At a large state university such as UMass, resources are necessarily limited, and students in a course with 200 or more classmates often think they cannot possibly get the assistance they need to answer questions and complete their homework. Course personnel are available for only certain hours and only during the day, and the departmental resource room has help that is regrettably spotty. A few students seek and receive help, but the majority of students work alone or in small groups, without having useful assistance.
We also use an electronic homework (eHW) system to administer out-of-class activities. While eHW has many advantages, such as immediate feedback and the opportunity to attempt each problem many times, there are also some drawbacks. For instance, students sometimes become overly focused on getting the answer correct and earning a perfect score on their assignments, and inevitably develop frenetic, superficial approaches to doing their homework.
So, even though analysis activities are being encouraged and modeled during class, since students spend most of their time outside of class, it is essential to help students engage in analysis activities while working on their homework. As part of the RRA project, we also despaired of ever monitoring what students are doing during homework, and therefore, we thought we would never be able to judge the level of engagement of individual students.
"It's very helpful most of the time; like having my own [professor]."
To address both of these concerns, we created a web site called homeworkCentral (hwC). For each homework problem assigned, there are typically 3-5 suggestions for activities designed to help students analyze the situation and solve the problem, with around a dozen hints for executing the suggested activities and a separate page of common pitfalls to avoid. The web site is available online, so students can get support from a trusted source any time they need it.
"Homework central helps us with our eHW when no one else is around to help (ie the professor) Helps us look at the problem in the correct way and names the common pitfalls so we are to avoid them."
By structuring the site with each hint on a separate page and pitfalls separate from suggestions, we anticipate being able to profile and follow students as they work through each homework problem. By correlating the hit logs in hwC with those from eHW, we hope to be able to construct a rather complete picture of how students — all students — begin, process, cope with, and finally complete their homework assignments.
"When doing homework, it's helpful to have the help immediately and from a source that is guarenteed [sic] to be reliable."