Faculty Story: Webwork for Science

Read about a UBC example of using Webwork, featuring Mark Mac Lean, Professor of Teaching, Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Science. Mark uses Webwork to assign weekly homework assignments and self-administered quizzes with immediate feedback.

UBC Webwork Example for Science

How did you use Webwork in your course and what made you decide to do this?

I am teaching MATH 253 Multivariable Calculus for Engineers. This course has a lot of visualization of curves and surfaces in 3D, and students often struggle to build their conceptual understanding so that they can successfully do the mathematical problems in the course.

Students are simultaneously building technical calculational skills and complex visualization skills. This is challenging for them and for me to figure out how to make this manageable for them.

I was one of the people who asked for Webwork to be set up at UBC. In the Mathematics department, we teach thousands of students—this year our largest course is MATH 100, which has an enrolment of about 4500 students—and we needed to provide better feedback to students on how well they were progressing in their learning than we were able to do with limited TA grading time.

Webwork is an open-source system and is supported by the Mathematical Association of America, making it a non-commercial option with strong support from the professional community. It is used by many large, public universities, and those universities contribute to the extensive library of problems available to use.

What has been your experience so far?

Webwork is an auto-graded homework tool that deals well with math problems of all sorts. The problems can have parameters that are varied to give each student their own version of the problem to work on. You can design your own problems in Webwork, or you can make use of its extensive library of problems. Webwork also allows you to incorporate images and graphs in problems, which means students can deal with fairly complex problems in courses requiring them to understand the geometric aspects of mathematics.

I generally give students unlimited tries at problems, so they can work on them without the pressure of needing to get it right the first time. Webwork allows them to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.

Webwork can also be used for timed quizzes. While the pressure is on for a quiz, the students’ familiarity with Webwork from homework problems means that they can focus on the mathematical content of the quiz and not worry about the technical elements of the system.

We use Webwork in MATH 253 specifically for weekly homework assignments and for the occasional self-administered quiz. Students work regularly through the problems each week, and they discuss them together, either in person in their study groups or in our online discussion forum on Piazza.

The consistent level of feedback that students get from seeing right away whether they have successfully completed a problem contributes to their willingness to stick with doing the problems, which is essential to their success in the course.

Overall, I think Webwork’s ability to give students immediate feedback on their understanding makes a big different for the students. They can quickly tell if they need to review material or to ask questions to help build their understanding and succeed in solving problems.

What are some challenges in using Webwork in your practice?

One of the challenges is making sure that we have good questions to cover all of the important points in the curriculum of the course. While the Webwork problem library is extensive, it may not contain problems for topics that we choose to emphasize in the course at UBC. This means that I have to spend time creating new problems.

While programming Webwork is not too difficult, it takes a while to learn how it actually assesses whether a student’s answer is correct. This can be important when setting up problems that will be successful for the students—their creativity can mean that they choose to write their solution in ways that I may not have anticipated.

Writing and vetting good problems takes time and effort, although the pay-offs can be great.

What is your advice for new users of Webwork?

Webwork has come to be used in many courses that use Mathematics—Economics, Engineering, Statistics, etc. While it can be intimidating to think about implementing a new homework system in your course, there are now enough faculty at UBC using Webwork to provide a good pool of peers to consult, if you wish to explore using Webwork in your course.

It is worth talking to the people who use Webwork to help you explore the kinds of questions that you might ask students.

As well, the LT Hub now has extensive experience with Webwork and its integration with Canvas, so you can be comfortable knowing that you won’t be left trying to manage technical issues that may arise on your own. Using Webwork has pretty much become plug-and-play at UBC.

Faculty and staff looking for Webwork support, please contact us at the LT Hub.

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