When Queens College lecturer Anisha Clarke began revamping her elementary-algebra course two years ago, she was excited to learn about WebAssign, a system that
allows professors to assign and grade homework online. “I was all for it,” she says, remembering how as a Queens
College student she had sought out textbooks that offered access to online support forums, in case she needed extra help with the material.
A hosted subscription service developed in 1997 by a team from North Carolina State University, WebAssign offers more than 600 titles from major textbook publishers in fields like mathematics, chemistry, statistics, physics, biology, and astronomy. End-of-chapter questions and other study materials are loaded into WebAssign’s digital library, along with additional online-only questions, and instructors can pick items to assemble an assignment. Once students have completed their work, they can immediately see what they got right and wrong — and even get extra problems to work on for practice.
WebAssign is just one of several online homework tools that professors have at their disposal. MyMathLab is a similar product, but only for mathematics classes using Pearson textbooks. Moodle, an open-source system developed in Australia, and Blackboard, one of the earliest online course-management systems, are typically used for online classes, but can be used to manage homework for in-person classes
as well. WebAssign is flexible enough that instructors can customize it for other purposes, such as tracking student attendance.
Instructors may be happy with WebAssign’s automated grading capabilities, but online forums such as Facebook, Reddit, and CollegeConfidential.com are full of student complaints. Some object to having to pay an extra fee — between $15 and
$60 per course, on top of the cost of the textbook — just to do their homework.
Others complain about the software’s inflexible syntax. “Sometimes a student may say, ‘Professor Clarke, I entered the correct answer but I got it wrong,’ ” Clarke says. This could be something as simple as entering “A” with the caps lock key instead of the shift key. The platform gets around this problem by letting students enter
the answer several times before closing the question, and if that still doesn’t work, encouraging them to take a screenshot
and submit it to the instructor to have their score manually changed.
Whether or not students find WebAssign effective seems to rely heavily on
how their instructors have configured the course. While WebAssign by default will show students extra practice questions, instructors can turn that off. They also
decide what kind of error message or hints to show students, as well as how many tries a student gets to solve the problem.
“I firmly believe in the reports that show that homework completion, coupled with effective feedback, is helpful for student success,” says Clarke, who is teaching 70 students this semester. WebAssign shows her how each student is doing and gives her an idea of what material the student needs help with, she says.
One thing no one seems particularly concerned about is the fact that the system doesn’t care how students arrive at the correct answer. Some instructors fret about cheating that may occur with online platforms, but Clarke doesn’t worry about that — she has WebAssign display questions with different numbers for each
student. “If students are getting together to do math — great!” Clarke says.