Using Tablets for Presentations and Grading–A Biochemistry Case Study

interactive slide

With their Mellon Digital Pedagogy grant, Austin College professors John Richardson and Jim Hebda are experimenting with new methods of teaching biochemistry. In their spring 2015 course on biochemical metabolism, John and Jim are using tablets for untethered, dynamic PowerPoint-style presentations and electronic grading. Here’s how they describe the results so far:

The rationale of our Mellon project is to recapture some of the personal hands on approach that is lost when using PowerPoint presentations.

Biochemistry is a complex topic with a significant amount of intricate structure and visual content, which makes the traditional “chalk talk” difficult for both students and instructors.  By using PowerPoint lectures, students and instructors are free to spend more time on theory and less time on drawing out structures.  However, in-class questions and additional content that ends up being written on the board becomes lost and disjointed with respect to the pre-made slides when the students begin to study the material at home.

To this end we are using tablet technology to create the presentation, project it wirelessly to a large display screen, annotate slides during class and, if need be, add additional slides to the presentation on the fly. The advantage to the student is that after lecture the presentation (including the audio narration during class) can be uploaded to Moodle for future reference. An additional advantage of using the tablet is that the instructor is free to move around the room, enhancing class engagement and student participation. Furthermore, it would be possible to incorporate student use of the tablet during lecture as a novel way for them to mark up a slide during class.

To support this approach, we assessed the hardware available and settled on the Samsung Note 12.2 for its price point, extremely usable stylus technology, and ability to wirelessly mirror the display to a projector with an inexpensive device (we are experimenting with several streaming media adapters, including the Google Chromecast and the Amazon Fire Stick). On the software side, we are using Explain Everything for slide creation and annotation. As noted above, Explain Everything has the capacity to record audio and turn the presentation into a screen-mirrored movie, which we have done for most of our lectures this semester. Here is a portion of the presentation that we gave in the workshop, which was created using the method described here:

A second major feature of using the tablet is that we can grade student work electronically, thus preserving a record of the original and graded assignment. The students upload pdfs of their assignments, and we use a program called Papyrus to open and annotate those documents. Papyrus allows us to grade the assignment with a stylus, so the student still receives the exact same handwritten comments as before, but now in a digital format. Students thus still feel the direct connection of their instructors taking the time to make thoughtful commentary on the work handed in. Papyrus also has Dropbox support to allow easy import and export of files from the tablet. After being graded, the documents are uploaded back to Moodle in such a way that students can only retrieve their own work. We find it advantageous to keep a record of all our feedback to each student. In this way we can track student progress across the semester by accessing comments made on prior assignments rather than by relying on memory alone.


The objective of the project was to integrate tablets into lecture and grading, using the smaller CHEM 352 class as a pilot. We have done that and are continuing to refine the apps and software that best allow us to do what we want. We are confident that this approach can be successful with a large class like CHEM 351, Introduction to Biochemistry.

Flipping Out–Organic Chemistry

One theme prominently highlighted at the Digital Pedagogy workshop was the “flipped” model of learning. In the “traditional” course, class meeting periods are predominantly designed for information transfer via lecture, and students process the content outside of class via homework, problem sets, exercises, etc. A flipped approach inverts this design; information and content transmission takes place mostly outside of the classroom, and meeting time is then devoted to more interactive forms of learning and processing of content, such as guided problem solving, question and answer, discussion, and peer instruction. Often (though not always) the flipped model involves the production of short video presentations by the instructor, which replace the in-class lectures. Students watch and rewatch the videos prior to classtime, in addition to doing assigned reading, and hopefully come to class better prepared to engage the material.

Several grantee projects incorporate elements of the flipped model. In this post, we feature the work of AC chemistry professor Andy Carr, who flipped his fall 2014 course, CHEM 221, Organic Chemistry I. Here are the slides to Andy’s presentation, followed by his narrative description of the project:


I have successfully completed my first run of CHEM 221 with the flipped model. Over the course of the Fall 2014 semester I learned how to edit videos and compress them so that the files could be placed directly in Moodle. Overall this has been a very satisfying project for me and for my students. Over 70% of the students in my section reported that they learned much more or somewhat more than they would have in a traditional lecture. Many students have stated that they liked viewing the lectures at their own pace instead of frantically taking notes during lecture.

Besides student opinion, I had other markers of success. I had the lowest DFW (a grade of D, F, or withdrawal) rate in my career. Only two students did not complete the course, and only two students did not earn a C- or better. I started with 27 students; 23 moved on to second semester organic chemistry. Typically, organic chemistry has had a DFW rate of around 30%, and it has been as high as 56%. Overall, grades were slightly higher than they have been in the past.

Not only were students in my own classes benefiting from the videos; they also began to share them with their friends in other sections of organic chemistry. I then decided to make the videos available to the other sections of CHEM 221. So in total my videos were watched by approximately 80 students last semester. At the end of the semester students wanted to know which section of CHEM 222 I was teaching so they could make sure to stay in the sections with the videos. I told them that there may not be videos. This statement actually caused several students to beg and plead for me to continue making videos for CHEM 222. I was inundated by requests from students that were not even in my current section for me to continue the videos. I have never had students petition so strongly for anything like this (other than for a passing grade).

As part of the next iteration of the course I plan to use the quiz feature in Moodle to track student understanding of the videos/lecture material and to better link homework problems with the lectures.

Overall I think this has been a great experience for me and my students. I plan on flipping CHEM 222 and making the videos accessible to all organic chemistry students.

This is an outstanding example of the transformative possibilities for teaching and learning made possible by the smart application of technology to pedagogy. In upcoming posts we’ll present other projects embracing aspects of the flipped model, include Jennifer Johnson-Cooper‘s Beginning Chinese I (CHIN 101) and the team-taught course by John Richardson and Jim Hebda, Biochemical Metabolism (CHEM 352).