Is it just change, or is it improvement?
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