‘Take the credit and run’ for weekly assignments

When all else fails, take the credit and run.

Case in point: In classes with weekly assignments, students like to procrastinate on completing their work until the day before the assignment is due. In the following six days they forget everything they did. To combat this last semester, I spread out the weekly big assignment into multiple smaller ones due on various days; and to prevent my students from using an inordinate amount of paper and myself from using an inordinate amount of grading time, I gave the assignments through the online system WebAssign.

But, surprisingly, the number one comment students made about this system was not on the amount of work it required (although there were plenty of those). Instead, many students praised how the system would immediately alert them to whether they had gotten an answer correct or not and give them more attempts to find the right solution. Instead of waiting, often over a weekend, to know if a written assignment had been done correctly, they got instantaneous feedback on their work.

Ahem, yes, exactly what I had planned all along.

(Remember: Take credit. Run.)

Giving feedback to students, after all, is hard. Very hard.

OK, that’s not entirely true. Teachers give feedback all the time, most often in the form of grades, but many students are too invested in their grade to interpret that feedback correctly.

So having multiple students thank me for the incidental and effortless feedback WebAssign gave them … it’s enough to make a guy want to shout “Eureka!” and go streaking through town.


Better still, the students were glad to have feedback where the feedback counts. Students typically clamor for their tests back as soon as possible, but tests are mainly evaluation tools for teachers: They tell students how well they learned the material. Learned. Past tense.

A student who took a test and missed an important chunk of it often doesn’t have a second opportunity to make up that aspect of their grade. Homework should serve in that role: make a mistake on homework, get corrected, don’t make the same mistake on the evaluations. And yet, while students want tests back quickly, they often don’t care when their homework fails to return to them after several days.

The immediate feedback offered by WebAssign best resembles the assistance instructors can offer during office hours. The computer systems behind WebAssign can offer little more than a correct/incorrect label, while in-person instructors can offer more detailed responses. WebAssign leaves it to a student to determine where and what went wrong, while instructors may get overzealous in pointing out exactly what the student did horribly and completely wrong.

WebAssign does have one extra advantage: being available to students more than just an hour or two a week.

As good as this immediate feedback can be, it does come at a cost. When answers are already provided and students simply need to adjust their work until they see how to reach the answer, students lose the ability determine for themselves if their answers are reasonable.

When a student is first learning a new method or technique, immediate feedback can be invaluable to stamp out common errors when they first occur, but in the long run, students must be pushed to the point of needing to develop confidence in their own answers.

And to all you teachers who have avoided any system that gives immediate feedback and happily noticed your students confidence in their abilities …

My advice is to take the credit and run.

_Joseph is a graduate student._