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When I was a student in college (very recently), my college had implemented a program called WebWork to give immediate feedback on homework problems. Other systems like MyMathLab exist as well.

Distinguishing features of such a system tend to include:

  • Online
  • Provides immediate feedback on whether or not an answer is right or wrong
  • Is able to create a similar problem with different numbers for different students (preventing copying answers)
  • Can provide multiple attempts to try the same problem or variants of the same problem
  • Can create clear cut deadlines for assignments
  • Does not generally give a lot of "process" feedback so much as "answer" feedback.
  • Can require a number, drop down, multiple choice answer (large variety)
  • Hopefully customizable (WebWork is, don't know about MyMathLab). (e.g. in Webwork you can use flash applets and have students draw a graph on the screen)

I am contemplating trying to implement WebWork at my high school once we go one-to-one with devices. However, I want to foresee any possible pitfalls AND have research to back up my proposal.

Are you currently aware of any educational research supporting systems such as this in the math learning environment? Do you have experience with using these systems as an educator? If so, how well do you see a system such as this working in a high school environment, where it is also difficult to provide timely feedback to students? What pitfalls have you found with this approach, and what benefits?

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    $\begingroup$ It's great to hear that you're thinking of using WebWork rather than MyMathLab. The pricing of MyMathLab is totally exploitative. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Jan 22 '16 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ I also appreciate the flexibility of Webwork more. I could create my own script to handle geometry proofs if I so desired...... (I don't know how much I want to do that though). I've seen incredible things done. $\endgroup$ – Opal E Jan 22 '16 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ At my university we make use of both MyMathLab and WeBWorK. In addition to price as Ben Crowell mentions, another big advantage of WeBWorK is that you do not need Adobe Flash to use it. This means that students can do their assignments on their i-phones. When I walk around campus these days in places like the cafeteria or in the hallways, I am startled to see students working WeBWorK problems on their smart phones. $\endgroup$ – user52817 Jan 26 '16 at 20:33
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Some of these links are old but I don't think WebWork has changed that much:

  • research at Rutgers about their calculus courses
  • this post has useful summaries and description of various aspects of WebWork
  • the bibliography at the bottom of this page has a number of references for its effectiveness.
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I only have anecdotal experience, but perhaps it will be useful. I've used MyMathLab a number of times in introductory college calculus classes, and generally been happy with the results, but there are some definite caveats.

The thing that I find works really well, and that keeps me coming back to it, is the ability to give students quick feedback and then let them try again, and repeat until they get it right. MyMathLab also (for many problems) will help them by breaking the problem into steps, walking them through the steps, and then generating a similar problem for them to try again with.

That said, some issues to watch out for:

  • These programs work best for very algorithmic problems. Even when the software nominally contains harder problems, the benefits go away (it can't generate multiple versions as well or at all, it can't walk them through it, the feedback is less meaningful). The standard solution is to have some problems be done online and harder ones done by hand. This always sounded great to me: it's easier for the students to drill the basic stuff, and it emphasizes that conceptual problems should be approached differently because they're literally being done in a different format. I've never quite made that work in practice: my students often seem to be surprised that the "written homework" is harder than the "online homework", and if anything it amplifies their frustration that the written homework is actually hard.

  • These programs always seem to be a bit glitchy (my students probably uncover 1-2 actual errors in MML problems every semester, which suggests that there must be a lot there), and students have very low frustration tolerance for computer errors grading their problems. There are some things you can do to mitigate this: at least with MML, it's pretty easy to go in and check what a student wrote and change their grade, so I always tell them repeatedly that I'll fix any computer errors for them. Also, you can turn up error tolerance (nothing seems to piss students off more than being told that the answer is 12.213, not 12.21, when the problem didn't even say how many significant figures to include). Finally, I've found that MML isn't very responsive to students, but is really, really responsive to faculty. (They know who their real clients are...) So putting in some time being an intermediary to the company smooths that over (at the cost of time).

  • If you let students try problems repeatedly, the problems generated have patterns, and they'll sometimes hack the patterns rather than actually solving the problem. I got better results by splitting the problems into a homework and something I called a "quiz", where the quiz allowed only a few retries and most of the help was turned off (but was the same basic problems they'd just practiced on the homework).

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  • $\begingroup$ I only mentioned MyMathLab as an acknowledgement of its existence -- I have experience with Webwork as well and have found it's much less glitchy & has more opportunity for less formulaic problems. $\endgroup$ – Opal E Jan 21 '16 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ @OpalE This answer seems pretty helpful (informative at the very least), mirroring my own experience and more with MML. Your response seems a little lukewarm, though. Is this answer not the sort of thing you're looking for? $\endgroup$ – pjs36 Jan 22 '16 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, no! This answer is indeed helpful. Sorry for the lukewarm comment. I merely wanted to emphasize that some of the negatives of MML mentioned are less so with Webwork (if it's managed well). I definitely remember that we did all levels of problems, formulaic and non-formulaic, on WebWork, however there was less "generate a new problem and try again" happening. $\endgroup$ – Opal E Jan 22 '16 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ OK, just making sure, as I couldn't tell! (I was just going to try to get more info on your intentions, if that was the case) $\endgroup$ – pjs36 Jan 23 '16 at 2:56
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I likewise have mainly anecdotal experience to offer, having used 3 different online homework systems in the last 3 years, including Khan Academy, WebAssign, and WileyPlus. Here are the top 3 issues I think about relating to online homework:

Hidden Costs. Online homework can be costly. WileyPlus costs $80 per student per semester. Since I'm at a university, we externalize the cost to students, which is difficult for some students and some cases causes students to dislike the program from the start. A few years ago I tried using (free) Khan Academy with my high school students, but that project was sunk as soon as I realized (a) many of my students did not have internet at home and (b) the school internet wasn't fast enough.

Student Perseverance. Nobody likes change, especially when it involves moving to an online homework system that is at best picky and at worst glitchy. But in my experience, students adapt to the quirks of an online homework system. In some cases my students have developed a war mindset, working to defeat their tricky online homework. To reward perseverance we usually allow 15 to infinitely many guesses per problem. I suppose this leads to random guessing sometimes, but I doubt such problems are much worse than the problems that arise when doing homework another way.

Teacher Perseverance. This research on Khan Academy describes teachers' responses to online homework. While noting problems such as curriculum alignment, teachers like Khan Academy for its ability to engage students and provide instant feedback. In my experience, online homework has helped me to efficiently assess my students on a day-to-day basis so that I can put more effort into the most important things like planning engaging lessons, promoting problem solving, and preparing students for exams.

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