Thursday, March 02, 2017

Online Homework Assignment - Are They Effective?

I read this news with a bit of interest. It appears that a student at Brooklyn College is gathering petition signatures to end the use of something called "Expert TA". This sounds like an online HW assignment that has been used by the physics department at that school.

Each homework assignment has about 15 to 20 questions, but each question has multiple parts. The number of questions, attempts, and credit reductions for wrong answers is dependent on the instructor. The instructor has the option to deduct points when a student accesses hints, and feedbacks. Expert TA consists of two types of feedback: Direct and Socratic. Direct feedback let’s a student know exactly what they did wrong, while a Socratic feedback poses a question such as “Have you considered the following?” Though this may sound quite useful, students feel otherwise.

It would be a bit more informative, and more persuasive, if a specific example on how this online tool is ineffective. For example, the best complaint that I can read from the report said this:

“The problem doesn’t lie in the concepts,” said Manasherov. “It’s more like how can we navigate this website and give the right answer—the right answer meaning what the website is looking for.”
“The hints aren’t always helpful and the feedback isn’t always clear either,” said sophomore Melissa Beagle. “And they only give you a limited number of tries, which doesn’t really help.”

There types of comments are not really that informative. It is similar to you telling your doctor "I just don't feel right" without giving any specific description of what is wrong.

I have a bit of experience in dealing with such online HW assignment. I've written about it in an earlier blog post on here. In fact, I will also add that I actually worked though the online HW assignment that my students would be facing, and I can see and experience what they will have to go through. I can see good points and bad points about it. But as I've said in that earlier blog post, the biggest issue I have about online anything is the question on whether the student doing it had any external help. But that is an issue that would be present in the traditional, written HW assignment as well since the student can easily copy or had help in completing the assignment. Except for one major difference.

You see, traditional written HW assignment requires that the student show work in arriving at an answer. You normally do not see that with online assignment. From what I can gather when chatting with students, all they care about is getting the right answer to type into those answer boxes. Often time, their "work" in deriving the answer is either done haphazardly, or not as complete and clear as one that would be required in a written HW assignment that is being submitted for grading. So in some instances, these students really could not recall what they did right and what they did wrong.

I'm still divided on my opinion regarding this type of HW assignment. I see some value in it. It certainly makes the job of an instructor a bit easier. But I also see how this can make the student being lazy to really learn what is needed in solving a particular problem.

If you have gone through such online HW assignment, or if you're an instructor whose course use such a thing, I'd like to hear from you.


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