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Some professors assign online homework in lower level courses, such as through services like WeBWorK or WebAssign. Online homework has some clear advantages for instructors. However, in my experience, such systems receive largely negative feedback from students. Further, some instructors worry that online homework may not be as effective as paper homework.

Is there any research that indicates online homework is better or worse for students?

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Here is one study from Rutgers University that analyzes the effectiveness of WeBWorK, and there may be other useful studies or results available on this webpage and this webpage. If you are interested in learning more about the effectiveness of WeBWorK in particular, you should contact Vicki Roth at the University of Rochester.

Ultimately, the most effective homework systems, whether paper or online, get students to actually do their homework and persist until they have achieved mastery of a topic. Anecdotally, after an initial adjustment period, my students who have used WeBWorK actually appreciate that it gives them instantaneous feedback (they love seeing the green bar that says and answer is correct) and allows them as many attempts as they need to achieve mastery (before the due date and on open-ended questions, of course).

There are things that instructors can do to make online homework more effective for students. For instance, instructors should encourage students to keep a homework notebook where they write down complete answers that will be useful for studying later. Also, instructors need to choose online homework questions carefully so that they are relevant, authentic, and on-topic. Online homework questions of low quality that were assembled by someone else are often not aligned with course and do not help students learn (and produce students who are dissatisfied with online homework).

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  • $\begingroup$ I love when students come to office hours for online homework questions with only their notebook and all questions are in it. $\endgroup$ – Chris C Mar 20 '14 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ My university has adopted some of the online homework tools and they're clunky. I am not familiar with WeBWorK, but have worked with MyMathLab and Pearson's Mastering series and both are extraordinarily picky about formatting. For example, using $x^{1/2}$ instead of $\sqrt{x}$ will be counted wrong. $\endgroup$ – David G Mar 21 '14 at 0:46
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One of the reasons an online system was discontinued here for beginning math classes was that the questions had been badly selected (had little correlation with what was going on in class). Collecting a large enough (and relevant enough) corpus of questions, and organizing them, is much work. Besides, some students hired older students to do their homework for them, and (while that is also seen for paper homework) that became too pervasive. Perhaps due to the above.

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