UW Tool Gives a Boost to Class Reading Assignments

By Vanessa Eisch
November 16, 2012

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Like many professors, Jan Miernowski of the French & Italian department used to struggle with students not completing assigned readings. "My class is very dialogic," he says. “If the students have not done the reading, there is nothing to do. We might as well all go home." Thanks to an innovative tool, the Case Scenario/Critical Reader Builder (CSCR), Miernowski now has a solution that not only compels students to complete the assigned readings online, but also provides them with a rich, interactive learning experience.

CSCR is an authoring tool that was developed as part of the Engage Innovation Engaging to Learn: Simulation & Games Award (format based on our style sheet) in conjunction with Brad Hughes, Director of the UW-Madison Writing Center and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum. It is a desktop application that gives instructors a framework to build complex learning environments where students can practice case- or problem-based learning using higher order critical thinking skills.


Miernowski uses the tool to present an online text to the class while integrating other media including audio files, web links, translations, and interactive quizzes with feedback. Students who answer incorrectly are immediately directed back to particular points in the text to review more closely. The quiz scores are then automatically reported back to Miernowski, who can rest assured that his students are coming to class prepared, ready to further discuss material.

"This is very much an example of educational innovation and blended learning," says Blaire Bundy who, along with Les Howles, is a co-designer of the tool. Students go through the interactive online assignments outside of class and then come to class ready to discuss. Additionally, the tool itself can blend multiple types of content, as appropriate to the subject. Professors have great flexibility in using the tool to meet their own teaching goals.

' iPad Critical reading is only one component of CSCR; instructors also use it to build interactive situation-based learning that simulates scenarios that students will encounter in their professions. For example, the Department of Audiology built a scenario that walks students through the experience of a voice clinic, asking them to diagnose and recommend treatment for a patient. The users click through various tabs to gather more information and move through the procedure. An embedded audio recording simulates a voice test and images simulate a real exam. When finished, students write a sample report, submit it to their instructor, and then move to a conclusion page with a summary and link to a discussion group.

Students have given positive feedback on the CSCR. For instance, in Jeri Barak’s Global Food Security Class, students said that learning via the simulation was more interesting and effective than reading the text alone or hearing a guest lecture about the material. Through a partnership between the Engage Program and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences International Program, Barak created a simulation where students act as interns to the Minister of Ethiopia and are charged with evaluating land-use proposals. Barak said the tool helps student wade through a complex issue with many perspectives to consider and determine “how [to] make an educated design when there is no one right answer.” After going through the simulation, students prepare a recommendation and come to class ready to defend it.

iPad One interesting insight Barak found was that students who learned through simulation were more likely to talk about the class material outside of class with peers. One of the goals of the class is to give students a global perspective on issues, so this engagement outside of the classroom is a good sign that they are meeting the goal.

Another unique feature of the tool is branching, which allows instructors to create different consequences for choices that students make. For example, a journalism professor creates a hypothetical crime scene for her aspiring reporters. The investigating students have to make choices on whom to question, how to cite their sources, and how to navigate ethical dilemmas that arise. Each choice has consequences and if students make a bad choice, they cannot change it: they must complete the exercise as is, before going back to try a different choice.

iPad Such student engagement and deeper learning are at the core of what Engage aims to help create through the Innovation Awards. Engage is a highly exploratory faculty award program that brings together collaborative, multidisciplinary teams to creative innovative solutions to teaching and learning challenges identified by the faculty awardees. Awardees may have an idea of what type of tool or solution they would like to develop, but the idea becomes more robust as they work with the other instructors, pedagogical experts, technologists on their team, and in the award community. CSCR took 16-24 months for such a team to take it from an idea to development, with several rounds of prototyping, iterative design, and gathering student and faculty feedback.

The CSCR tool is now being piloted campus-wide in departments such as Journalism, French & Italian, Pharmacy, Occupational Therapy, Medical School, History, and Communication Disorders. About 40 professors at UW-Madison are using it in addition to several around the nation and internationally.

In addition to building the tool, the team has created a corresponding methodology that guides instructors through the process of moving their course content into this blended type of learning. This allows instructors to leverage the pedagogical skills and work done by awardees of the Engage program.

The CSCR technology is just one of many innovations for teaching that have come out of Engage awards and is a great example of how innovation that addresses a critical teaching need can spread campus wide to benefit the entire University.

Please see the Engage website for more information about how to get started with CSCR, including examples, tutorials, videos and support resources.