available online.  In this post, I include a collection of “Hard-Learned Tips” on screencasting – these are things I wish someone had told me before I recorded my first set of videos.  For example …

Mind Your References. Don’t mention specific texts, sections, or page numbers in your screencasts. If you do, then switching to a different text or a new edition will suddenly make all your videos out of date. If you must reference a section or page number, do it in the text that accompanies the link to the video. It’s easy to change text, but very time-consuming to reproduce all the videos. I learned this one the hard way!

There is also advice for choosing the right type of software and dealing with storage of screencasts.  If you’ve got additional tips you’d like to share, please do so in the comments. 🙂

You can view all my past Teaching with Tech columns here.

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Custom Stamps for Grading in Adobe Acrobat

Aug 19, 2011 by

Many people have asked me to give a tutorial on creating custom stamps in Adobe Acrobat for paper grading.  There’s no reason why you couldn’t do something similar in other programs by pasting images into files, but there’s no doubt that the ease of one-click access to custom stamps is a nice feature of Adobe Acrobat.

Step One:  Create the content of the Custom Stamp

You can use any program on your computer to create the content: MathType, LaTeX, Wolfram Alpha, Mathematica, Maple, Sage, Word, Journal, etc.  Write the content and try to make it somewhat compact in width (aim for a square or squarish-rectangle rather than a long skinny rectangle).

Step Two: Capture an image of the Content

Use any screen capturing program to capture an image of your content.  You want to use one that has a “snipping” feature so that it’s not a screen capture of the entire screen.  Just capture the content you want in the stamp.  I usually use Jing or SnagIt to do this, although there are certainly many other options.

Step Three (optional): Make a Border

If I am making a longer comment, I like to put a border around my “stamp” content to make it clear that this was something that was added in the grading and not part of the original content of the exam or assignment.  Even free programs like Jing have the ability to add a rectangular “border” box on the image.  Save the file.

Step Four: Create the Custom Stamp

In Adobe Acrobat, open the stamp menu and choose “Create a Custom Stamp.”  Browse to find the image file you’ve created (Adobe defaults to finding PDF files, but you can use the drop-down menu to choose from other file formats).



You’ll find it helpful to have stamp categories (Limits, Derivatives, Integrals, Exam 2, etc.) to make stamps easy to find.

Step Five: Use the Custom Stamp (over and over and over and over)

At this point, you should be able to use the stamps by choosing them from Comments & Markup Tools –> Custom Stamps.

Once the custom stamp is inserted in a PDF document, it can be resized and moved all over the page.  You can use a custom stamp multiple times in the same document.

And now that notation error that requires you to explain in a lengthy comment is not such a burden to correct anymore.  I use custom stamps to explain the difference between d/dx and dy/dx, to insert missing limit notation, to explain the difference between a derivative and a differential, to explain how to rewrite an improper integral … once you can just stamp the comments, the explanations can be as clear as you want them to be.

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How to Grade a Student Blog

Jan 4, 2010 by

tlda_blog_buttonLast semester I began using learning blogs as one of the assignments for Math for Elementary Teachers.  It was the first time I have ever used blogs as a graded student learning assessment, and I didn’t really know what to expect out of the students.  Would they all have created blogs before? [no]  Would they understand intuitively how to make hyperlinks, load in images, and embed videos? [no, no, and no] Would they write naturally in a conversational tone (in the style of most blogs)? [yes]  Would they make their blog posts two or three times a week (as directed) or would they cram them all in during the last couple days? [some of both]

Overall, I was thrilled with the results.  The students reflected on their learning, both in class and out of class.  They found and shared games, videos, articles, and vocabulary sites that they found on the web.  Some of them acted as a class reporter, summarizing what was covered in class each day (with their own personalities coming through).  Before you read the rest of this post, you might want to browse a few of their blogs to get an idea of the variety or writing and styles.

So let’s just say that this first time using blogs was a learning experience for both my students and for me.  I drafted a rubric for grading the blogs, and stuck to it all semester.  However, I realized that both the clarity of the assignment and the specificity of the rubric needed to be improved for “Round Two” (starting next week).

During the last round of blog grading, I revised my old rubric to try and tighten up the quality of the results.  Here are the specifics of the assignment now.

Set up a blog using Blogger or WordPress.  You should make at least six blog posts of at least two paragraphs each, using appropriate spelling and grammar.  The mathematics in your posts should be correct.  Blog posts should focus on what you have learned, what you’ve struggled with, or what you’ve found to help you learn.  Posts can discuss learning in class or out of class, but must relate to the current topics we are covering in the unit.  You should not refer to specific chapter or section numbers in your blog posts, and if you mention an activity from class, please use enough detail that a 3rd party reader would understand it.  Here are some specific details:

  • Blog posts should be spaced apart (not all at the last minute).
  • Your blog should include an appropriate  title (not just Maria’s Blog)
  • Your blog should include a profile (picture and brief bio). This can be fictional if need be.
  • Your blog should contain a “blogroll” with five of your favorite educational blogs.
  • Your blog should contain a list of tagged topics or categories.
  • Your blog should contain four images (or embedded videos) and should contain at least six links to web resources that you’ve found yourself.
  • Links to web resources should be properly “clickable” within the text of the post (not just a pasted URL).
  • Each post should be tagged with appropriate keywords.
  • You should make at least six comments on the blog posts of other students.

I think that the nature of the blog (what to write about) needs to stay as open as possible, but the fine detail of the assignments is difficult to assess if the quality of blogs varies wildly.   If you choose to try an assignment like this, I highly recommend a table-style rubric (like the one below) to keep track of where you are assigning points.

learn_via_blog_rubricI also found it helpful to use a screen-capture program (I used Jing and SnagIt) to make grading comments about specific blog posts (because, of course, you should not comment those in on a public blog site).

One last tip:  About halfway to the deadline, I give every student feedback on how they are doing so far.  I gently remind them about details that they might have forgotten so that they have time to correct or regroup.  I’ve found this results in immediate improvement in the blogs and is well worth the effort.  I use quick 1-3 minute Jing videos to give the feedback most of the time.

Note: You can see the rest of the learning projects and a “big picture” idea of how I fit all this in (timewise) by reading Transforming Math for Elementary Ed.

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Year in Review 2009

Dec 16, 2009 by

I’m about to leave on a five-day mental reboot: no computer, no Internet, no cell phone, and lots of sunshine and pleasure reading.  For the last month I’ve been feeling kind of drained of energy and motivation, and a vacation away from all my high-level thinking and technology obligations sounded like a good idea.

While I was feeling kind of unproductive and slug-like, I began reflecting on what I have done this year.  This is my version of a Year in Review.




  • Attended Edward Tufte Course in Indianapolis August 24
  • Built new mindmap: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age
  • Presentation to faculty on my campus on August 27
  • Wrote technology column, Jing and Math, for MathAMATYC Educator (September 2009)
  • Webinar for ITC (Organize Your Digital Self) on Sept 22
  • Final push for completion of new book: Algebra Activities, 1000 pages (August-October 2009)



Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 140 blog posts published on this site in the last year. (Wow! That was a LOT of writing!)  You can view collections of some of my favorite posts about general topics, about math, and about Wolfram|Alpha while I am away from the digital world on a vacation mental-reboot in Punta Cana.

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