Living in a digital age, it’s hard to imagine not being able to do something on your laptop, tablet or phone. So what happens when the discipline you teach still relies on pen and paper for assessing students? In true UCF fashion, you find a better way.

“I saw so many other disciplines turning to technology for assessments and thought ‘how can this be done for engineering,’” asked Ronald DeMara, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Engineering isn’t something that maps well to online assessment. We’re asking our students to show us how they arrived at an answer, and that’s not something you can readily see through multiple choice alone.”

DeMara’s curiosity led him to develop an integrated testing and tutoring center that’s setting the standard for computer engineering and computer science at UCF and soon could be expanded to other STEM fields across the university.

It’s also what led DeMara to be named the Fall 2017 winner of the Marchioli Collective Impact Innovation Award for advancing teaching and learning in UCF’s Collective Impact Strategic Plan.

In DeMara’s Evaluation and Proficiency Center (EPC), students take their tests through familiar online web portals but upload scratch paper to show how they’ve solved each design problem. Then, they work individually with faculty or graduate teaching assistants to understand what they got wrong and how to improve it. Faculty also can identify patterns from the digitized responses they would have otherwise missed using hand-graded assignments.

“Countless hours used to go into creating assessments, and then grading each assessment by hand,” DeMara said. “It was extremely labor intensive and took time away from the other areas of our job that really affect change and advance learning. Creating the EPC has realigned efforts toward high-gain learning.”

The hours that were previously dedicated to creating and hand-grading assessments are now allocated to tutoring – a win, win for both students and faculty, he adds.

Originally a pilot program in DeMara’s undergraduate electrical engineering class, the EPC is now a 120-seat, college-wide teaching facility that has benefited thousands of students and assists more than 20 faculty members. A new Quality Enhancement Plan grant will help train more faculty in other STEM fields.

Early studies show the EPC’s success. Summative scores are up 6.3 percent when students are engaged in the EPC, and at least one electrical engineering course reduced withdrawals by 25 percent.

Nearly 80 percent of students said the EPC provided a more personalized learning experience, and 90 percent of students agreed the EPC’s methods helped them learn better than conventional homework alone.

“The EPC bolsters UCF’s position to remain at the forefront of instructional technology for high-quality, individualized student experiences in high-enrollment courses,” said Chuck Reilly, associate dean in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “Ron is leveraging his background in computer engineering for the good of our students and faculty by maximizing the use of technology to enhance learning.”

DeMara will be holding a seminar series this spring on scaling online assessment and tutoring across other disciplines, with days and times to be announced.

Nominations for the Spring 2018 Marchioli Collective Impact Innovation Award are due March 9. This award goes to one faculty or staff member each fall and spring semester through 2019 for their innovative initiatives, programs or projects that demonstrate measurable outcomes related to at least one priority metric from the Collective Impact Strategic Plan and can be scaled across the university.