Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Homework Helper

I've been a little bit frustrated with the way the discussion session for my calculus class has been going recently. That time is set aside as a time for students to ask whatever questions they have, without me lecturing on any new content. Of course, generally the questions they have are 'can you do this homework problem?' or 'I got stuck on this problem, can we go through it?'. Generally, those are fine questions that I'm happy to answer. However, I'm getting the impression that many of the students have not yet looked at the assignment yet, and are just waiting for me to do half of it for them. Of course, this'll come back to bite them on the exam, but it's fairly frustrating all around. So I've been trying to decide what to do about it.

It occurred to me today that even just answering those questions asked by the students who have looked at the assignment isn't very efficient. If they've already started, but gotten stuck, it'd be fairly quick for me to sit down with them individually, find their error, and send them on their merry way. Even there, though, that's not what I should be doing. It's easy for me to spot errors, generally. Especially when I've already looked at the problem with several other students. But it would be hugely valuable for students to be able to find their own mistakes. It can be maddening trying to find your own mistakes, of course, but it's an important skill to have.

A good way to practice finding mistakes, even if they get all of their own problems correct, would be to help identify mistakes in other people's work. Of course, this process can be ironed out a little online. I am envisioning a system where students can go and enter the work they have on a problem, up to the point where they got stuck. Then other students could go and try to find errors in people's work. This way people that get stuck can get help whenever it's convenient for them (as opposed to waiting for office hours or something), and students can practice finding errors in work.

It seems there should be some sort of credits system involved. At the beginning of the semester, students have, say... 3 credits, or 5 or something. A credit gives you permission to ask a question. To earn credits, you submit a bug report on another person's question. Perhaps a bug report just identifies what line the error occurs on, without identifying the error. And I guess answers would need to be verified before credit is added to the person who submitted the answer. Perhaps the person asking the question verifies it?

That's about as far as I've taken the idea today. Clearly there'd have to be an easy way to enter work, perhaps with some sort of graphical formula editor. Also probably some anonymity, so you can see questions, but not who submitted them (nor who answered them?). It also seems like what might happen is that the people who have the most questions might have a hard time spotting other people's mistakes in order to earn credits to ask more questions. So perhaps there's a way to account for that. Something like... if you earn lower than an N on the exam, each point less than that gets you a free credit?

Anyway, that's a day's thought on the idea. What do you all think? Do you know of a system that does something like this already? Could something like the above idea be worthwhile and helpful? How could it fail? Where does it need improvement? What additional policies might you use?


zifnabxar said...

A few thoughts (though I'm not teacher). However you do this, you run the risk of having one person end up doing all the work for the rest of the class. If it's a problem from the book, anyone can sign up and see a good chunk of how it's done and not figure it out on their own. If it's a problem from an online set, everyone still has the same general problems as everyone else

We had something similar to this in a few classes I took in high school, it was an online forum where we'd get a small amount of extra credit for helping other people with the online homework sets. Two groups sort of arose. There was the group who would do all the homework early, post their problems, and have the other early students help them out. And there was the group that just went on the night before and copied how to do all the problems from the forum with their numbers.

The credit idea sounds interesting, though I'm thinking maybe the kids in the middle group who ask good questions and get alright grades, but can't figure out other people's problems get the short end of the stick.

Also, there doesn't seem to be much of an incentive to answer questions if you don't need to ask any. Though I guess these students might not be who you're trying to teach how to identify problems in their logic.

Finally (and once more I'm no teacher, so please forgive my ignorance and presumption to be suggesting something) have you tried having the student with the question put their problem on the board and have the rest of the students give advice with you sort of pushing them in the right direction?

sumidiot said...

@zifnabxar First off, thanks for the discussion session idea. I should have been doing that all along. I wonder how switching to that style for the class will go, half way through the semester. Besides, students should be making suggestions how classes go (the class isn't for the teacher, after all), so don't worry about not being a teacher. Great to have student's perspectives.

Thanks, also, for all the comments about the homework helper thing. At some point I think I had considered people going online to just copy down whatever questions people had posted, and avoiding doing their own work. I wondered if perhaps charging a credit to read answers (questions?) might counter this. This also gets around the issue that only the first person with a question gets charged a credit to have it answer, while several students might be stuck in the same place. Perhaps with all of these policies and things in place, the system loses any appeal though.

sara said...

If you think about how students work together offline you can compare that to online. There really aren't a lot of differences (apart from a shift in time/space and allowing the anti-social ones to join in).

Work is always copied, if you're the type who likes to work in groups at least.

Maybe half the problems could be on the system and the other half expected for them to do on their own?

Or you can just do what most teachers do, figure it's their job to get what they can out of a class and if they want to copy everything then that's their problem.

Kate said...

I think you might run into trouble with the "typing in their work they've done so far" part. Just sayin'.

I'm curious what you envisioned them asking about in your discussion sessions? I'd kind of expect that to turn into "can you do this problem for me".

It's hard for teachers to advise each other because what works for me might not work for you. But, if I was having this problem, I'd replace the freeform discussion with practice problems. They can help each other, you can help them, then they can go use what they learned to complete the homework. If you think they won't work on it, collect their papers at the end of the period and either toss them or write them feedback without a score attached.

A structure I like for this is a row game. Kids work in pairs solving different problems that end up with the same answer. If their answers match, they know they are good (it's self checking! yay!). If their answers don't match, they work together to find the error. Seeing if their answers match seems to be weirdly motivating. It involves some prep to find or write pairs of problems that get the same answer, but it has worked really nice for me. Another nice thing is that they are all working - nobody's out to lunch because someone asked about a problem they already know how to do.

sumidiot said...

Thanks for all of the comments and suggestions everybody. I suppose it's naive to think I'll get this "right" any time soon, or that such a notion is even well-defined. Always glad to have outside feedback on my thoughts, hopefully answering questions and opening new ones. Fresh ideas for class are always welcome.

hoobie said...

see for an implementation of your idea in the programmer community.

sumidiot said...

@hoobie thanks for the pointer, i'll have to check it out