Homework delivery and feedback tool
[suggest new title: WebAssign: A better homework delivery tool]

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It is hard to imagine teaching my course, [no comma] [on] business statistics, [no comma] without giving students many opportunities [an opportunity] to practice what they are learning. For that reason, I routinely assign lots of [In the past, I have routinely assigned] problem sets and lab assignments.

However, it has always been a trial to make those assignments with paper submissions. Serious drawbacks of assignments turned in on paper include: [no paragraph break] [But having students submit these assignments on paper has had serious drawbacks, including:]

For years I have been looking for a better way. Two years ago I had the good luck to discover [discovered] an internet [Internet] homework delivery tool called WebAssign right on my doorstep in another department on campus, Physics [delete],This tool was [delete] developed by several physics professors and staff [faculty and staff of the Physics department at N.C. State] to handle assignments for the large flow of students through their principles courses [? unclear - perhaps: introductory courses].[I immediately recognized that WebAssign could be adapted for use in the School of Business, where I teach, as well.]

Characteristics of WebAssign

WebAssign is not a close substitute [replica] of WebCT, Blackboard, or similar software for creating [used to create] course web [Web] sites. Rather than providing a range of [provide]tools for all aspects [every aspect]of a course, the [WebAssign's] developers have focused almost entirely on creating highly functional homework software. Because of this focus, its homework functions are [that is] considerably better than those [the homework functions]of the more general software. Fortunately it is possible to have the advantages of both types of software by linking from a course site to WebAssign. [And for instructors who want to use WebCT or Blackboard for the majority of their course functions, it is possible to link to WebAssign from another site.]

WebAssign is a very [delete or use: highly] versatile tool. It allows for internet [Internet] delivery of several types of questions -- [, including] numerical, fill in the blank, multiple choice, [and]essay, etc. [.] These questions can include just about anything that can be conveyed with HTML, including formatting, tables, images, sound files, video files, Javascript or Java applets, etc. [formatting and tables, images, sound and video files, Javascript and applets, and so on.] With the help of a scanner, even handwritten notes, [or] paper images, etc., [delete]can be converted to electronic form and included [in the assignment].

[no paragraph break] It is easy to build in random elements, so that each student receives a different set of numbers or terms in the problem. The WebAssign folks have provided an excellent set of sample questions linked through the "demo" item on their information page. [(For a set of sample questions, click on "Demo" from the WebAssign information page.)]

WebAssign grades questions automatically (except for the [delete] essays) and can immediately deliver back whether each is right or wrong (wrong answers are marked with a big red X). I can allow the students [and allows] multiple submissions, even unlimited submissions, so they [so that students] can keep retrying the ones they miss. A motivated student will keep working until all those X’s are gone. I particularly like this feature, since it means students can focus on areas of difficulty and resolve all problems. It also rewards hard work. A student need not be brilliant or lucky to get all the problems right. The feedback and resubmission process allows any student to do it. [This feature rewards motivation and enables students to focus on problem areas.]

[no paragraph break] This resubmission capability [This also] makes WebAssign particularly helpful for courses delivered entirely over the web. Students in such courses often feel more cut loose from help than lecture students [they have less access to help than traditional students]. WebAssign's machine grading [delete] gives [addresses this problem by giving] them timely information to monitor their progress. I myself recently took an online course that used WebAssign. The machine feedback was absolutely essential. It also provided strong motivation, both from a sense of accomplishment (intrinsic motivation) and from satisfaction with getting a good grade (extrinsic motivation). [During an online course I recently took that used WebAssign as its homework tool, I found that this feedback essential and strongly motivating.]

Some of WebAssign's other advantages include:

Using WebAssign

WebAssign is based on large Sybase datasets run on servers maintained at North Carolina State University. To access these servers, faculty log on through a screen like the one below. The lower navigation bar shows the main functions available. They include class creation and management (managing the roll and the dates of the class) [not clear - do you mean this: creating and managing class rolls and meeting dates], assignment management, question editing, grade management (with access to student work), and a help desk feature through which students can pose questions. [managing assignments and grades (with access to student work), editing questions, and a help desk.]

WebAssign Log-on Screen

new subtitle: Developing questions. The core of WebAssign is its questions ["its questions" is unclear. do you perhaps mean its questions feature?]. An instructor can create his or her own questions and can also [or] use questions from a textbook (modified to fit the electronic format) or questions [or those] developed by other instructors.

[no paragraph break] Developing simple questions is easy. The software includes a straightforward question editing screen that allows development and testing of questions.

[no paragraph break]Here is a screen shot of the main section of the question editor with a simple multiple choice question [delete]. The answers to the question—in this case, a multiple-choice question—are listed on separate lines with the correct answer first. In an assignment the answers are presented in random order.

WebAssign Question Editor with Simple Multiple Choice Example

Below is the editor again, this time with a numerical question. This question is somewhat more complex than the one above because two of the numbers in the problem are generated by a random number function (appearing in the "eqn" tags). These random numbers mean that there are many versions of the problem containing the same situation but different numbers. Each of the two random numbers in this problem has 11 possible values, giving a total of 11*11 = 121 different possible versions of this question.[delete, I think - the extra explanation does little to clarify.] Answers to the two parts of this question appear as formulas based on the results of the randomly generated numbers.

[no paragraph break]Numerical answers such as these inevitably have rounding error. To account for that possibility, WebAssign builds in a margin of error of plus or minus two percent. This tolerance setting can also be set at a different level by the instructor.

WebAssign Numerical Question with Random Numbers
Within the red border below is a question as it would appear to a student. The illustration is an image file placed in the question. Note that the velocity figure in the question is in red. This indicates [, indicating] that it has been generated by a function, usually a randomizing function.

WebAssign Question

New subtitle: Developing assignments.To develop an assignment, the instructor selects from the available questions and then specifies some properties of the assignment. Among the properties of an assignment are [, such as] the date and time it becomes [is to become] available to students, the date and time it is due, and the number of resubmissions allowed. The most common way of creating an assignment is to duplicate and then [copy and] modify an assignment from an earlier semester.

[no paragraph break]Here is an entry in the assignments list of a course. The [This display summarizes the] basic properties of this [the]assignment are summarized here [delete]. At the left are links allowing the instructor to start creation of [create] a new assignment, search for assignments with particular characteristics, or edit the current assignment. (The "Save", "Duplicate", and "View" commands are inoperative here but become active when [in] the editing screen is called up for an assignment [delete].) Other assignments are accessible either by specifying an assignment number or by using the "Search" feature.

WebAssign Assignment Screen

Some problems
Like any complex piece of software, WebAssign is not perfect. I am aware of some problem areas. The first [Its first problem] is that entering complex questions into the WebAssign database can be a lengthy process. Some instructors (early adopters) [delete] have entered many [delete] problems themselves. In physics at NCSU they put teaching assistants to work adapting [, while others use teaching assistants to adapt] problems from textbooks and entering them into the database [delete] (but only [delete] with permission from the publishers). The Department of Physics at N.C. State has now entered large problem sets from several texts. Each set is available to adopters of the relevant text.[delete]

[no paragraph break]Hopefully publishers will recognize the value of supporting question entry and will make a set of WebAssign questions available with adoption of a text, in much the way they make available many other supplementary materials.

A second problem area is technology (the flip side of a source of advantage). The technology is very enabling. It also carries two significant detractions. One is that it must be learned. Students go through a short break-in period (less so on my campus than initially, as an increasing number have already used it in physics and math). Instructors have more to do, so their required learning is somewhat greater even than for students. [the extra time it takes students and instructors to learn the new technology.] Learning requirements for instructors are eased by a tutorial and by the availability of training to adopters of the software [delete, explain "availability of training": something like this: optional on-campus training sessions sponsored by campus technical support services.]. In addition, there is an active WebAssign Users' Group that meets periodically. [I'd suggest fleshing this out just a bit more, referring to the questions posed by Critic W, who asked whether the help menu was "for both faculty and students" and wrote: "Does the software provide a tutorial?  Does the vendor provide user training?  [W]hat kind of tech support does the vendor provide?  24/7?"

The second technology [A third] detraction is dependence on servers, Internet connections, and browsers, etc [delete]. Servers sometimes crash, internet [Internet]lines sometimes fail, some students are still using older browsers that lack functionality, etc [and so on]. Of course, anyone who uses computer and internet technology would foresee these problems. [delete]Hosting of the system by the N.C. State staff reduces these problems [These problems are reduced since the system is hosted by N.C. State][define what kind of staff,] because they [who]are intimately familiar with the software.

A third [The final] problem with WebAssign, and probably with any online software, [—one that it shares with other online software—]  is that we cannot know for sure who is actually [delete] completing the work. WebAssign does require a password, but a student can certainly share that password with others. (To be sure, Tthis same security problem applies to most paper-delivered homework as well. The only way I know to be sure a student completes his or her own work is with a proctored test.)

How I use WebAssign

I have used WebAssign for large sections and small [in both large and small sections], for undergraduates and [as well as] graduate students. Over the past two years I have developed a collection of questions and from them a set of assignments for each course. During a typical semester I present on average one homework [assign, on average, one homework set] per week, plus additional practice tests.

[no paragraph break]To create an assignment I usually duplicate one from a previous semester and adapt it for current use. Each assignment is available to the students a week or two before the due date. After that date, I download the results in spreadsheet form. In the case of essay questions, I first call up all student answers question by question, entering [then enter] a grade for each student’s answer and providing [provide]comments that become available to the student as part of the online assignment record [delete].


The WebAssign staff has done extensive polling of [extensively polled] students who use the tool. Among their findings from a poll of 2000 students are these results:

My own students often speak very positively to me [speak positively] about WebAssign. They like it for the same advantages that [reasons] I do, especially for those that can be seen readily to enhance learning [delete, and give two reasons here instead]. It is especially useful for off-campus students, whether in lecture or in [delete] online courses. They [, because they] can use it anywhere the internet is available [there is Internet access].

There is firm evidence that completion by a student of [successful completion of] WebAssign questions is a good predictor of success in a course. Two colleagues and I did a study recently comparing [recently compared] results in an online and a traditional lecture section of a course. As a side issue we looked at the relationship between course success and completion of WebAssign questions. We found that for every 6 questions completed (out of a total possible of 239) we could predict that the final examination grade of a student [a student's final exam grade]would rise one percentage point. Of course, we were not able to distinguish between the effects of homework completion in general and homework completion on WebAssign. Our results do [nonetheless]demonstrate that completing WebAssign questions is an effective way to prepare for a final exam.

WebAssign is licensed by North Carolina State University. The price includes a per-teacher fee and a [and] per-student fee. For the first instructor in an institution using [who uses] the software, the fee is $250/year the [a year for the] first year and $100/year [per year] thereafter. For additional instructors at the same institution, the fee is $50/year [per year]. The student fee [fee for university students] is $5 [five dollars]per student per class [delete, insert comma]per term for universities and $3 [delete, insert period.] For high school, middle school, and elementary schools, the fee is three dollars per student per class [delete, insert comma] per year for high school and below [delete].

[no paragraph break]These fees are for a service hosted on N.C. State servers. That service includes [cover] maintenance of a database containing student and faculty data, as well as question and assignment data [database maintenance (the database houses student and faculty data, plus question and assignment data)] . It also includes [and] technical support. The cost of these services should be evaluated in light of the time freed up from grading and the improvement in pedagogy. [In light of WebAssign's advantages, these fees are a bargain.]

[no paragraph break]Individually arranged licensing is available for institutions desiring to run [that host] WebAssign from [on]their own servers. For further details on pricing, check the pricing link on the information page.

A complete WebAssign manual is available at http://www.webassign.net/manual/.

Copyeditor's comments:
The author has written a clear and informative article, and has addressed the most significant comments by reviewers. I might suggest that he add a sentence or two to address some more specific technical questions from critic HH, who wrote: "How much technical support is necessary from your local system administrator? Installation? Compiling? Special log-in arrangements? FTP access? Any tweaking of servers? Special directories? Root access?" The author could answer this quickly with a few sentences at the end of the paragraph that begins "The third detraction is dependence on servers, Internet acces..."

I would also suggest that the author carefully consider the closing comments of critic AB, who wants a more critical response to what most reviewers considered a steep price for WebAssign.