With growing interest among STEM faculty in the “flipped classroom” model for course delivery, there is a great need for case studies examining the impact of this practice on student learning goals and success rates, as well as instructor preparation time–and how “flipping” changes what happens in the face-to-face classroom environment. Dr. Hoa Nguyen (Mathematics, Trinity University) and her colleague Dr. Roberto Hasfura http://www.trinity.edu/jhasfura/ (Mathematics, Trinity University) are exploring precisely this question as they implement a software called WebAssign in their introductory calculus classes. So far, their finding suggest that the online homework assignments and web-based grading applications supported by WebAssign are creating a more effective learning experience for students and helping instructors–and the graders who assist them–to use their time in more efficient and targeted ways.
In her initial experiment, which was supported by an ACS Blended Learning Grant, Nguyen created a series of online homework assignments based on the electronic version of the textbook students used for class. Each problem was accompanied by study tools, including a “read it” function that allowed students to jump directly to relevant material from the textbook and a “watch it” function that allowed them to see a similar problem being solved step-by-step. Student performance was then automatically graded, providing instant feedback for students and a record of student performance for Dr. Nguyen–allowing her to tailor the next class meeting to addressing the particular types of problems with which students particularly struggled. Another significant benefit fell to the student graders who typically support such classes. With simpler problems graded by WebAssign, student graders were freed up to evaluate the students’ responses to more complex problems–a task which requires a close eye to the problem solver’s logic and decision-making. The additional time also allowed graders to make more extensive and helpful comments on students’ work. Student showed such improvement under the new WebAssign regimen that Nguyen’s colleague, Roberto Hasfura, decided to try the technology in some of his classes, too.
Another important feature of WebAssign is the Gradebook, which records student performance automatically and allows instructors to identify trends across assignments and even semesters. Gradebooks are exportable, so even if an instructor decides not to continue WebAssign service, information from previous courses can be easily archived.
WebAssign does have its drawbacks, as Nguyen and Hasfura noted. WebAssign works as a subscription service, so each student must purchase a WebAssign account for the semester; however, provided that the students have a device with which to access their WebAssign account and corresponding ebook, the cost is still smaller than that of the printed textbook. Hasfura noted that there is the opportunity for academic dishonesty both in online homework and online exams. But cheating can be detected by giving students an in-class quiz containing problems similar to those they completed for homework, and even prevented by arranging for exams to be taken together in a supervised computer lab setting. Another important issue is internet connectivity; even though WebAssign’s customer service program can typically address any technical problems a student might have in using the software, WebAssign assignments cannot be completed if internet access is down or restricted. Even so, Nguyen and Hasfura have found this service to be worth the investment. As both noted, the questions students now bring to office hours are typically far more precise–reviewing a step in the process of solving a particular problem, rather than asking for a demonstration of the overall process.
To read more about Nguyen’s experiment, which compared student performance in conventional calculus classes versus those which used WebAssign, see the final report for her project. You may also view the slides from her webinar presentation here: Presentation_for_ACS_webinar_Fri_Mar_21_updated.