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Q&A: Creating Blackboard Tests Using Calculated Formulas

Dr. Kenneth Carrell Because ASU now offers a minor in astronomy, Assistant Professor Dr. Kenneth Carrell knew it was time to bump up the requirements.

He added some mathematical equations to his introductory course, PHYS 1303 Fundamentals of Astronomy.

“It doesn’t feel right to have a physics course with no math,” Carrell said. “I added it because you have to understand the math to understand the course content.”

Adding mathematics to the course took some serious consideration. With 90 students in each section of the class, it wouldn’t be practical for Carrell to assign homework problems and be able to return timely feedback for students.

His solution: using calculated formulas in Blackboard tests.

Students now get instant feedback on the mathematics problems assigned in Blackboard. He introduced the calculated formula problems in fall 2017 and now gives two Blackboard tests each semester that use the question type.

“You shouldn’t be scared of math,” Carrell said. “It’s a life skill. If you don’t understand basic formulas, you’ll struggle, so this is supposed to be confidence-building.”

Screenshot of how to create a calculated formula test question in Blackboard.

How did it go the first time you rolled out the quizzes with calculated formulas?

I tested out the calculated formula quizzes with an online course. It’s good that I started there, because I overshot. If I had done it with a big class, there would have been mutiny.

There were 30 students in the course, so it was small enough that I could still adjust things.

I added in enough math that if you don’t do the math, you won’t pass the tests. And part of the problem is that some students didn’t even attempt the math questions.

Are you concerned about cheating?

There’s no way to stop cheating.

I’ve thought about using Respondus Lockdown Browser, but it’s a headache I don’t want to deal with right now.

The tests are timed, and I use randomized questions, so that helps.

I like to do the tests where you can’t backtrack. You have to answer them in the order they are presented. That cuts down on cheating as well.

What are some of the advantages of using calculated formulas?

A main reason for doing this is to hold students accountable. Without the math, you could cheat your way through.

A quarter of their grade is in class. The rest is all online. They can do it on their own time, or they could be doing it in groups. On some level, I don’t mind that so much. The math is basic algebra.

The main advantage of the calculated formulas is that they are doing math problems. Hopefully it makes them less scared.

They can use the book, and I let them take each of the quizzes twice.

What are some disadvantages of calculated formulas?

You don’t see the students’ work. That’s the main thing. It’s hard because you can’t give partial credit — it’s all or nothing. So I can’t make the math worth too much of the grade.

The problem with online is that they are completely on their own. I can’t direct them or correct them if the math is wrong. This semester with the face-to-face classes, we go over the math in class beforehand.

Another disadvantage is that the formula got off on one of the questions and Blackboard didn’t let me regrade. It kept acting like it was regrading it, but it wasn’t.

[Editorial Note: Blackboard can’t regrade a question if the test is randomized.]

The calculated formulas seemed like a lot of work at first, but when I actually sat down to do it, it didn’t take that long. It’s worth a little bit of time on my part to have them do a little bit of math.

Have the outcomes from these assessments prompted you to change your teaching strategies?

It has definitely changed my teaching strategies.

I saw last semester that I overshot it, but I saw that it was because I wasn’t there to guide them through the math. Now I’ve given them worksheets and concentrated on how to solve math equations using basic formulas.

I read the student comments every semester and adjust what I’m doing based on what they say. The end of this semester will tell me a lot more.

The online course told me the fall semester was probably too much math and/or it was too hard. The grades this spring are still a little lower, but they should be because I made the course harder.

There were some who skipped the math questions last semester. I need to go back and look and see if it was always the math problems that got skipped.

For now, I’m happy with the way the calculated formulas are set up in Blackboard. For a first pass, it’s been good.

I can pick and choose this summer what I want to delve into. There’s more there than I have time to assess. Over time, hopefully that gets refined.

Jayna Phinney
Jayna Phinney

Jayna Phinney is the Instructional Technology Specialist for the ASU College of Science and Engineering. Contact her at or 325-486-6264.


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