Long post warning!  Must be using typing to keep my fingers warm :)

Hi Jane,

Ah the joys of online homework.  On one hand, it "makes" students do their
homework because each assignment is grades (as opposed to written homework
which may be spot checked or never graded).  And it gives instant feedback,
which should be great.  On the other hand, it's presenting a whole new set
of challenges.  Before I get specifically into how I talk to tutors, I want
to set up how I see students and faculty are using online homework at least
at NCSU (the home of webassign... talk about eating your own dog food :)

Most science and math gen ed courses here use some sort of online homework.
 A few departments even mandate it for certain courses.  Faculty encourage
students to work on assignments together to figure out the material.  Most
courses have multiple submissions with little to no penalty for using the
multiple submissions (sometimes students get 10 submissions for a multiple
choice question with 4 possible answers).  Many questions also come
directly from textbooks, but with certain numbers randomized so the student
has to "crunch" his or her own numbers.  Some faculty have homework due
regularly each week, some have a large amount due right before a test.

What I notice about students:

1) The instant feedback and the clear grading makes students very, very
focused on getting all their webassign points.  Homework becomes a goal,
not the path to a goal.  They will spend hours talking to everyone they can
about how to figure out a single problem.  From my perspective, there is a
large opportunity cost spent on getting what amounts to 0.1% of their final
grade.  Time that could be spent understanding fundamentals (or even
getting sleep) is spent hunting around, copying other people's solutions
and trying to adapt their own numbers.

2) Students use whatever resources they can find.  Students have access to
their notes and book.  They also compare solutions to peers.  And entering
in a few phrases of text of a physics problem in google will supply
students with a lot of worked out solutions.

3) The instant feedback/multiple submissions creates a culture where
students will just try things.  Didn't get the right answer for a physics
problem, try changing the sign, or use sine instead of cosine.  I know
working backwards from a solution is a time honored learning strategy (one
that I have employed myself) but the quick feedback seems to make it move
faster, and I don't see much reflection after figuring out the right

In my dissertation research (excuse the shameless self-promotion), both the
higher and lower achievers all used resources available to them (textbooks,
notes, peers, internet).  There were two main differences: 1) the lower
achievers tended to equate homework with studying and 2) the lower
achievers were less accurate in their assessments of their knowledge.

The 100/100 homework grades gave the lower achievers a false sense of
knowledge, and they lacked the metacognitive awareness to remind them 1)
they used a whole lot of resources when earning that 100 and 2) that doing
it once (using all those resources) doesn't mean that they can do it again
on their own, in a timed/stressful environment.

So, when I talk to tutors about online homework, here's where I start:
1) I share these observations with the tutors.  Get them to think about how
they complete their homework (especially ask them to compare/contrast
online homework in a class they "care" about with one they don't).  And we
encourage tutors to talk to students about the challenges... "That's great
you got this.  [Next time I see you/in a couple of days], try this [similar
problem] to make sure that you can do it on your own without any help (from
me or your notes)."

2) In semester long tutoring relationships, I stress going over concepts
first.  Talking through what was covered in lecture, trying to rework a
sample problem, covered up, annotating it so they have more complete notes,
etc...  After a while, if the student is clearly doing that on her own,
they may shorten that section and move to difficult homework.  Even in
drop-in or less regular sessions, tutors start by asking about concepts or
what the student already knows.  Often, they end up reviewing/practicing
more basic material that the student hasn't grasped.

3) If tutors feel it's appropriate to work on a homework problem, the
student should already have attempted the homework (significantly... show
me your work).

4) Sometimes, tutors need to help on specific online problems (not just a
similar one).  Because the "trick" of the problem can't get modeled any
other way.  I see this a lot in physics where the student needs help
getting the picture correct from the words.  The tutor uses Socractic
questioning to help the student piece together the picture herself.

5) Tutors are good about not rushing after a problem is complete.  The
tutors often get the student to summarize the process, the difficult parts,
what they need to memorize, etc...

Sorry so long, homework is obviously a bee in my bonnet :)
NC State University

On Tue, Jan 7, 2014 at 1:10 PM, Jane Neuburger <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> Happy New Year to all colleagues!
> I've just searched the archives, looking for a discussion or thread
> regarding guidelines and ethics for tutors working with online homework
> assignments.  Beyond our "usual" guidelines (thank you, CRLA and ATP;
> and
>, have we had, as an organization, a
> discussion on what guidelines to provide for tutors who work with students
> in the online homework world?  May I invite comments on this, please?  I'm
> hoping to have one of my Level III tutors present a workshop on this, and
> he'd love your commentary.
> Here's what we face at Syracuse:  I've talked  with department chairs in
> the sciences and in mathematics.  Several of our science departments are
> using Mastering Biology and Mastering Chemistry (Pearson products).
>  Homework generally counts for between 10-20% of the grade, although this
> is always at the discretion  of faculty.   When homework existed in the
> textbooks, a number of faculty and departments asked that tutors work on
> the similar problem sets, not the exact homework sets.  This is no longer
> possible in at least some of the online sets.  Our department chairs have
> asked that at least, the tutors do not "do" the homework and that they
> direct students to finding the answers in notes or text.  So, that's what
> we are doing.
> So, let me start a list of rather unfinished statements.  Please add,
> change, edit!  And, thanks in advance.
> 1). We have discovered that it's better to have students double-check
> their answers before submitting (you earn progressively fewer points when
> you do not get it right on the first try).  This is a variation on what
> students seem to be familiar with in the online game environment of "click
> and if it doesn't work, go back again".
> 2).  Tutors must not do the online, but rather, redirect to the text and
> notes.
> 3).  When or if a student is stuck in an online question. . . .
> 4).  Tutors may demonstrate similar problems before a student attempts the
> online question.  Tutors must always refer back to the students' notes
> and/or text.
> Cheers,
> Jane Neuburger
> Director, Tutoring & Study Center
> Syracuse University
> 111 Waverly Avenue Suite 220
> Syracuse NY 13244
> Main Campus 315.443.2005
> Stevenson Room 105E; 315.443.9942
> Fax: 315.443.5160
> Nationally Certified Tutoring Center; CRLA Level III
> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
> To access the LRNASST-L archives or User Guide, or to change your
> subscription options (including subscribe/unsubscribe), point your web
> browser to
> To contact the LRNASST-L owner, email [log in to unmask]

Marcia Toms, Ph.D.
Associate Director
Undergraduate Tutorial Center
Division of Academic and Student Affairs
North Carolina State University
Campus Box 7118 / 101 Park Shops
Raleigh, NC 27695-7118

Public Record Reminder: All electronic mail messages in connection with
State business that are sent to or received by this account are subject to
the NC Public Records Law.  They are retained and may be disclosed to third

Confidentiality: Nothing in the NC Public Records Law diminishes the
privacy protections afforded by federal law (e.g., FERPA, HIPAA, etc.)

To access the LRNASST-L archives or User Guide, or to change your
subscription options (including subscribe/unsubscribe), point your web browser to

To contact the LRNASST-L owner, email [log in to unmask]