Academic Technology Center
Teaching with Technology Collaboratory

How Online Homework Reduces the Grading Load and Improves Instructor Feedback

Associate Professor Nancy Burnham of Physics

"There are three advantages to using online homework. The first is that the automatic grading saves time and money. I can put this time into more personal contact with my students. The second is the instant feedback - I know right away which questions students did poorly or well on, what they get and don't get. I can look this up right before class and talk about the problems minutes after they are due. The third advantage is that since there is little additional "cost" for grading, I can assign more problems."

"Using myWPI to do my Physics HW online is pretty awesome. There is less paper that must be handled. Completing homework online means there is no risk in losing the assignment, which is always great. The fact that the grades are immediately available is especially nice. I always want to know how I did on an assignment... it can't get much better than seconds after. Physics homework on myWPI is a good thing."
Anthony A. Petrocchi, Class of 2009

In the Physics department, introductory Physics courses are taught in a large-lecture format. Physics I and II are typically taught in sections of 200 students, with a total of about 400 students for each class in the Fall and about 200 in the Spring. Several years ago the question that the physics department was interested in answering was "Do students have access to computers?" Now that students have access, the new question is "Is it possible to reduce the grading load in large enrollment courses?"

A few years ago, Professor Nancy Burnham was inspired by the idea to explore the use of online homework as a possible solution for reducing her grading load. She contacted the Academic Technology Center (ATC) to see if there was an existing technology available to facilitate this type of activity.

Burnham first used online homework assignments in 2002 for her Intermediate Mechanics I course (PH 2201). This course, which typically had 20 students, is much smaller than the large introductory courses and provided a good opportunity to test the feasibility of online homework with a smaller group of students.

In this first offering, Burnham used the Assessment Manager in myWPI to run the online homework assignments and created her own homework questions. Graphics for the accompanying diagrams, and some of the scientific notation were created with the assistance of the ATC. At the time, an earlier version of myWPI (Blackboard,) was used, and the Assessment Manager was less sophisticated than it is today. Therefore, a few backup mechanisms were created in case of lost assignments. The homework assignments were presented as both a printable file and as an assessment in myWPI. The students were instructed to print the homework files out, work out the problems on the printed version, and then submit their answers electronically. They were also instructed to keep their notes until the end of the term in case of any technical problems. The questions took some extra time to set up, and there were a few technical glitches, but overall, the first trial run was a success.

"There are three advantages to using online homework. The first is that the automatic grading saves time and money. I can put this time into more personal contact with my students. The second is the instant feedback - I know right away which questions students did poorly or well on, what they get and don't get. I can look this up right before class and talk about the problems minutes after they are due. The third advantage is that since there is little additional 'cost' for grading, I can assign more problems."

I know right away which questions students did poorly or well on, what they get and don't get. I can look this up right before class and talk about the problems minutes after they are due.

Before using online homework, Burnham used to assign 3-5 traditional pen-and-paper problems every two days. Her expectation was that students would spend 3-5 hours working on these problems and then submit them in a neatly written format. Now, with the computer assignments, Nancy assigns 14 questions every two days. "In general, it is a little easier because the multiple choice questions provide a 'hint'; a student will know right away if their answer is wrong when it doesn't match one of the given choices."

As the technology has improved, so has the process that Professor Burnham uses to deliver online homework. The current version of myWPI has improved features and is more reliable. Additionally, most major textbook publishers have increased their offerings and now offer several options for electronic supplements. Various faculty in Physics have also tried other third-party software products and supplements. Two of these are Mastering Physics and WebAssign.

In the Fall of 2005, Burnham will be using online homework questions from the OneKey product that is offered as a supplement to her textbook Physics for Scientists and Engineers, published by Prentice Hall. "For my computer homework assignments, I go through the book of test questions and choose the ones I want to use. Then I go the course site and access the test bank, and click on the questions I chose in myWPI and add them to the assignments. This year, I will have an assignment due every two days. Twelve are computer assignments and six will be traditional. The traditional assignments are more difficult, and each solution involves some kind of a sketch. The students also need to show their starting equation and must to solve the equation symbolically before putting in values to solve it numerically."

Using the online homework eases some of the classroom management burden, but Burnham is also realistic about her expectations of the technology: "I'd be hard-pressed to give up traditional homework completely. There are also some disadvantages to using the technology: the setup is tedious, the numerically-oriented multiple choice questions tend to focus on the answer rather than the process, and there is no partial credit. There is also a low emphasis on making sure that students have the correct units and dimensions when solving a problem, so it's important to keep tabs on this. There is some overhead, but using it seems natural to me now."

While all teaching technologies have benefits and drawbacks, Burnham will continue to use online homework assignments in her teaching. "All textbooks have some electronic option now. With the class sizes so big, and the overhead of grading traditional homework, it's hard to avoid online homework, but I haven't changed my content."

A lot of the students think it's cool that all the course information is online and in one spot - like myWPI.

Professor Burnham has also been adding to her course materials in myWPI. "A lot of the students think it's cool that all the course information is online and in one spot - like myWPI. I link to my syllabus, and I like to keep the menu nice and simple, I don't want the students overwhelmed with things they don't need." In Fall 2005, Burnham will be adding the online gradebook and her teaching assistants will be posting the traditional homework grades to myWPI. "If I teach this course again, I would like to re-use this years' site and change the homework questions. I would like to keep a record of my sites for the next few years."

"Someday we will have more technology in our Physics labs. There are also technologies available such as 'physlets' (java applets) and animations. Using online homework did not make me use more technology, but I'm more open to it now."

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Last modified: Feb 06, 2008, 09:53 EST
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