After 25 years of tackling endless mounds of student
homework assignments, University of Texas at Austin Physics Professor
C. Fred Moore knew something wasn’t working. He and his
teaching assistants were overwhelmed with the task of grading.
Students were putting minimal effort into their homework. And the
relationship between homework and student performance was hard to
determine. There had to be a better way.

Professor C. Fred Moore works with Pallav Barah, a computer sciences junior, to update homework problems for the university's Homework Service.

In
1991 Moore found it. He teamed up with programmer Herbert Ward to
create the UT Homework Service. This Internetbased service allows
teachers to create custom homework assignments that students then
access online and complete on their own time. Grades are
instantaneously recorded.
Today it isn’t just Moore and his colleagues in the
Physics Department who are relieved of the timeconsuming task of
grading homework. It’s Jeff Dilks at Ames High School in Ames,
Iowa. It’s John Riley at the University of South Carolina
Spartanburg. It’s Sally Craig at Dullus High School in
Sugar Land, Texas, and Michael Cherry at Louisiana State University.
In fact, teachers and professors from Indonesia to El Paso use the
Homework Service to shape student assignments and aid learning.
“Anything that frees up my time makes me a better
teacher,” says D.K. Philbin, who teaches chemistry at Allan
Hancock College in California. Philbin instituted the Homework
Service for his classes four semesters ago, and he admits, “I
tell anybody I can about it.”
Try a Chemistry Problem
Suppose the mass and weight of 1 liter of iron were
measured on the earth and on the moon.
The mass would be
? in the two places and
the weight would be ? in
the two places.




Using the Homework Service, Philbin feels less like a
highly educated grading machine and more like an educator. He is
able to be more creative in his lesson plans and he can spend more
time with students.
The savings in time is only one aspect of what makes the
Homework Service such a remarkable tool for teachers. The Homework
Service puts homework back in the hands of the students. After a
teacher creates an assignment, students log in to the service with
individual user names, download the problems and print them. The
process takes less than three minutes. They then work the problems
and log in again to input their answers. They learn immediately if
they answered correctly.
Mike McGlone at Flower Mound High School in Flower Mound,
Texas, explains how this approach returns homework to its original
intent.
“The purpose of homework,” he says, “is
analogous to practicing for a football game, piano recital or any
activity that requires practice and repetition to be proficient at
the task. The purpose for grading homework is to give students
feedback on their progress to mastering the material. The biggest
advantage I have by using the service is to give students what they
need in a timely fashion.”
Try a Math Problem
The drawing below shows a 3dimensional view of a
rectangular object made of 1inch cubes.
What is the volume of this rectangular object? Answer in
units of in^{3}.




Students not only know immediately if the answer they
inputted is correct, they have additional chances to find the correct
answer if needed. They are likely to spend more time working the
problem when they have onthespot feedback. After the due date for
the homework has passed, they can access solutions to the
problems.
Although students are working independently, many
instructors report increased interaction with students since
implementing the Homework Service. Moore agrees that this has been
his experience.
“Fifteen years ago when I taught a class of 150
students,” he says, “I might end up knowing five students.
The Homework Service changes that dramatically.”
Students are more likely to turn in problems early to find
out if they got them right or wrong. Then if they need help, they
seek it out.
Moore jokes, “Sometimes I have to run away to get
away from the students!” He goes on to say, “You get to
know students when they come in and they want to know how to work a
problem. When you have homework graded by hand and hand it back a
week or two later, they don’t care about it. They don’t
look at it.”
The payoff is measurable. Riley is one of many
instructors who has discovered that his students have a better
comprehension of the material when approaching homework in this way.
Since instituting the Homework Service three years ago, his students
have realized a two to five percentage point increase in their final
averages.
The Homework Service is unique from other online services
in that when students download their homework, they receive their own
individual version of the problems. The Homework Service delivers
unique algorithmbased problems that allow each student to receive a
problem different from the version given to other students. This
discourages copying.
Try a Physics Problem
Given: 1 lb = 1 slug · ft/s^{2}
Senior quarterback Hymie Vincible charges out from the
halftime locker room talk, through a sign welcoming the team back to
the field. Unknown to him, opposing cheerleaders have substituted a
thin plywood sheet for the original paper one, so Hymie is slowed as
he breaks through it.
If Hymie weighs 210 lbs and slows from 14 ft/s to 6.7
ft/s, what impulse did he receive?




In
fact, McGlone finds a new benefit to students turning to each other
for help. Because the problems are different, a student has to
explain what he or she did to solve it. Instead of scribbling down a
number, a student is articulating a process. Everyone learns
more.
The Homework Service contains a bank of more than 22,000
problems in physics, math, physical science and chemistry. From the
beginning, the focus has been on offering the highest quality
problems possible. Teachers repeatedly express frustration with the
problems offered in many textbooks and on standardized tests because
they are not welledited and may confuse or mislead students. In
turn, many organizations pay a lot of money to have “rich
problems” developed.
The Homework Service lets the teachers edit the problems.
The Homework Service is a live database, enabling those who use the
problems to update them. Any problem that is less than excellent
ends up receiving feedback and revision, and the problem bank is
being constantly developed and improved. The teachers who use the
service are integrally involved with the service.
From the beginning, the Homework Service has been
available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Teachers can plan assignments at their convenience, and students can access them on
their own time. And to this day it is available entirely free of
charge.
But the Homework Service has come a long way since Moore conceived it at his
paperstrewn desk in the Physics Department. It’s become an
international collaborative effort. It may live at the university,
but as Moore says, it is actually “a conglomeration of people
working on it all over the world. There are teachers who edit
problems and on top of that there are many, many teachers who give us
constant feedback on exactly how to improve a given problem.”
With an extensive bank of problems to choose from, a
substantial reduction in teacher paperwork and the possibility of
offering unique problems to individual students, it’s hard to
imagine why a teacher wouldn’t use the Homework Service. The
Texas Education Agency (TEA) seems to agree.
When the Texas State Legislature passed a bill in 2001
requiring the TEA to adopt a service to assist teachers in providing
and grading mathematical homework assignments, the TEA turned to the
Homework Service. The service was adapted to include 800 new
problems in mathematics for students in grades five through eight.
The Homework Service is used in more than 1,500 classrooms
from Houston to Finland, from elementary school to graduate level,
and its use is growing. Still, Moore is humble about what he helped
to create. He says the Homework Service is simply a tool: “All
it does is use the resources of the Internet in an optimum way.”
Philbin takes it further. He sees the way The University of Texas at Austin has
freely shared the Homework Service as “the purest form of
academia: the sharing of ideas, the sharing of knowledge.”
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