Learning and Teaching Investment Fund 2008

Summary of Projects

Project Title

Early intervention to enhance retention rates by improving student skills and confidence

Project Leaders

Dr. Pj Radcliffe
Dr. Heiko Rudolph

Funds Approved

$37,250

Summary of the project, outcomes, impacts and dissemination

This project addresses a traditional conflict in education: how to encourage team work without allowing plagiarism. We object to plagiarism not from a moral perspective but because it seriously impedes the student’s acquisition of skills and knowledge. In one carefully controlled study we have demonstrated pass levels in standard tests rose from around 30% to 75% when it became impossible to plagiarize.

We have developed an education process and a set of tools to reduce labour requirements and allow very fast and comprehensive feedback to students that allows for early intervention where problems are detected.

The education process we have developed works as follows-

The teacher develops a problem that is non-trivial; it cannot be simply remembered by the vast majority of students.

The problem is released to the students and they have a chance to comment and request changes. ( This negotiation stage can be one of the most interesting parts of a lecture!)

Students are encouraged to work as a team to solve the problem.

The problem is then tested under exam conditions. Variations on the public problem may be appropriate.

The result is marked ASAP and feedback sent to students.

Problems are set on fast cycle time, ideally every week.

This process firstly encourages team work, yet each participant must master the material as they will be individually tested under exam conditions. The rapid cycle time ensures students do not lose contact with the material and must not put off their learning.

Without tools this process is onerous and requires a great deal of work, typically the funding for such as high level of labour is generally not available. We have developed several key tools that enable this process to be relatively low in labour requirements:

To run the tests we have developed a secure operating environment for Linux, and a separate one for Windows. These environments block students from accessing file, application, or network resources that are inappropriate for a test while allowing all appropriate activities and resources. Surprisingly we found no commercial products that actually did this job despite many claims to this effect.

In our domain of engineering programming we have developed an auto-tester for Windows and Linux that allows the rapid and comprehensive testing of student efforts, and the emailing of results directly back to the students.

The tool is very general and any command line or text output can be evaluated.

In practice the education process has been a great success with significant increases in student competency as measured in standard tests and exams for two large courses in 1st and 2nd year. The volume and quality of feedback is significantly higher because of the tools we have used. The work has also been accepted for three journal publications.


In middle to late 2009 the tools will be released free for general use on a web site. Given the significant benefits to the education process, and usefulness of the tools, we expect this web site to be quite popular.

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