FEd Fall 2002 Newsletter - Is it just change, or is it improvement?

Fall 2002



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Is it just change, or is it improvement?

Karen Cummings

I have come to the conclusion that most human beings (myself included) just do not like change. I think this generally present aversion is rooted in the fact that we usually have our professional and personal lives running fairly smoothly and efficiently. Change means that time and effort must be spent in adjusting to whatever is new. At least that is why I get mad every time Microsoft brings out a new version of Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Windows. I already know how to use the old versions very efficiently. And, they do everything that I need them to do. Why should I take all the time and energy required to become comfortable using a new version of Word?

I think another example of the general, and well founded, human aversion to change is many educator's response to computer based systems for homework assignment, grading and recording of grades. There are several systems already in wide spread use. Larry Martin, through North Carolina State University, developed WebAssign. CAPA (Computer Assisted Personalize Assignment) is a Michigan State University project. The Homework System by C. Fred Moore is centered at the University of Texas at Austin and John Wiley and Sons Publishing is bringing out a program called E-Grade.

All of these systems are basically computer software packages that focus on homework and exam processing. All of these systems allow the assignment and submission of a wide range of types of problems including essays and numerical problems. None of them can automatically grade an essay. None of them is very good at assessing the method or process by which students arrive at a right or wrong answer to a numerical problem. They do not give partial credit. However, they all allow for numerical problems with randomly assigned values for the variables so that students can be assigned the same problem, but a random number generator ensures that they get different numerical solutions.

Although I have already admitted to you that I do not like change, I must say that I started using such systems years ago. I did so not because I am a lazy educator, or even because I am infatuated with technology (although I think that I may be). Rather, I started using these systems because I was unsatisfied with the process by which homework is typically completed and graded in introductory science courses.

Perhaps the most common approach to homework in an introductory course is to assign the entire class several problems from the textbook. The students then write out solutions to the problems and graduate student teaching assistants or faculty members grade the written responses. Many of us know this approach well. It is the one we use and/or the one that was used with us. At some institutions, homework in introductory courses is assigned but not graded at all.

I believe that are significant problems with all of these approaches to assigning and grading homework. For example, students can submit work which is entirely someone else's. It is also very hard for instructors to customize problems to take into account the level of their student's preparation or write new problems for their class. Perhaps most significantly though, students do not get enough meaningful and timely feedback on their work. Graduate students and faculty members are busy people. So, despite our best intentions, homework is often not graded very promptly and/or with little more than a cursory check for completeness and correct answers. Largely because I believe that immediate feedback is critically important to the learning process, I decided to try using the computer based homework systems discussed above.

My first experience with computer based homework systems was as an instructor in the large introductory physics courses at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Within days of starting to use the new system, there were outcries from students. Some called me too lazy to grade. Others said that I was a technology zealot. Both of these groups of students said that they hated doing homework on the computer. But, despite the complaints, I persevered. At the end of the term, I tried to more accurately assess the extent of unhappiness. I remember how I braced myself as I processed responses to an end of the semester survey but in the end was mildly shocked by the outcome. Seventy percent of the students either strongly agreed or agreed with a statement indicating that they liked doing homework on the computer. Another ten percent of the students were neutral. Only twenty percent of the class did not like using the system, and more than half of those students were fairly mild in their reluctance.

This fall, I started my first tenure-track appointment as an Associate Professor of Physics at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut. In terms of their level of preparation and their comfort with technology, the students at Southern Connecticut are very different from the students at Rensselaer. Upon my arrival at this very different institution, I decided to again try using a computer based homework system in my introductory classes. I was again somewhat surprised to find that the vast majority of the students really like using the system. My students at both institutions indicated that they like knowing when their answer is wrong while they still have a chance to fix it and that this feedback often motivates them to continue to work on a problem until they get it right.

However, I do not assign homework for the students' enjoyment. I assign homework in the hope that students will learn physics as a result of doing it. Do students learn more doing homework this way? I can't say for sure. What I do know is that on end of the semester surveys the majority of students in my classes report that they feel that they learned more doing homework on the computer than they would have using the standard process of homework submission and grading. I also know that careful studies by the developers of the systems at North Carolina State and Michigan indicate that levels of learning with computer based homework are equivalent or higher to those in classes where the homework was done on paper.

There are differences between the ways in which I used a computer based homework system with the several hundred students in Rensselaer's introductory physics courses and the way I use it with my 50 or so students at Southern Connecticut. The smaller number of students in my class at Southern Connecticut means that I can require that students keep a “homework notebook” in which they record their work, in addition to submitting answers on the computer. These notebooks are periodically reviewed. This approach provides an attractive combination of immediate feedback on correctness via the computer, and partial credit and process review through the instructor. Another added benefit of the computer based homework system to the Southern Connecticut students is that the ease with which the instructor can write and assign problems that are not in the textbook means that the system can be used to refresh the student's mathematical skills without using class time. I have written several series of progressively more difficult questions which guide students through a self-review of the mathematics required in the course. This seems to be a big help to many of my current students.

Computer based homework systems facilitate the distribution of personalized homework problems, provide the immediate feedback to students that is so important for motivation and learning and provide real time (or “just in time”) data to instructors on the status of individuals and the class which allows dynamic, student-centered approaches to learning. For these reasons, I have stopped asking myself if I should use a computer based homework system and started thinking about how I best use the system to improve student learning and maximize student comfort with technology. Sometimes change really is worth the effort because it isn't just change, it is improvement.

So why should I take all the time and energy required to become comfortable using the new version of Microsoft Word?

Karen Cummings is Associate Professor of Physics at Southern Connecticut State University. Cummingsk2@southernct.edu