The University of Texas at Austin- What Starts Here Changes the World
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Point. Click. Learn.: Teachers and 
students around the world connect to university's Homework Service

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 and computer sciences junior Pallav Barah
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 Internet-based 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 time-consuming 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.

different, the same

different, different

the same, different

the same, the same

   View Explanation

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 3-dimensional view of a rectangular object made of 1-inch cubes.

Rectangular object made of 1-inch 
cubes: problem

What is the volume of this rectangular object? Answer in units of in3.

360 in3

240 in3

136 in3

280 in3

   View Explanation

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 on-the-spot 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 algorithm-based 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/s2

Senior quarterback Hymie Vincible charges out from the half-time 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?

Answer in units of slug · ft/s.

-67.9062 slug · ft/s

-26.8048 slug · ft/s

-39.9532 slug · ft/s

-47.9062 slug · ft/s

   View Explanation

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 well-edited 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 paper-strewn 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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  Updated 2014 October 13
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