# Students learn less on online homework

New wave of online homework focuses too much on the answer instead of the solution

March 27, 2019

Google Chrome tabs of WebAssign’s “Practice Another Version,” tabs of Yahoo Answers and screenshots of other students’ answers litter the typical student’s desktop after completing a math or science online homework, while their single piece of graph paper lies unmarked. Students often rely on online help and shortcuts to complete online homework assignments, focusing more on finding the right answers and getting another 100 in the grade book than doing the work and learning the material.

The math department largely use online homework programs like MyMathLab and WebAssign instead of paper problems for homework. The questions are created by the textbook and released to the students via the teacher. The homework is typically graded for accuracy and students normally have three to five attempts to submit the correct answer and receive full credit. The numbers in most of the questions are individualized to prevent cheating, while the actual question remains the same. These grades often go straight into the grade book without teacher review and are the main homework grade in the class.

“The benefit of using these programs is that if you get a question wrong, you can go back, get hints, watch videos or get a similar type of problem,” Math Department Chair Donald Worcester said. “On paper homework, you do it, you check the back of the book, and you are kind of done for the night. There is more follow-through on completing the assignment. The help is there.”

And while Worcester does state some convincing benefits of using these programs, there are many equally weighted drawbacks in the system of online-graded homework. Online-graded homework encourages cheating and playing the system, emphasizes the answer and not the process, adds frustration to the homework process and is often not reflective of in-class rigor.

Cheating is simply too easy on these assignments. As Worcester said, WebAssign offers features like “Practice Another Version” or “Watch It” which allow students extra help to complete the homework. However, students abuse this system and can often find the answer to their question by copying the format of the answer to the “Practice Another Version” question. This leads to students continuously clicking the “Practice Another Version” button but not actually doing the work.

“Cheating on online homework is the same as on paper homework,” Worcester said. “You can use any of the online tutorials or answer websites to do the problem for you. With paper and online, the same cheating is available.”

Yes, students can cheat on both paper and online homework; however, the type of cheating is different and the most important thing to focus on. On online homework, students only need to submit the correct answer to get full credit. On paper, the answer isn’t the be-all-end-all, and students need to submit and show work for credit. These two vastly different grading standards — answers versus work — lead to two different types of cheating.

With online homework, students use tools like “Practice Another Version” to find the answers, while on paper homework, students use sites like Slader to find the solutions.

This is a very important distinction. If students will cheat regardless of the homework platform, it is best to have the focus on the solution. Students cheating on paper homework still need to write down the solution to the question, which gives more comprehension than filling in random numbers. While not optimal, paper homework is the best guard against the worst cheating, as students will at least have to write the solutions out.

This still matters when students don’t cheat. On WebAssign, there is no incentive for a student to write out all of his or her steps. They only write down the bare essentials, which would not receive full credit on a test or quiz. However, on paper, students are incentivized to focus on the process and the work, something they have to do on assessments.

Furthermore, online homework adds frustration to the homework process. Students who want to learn and practice from the homework may work out an entire question — only to find their answer is incorrect with no further explanation. Students must then labor to determine for themselves whether or not they have made a major error, like applying the wrong concept, or a minor error, like dropping a minus sign. Spending time on finding a menial mistake is a less effective use of time than solving another problem — students know how to add, but they might need more practice solving differential equations. This waste of time leads to frustration and incentivizes students to use the online shortcuts to find the answer. In comparison, on paper, one would be able to finish their homework and learn they made a simple arithmetic error later.

And since teachers don’t handpick the questions, there is often a gap between the rigor in the homework and the rigor expected in class. There are questions given that are simply impossible given in-class knowledge. With a gap between teacher expectations and the homework, there is little reason to study or do the homework. Studying notes is a better use of time.

Homework comes down to simple incentives. Students are more incentivized to do the homework when it is on paper and less when it is online.

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