Homework: How an online program got my students to do it

Asian male college student sitting and looking at an open laptop

Homework. Getting students to actually do it is a universal problem educators face every year. In educational technology circles, it is thought that the interactive nature would engage and motivate students to complete it. According to a study published in the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, students in general do like online learning. However, the study also found that “…although most students felt  homework online was useful, most admit they would not do it unless required.”

Senior Lecturer Suzanne Pundt found that her students were no different. Many of them lacked motivation, procrastinated, or needed better study skills. To help improve student achievement, she began using an online homework program and then began testing whether a relationship existed between participation and performance. Below Pundt shares some of her insights about what has and hasn’t worked. For more in depth information, read her educator case study to see the statistical results.

Q: To give some context, please tell us about the types of students who take your courses, and why they struggle.

Pundt: My students are approximately 55% nursing, 25% kinesiology and 10% biology majors, with the remainder typically being chemistry, health studies, and pre-interdisciplinary studies.

70% are sophomores, 20% are juniors and about 10% are seniors. Freshman are not allowed to take Anatomy and Physiology 1 without permission from me, so they are rare. The specific prerequisites vary with major, but all require two core science courses.

My students struggle for a variety of reasons, which may include any or all of the following:

  1. Failure to devote sufficient time to the course, because they work too much, they are taking too many hours, or they just refuse to admit that their expectations are unrealistic; many also have family situations that interfere with their school performance.
  2. Poor study skills and lack of metacognition; many spend a great deal of time on the material, but do not accomplish much actual learning; they do not study with each other, and generally spend most of their time only reading over their notes; then because they have invested a great deal of time, they assume that they are prepared for the exam, which is related to my next point…
  3. Confusion between being familiar with something, and really knowing it; they seem to only know how to study for a multiple choice style exam during which they hope to recognize the correct answers, instead of learning the material well enough to be able to explain the concepts, as in an essay exam. For example, I post 10-12 Discussion Questions to Blackboard for every exam unit. These questions are covered during class, and the students have the entire exam period to answer them. Then I choose two of the questions for the exam, and they are worth at least ten percent of the overall exam points. On my most recent midterm exam, of the students that scored a D or F grade, the average number of points earned on the essay questions was only 2 out of 8 possible. And many of this group left at least one of the questions blank. So they seem unable, or unwilling, to learn concepts well enough to explain them, even when they have the questions in advance of the exam.

Q: In 2015, you identified the trend that students would not do homework unless it was graded. Why did you decide to try homework online? What made you eventually choose MasteringA&P?

Pundt: When I first adopted a text with an online study system (in 2010), I was attracted by the promise of an integrated product that offered assignable questions, animations and active learning exercises embedded within the eText itself. Unfortunately, this system never actually became a reality. I continued to use the text and system in my course (hoping the integrated system would be available soon), and embraced their new adaptive learning product enthusiastically when it became available, thinking that it would be a huge plus for my students. Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case. I was unable to customize the questions, which were limited to multiple choice format (nothing more interactive), and there was no way to conveniently assign credit to the questions. The students that used the adaptive system did benefit from it, and I had the data to prove it. However, the huge majority did not use it at all, even though I offered them bonus points for every question that they answered correctly. The only students that used the system were the “A students” that didn’t really need it. Very few of the poorly performing students ever even touched it.

So when it finally became very clear that the integrated system had been permanently tabled, and that there were no plans to improve the adaptive product, I began searching for a new text and an online homework system. MasteringA&P provides a much larger variety of question formats, many of which are active or interactive. I can assemble homework assignments using all of the available formats, and I can edit the questions as needed. These assignments are therefore much more interesting, and generate a higher level of student engagement. They are easily assignable, and can be weighted as I consider appropriate. Mastering also offers Adaptive Follow-Up assignments and Dynamic Study Modules (to provide additional personalized practice on topics that the individual student struggles with), both of which can also be assigned and weighted. The weighted average of these assignments is worth 10% of the course grade in my traditional course, and 15% in my fully online course. As a result, the majority of my students now complete the assignments, and my exam averages are higher than before I starting using Mastering (as outlined in the educator study mentioned above).

Q: Once MasteringA&P was in place what are some of changes you noticed in students?

Pundt: The most striking change is that many of my students have expressed unsolicited enthusiasm for homework online! Several have even asked for more difficult questions.

Q: Since you first implemented MasteringA&P homework online in fall of 2015, what are some insights you can share to help other educators?

Pundt: When you choose questions, use as much variety as possible, and focus on questions that require some sort of action, such as viewing a video, dragging and dropping anatomy or process labels, or even clinical case questions that communicate real world relevance. Students really seem to appreciate this. Also, choose lots of questions with images, because visual literacy is another area that needs reinforcement. Try not to use too many stand-alone multiple choice questions, because they are boring.

If you make the assignments too long, some students will lose interest, but they need to be long enough to cover the material adequately. It is vital that you explain that the assignments are deliberately long, in order to increase the time that the student is engaged with the material. In other words, they are not just doing busy work (as some students initially think). Instead, they represent productive study time, if done correctly. The assignments are not timed, and students are given two opportunities to answer each question, so that they can take the time to think carefully, look up answers as needed, and then read (and learn from) the feedback provided when they choose an answer. This is what one of my students had to say about the feedback:

“I also really like how they (referring to homework assignments) offer an explanation even if you get the answer right, just in case there was guessing involved.” She went on to say that “… the dynamic study modules will stop me for a review on a question I got wrong and give me a very detailed explanation on why the right answer is right AND why the others are wrong. It’s way too easy to turn assignments into just something to mark off a checklist so that component is really helpful.”

I encourage students to start on the assignments early in the exam period, and to work on them often; otherwise the tendency is to wait until the last minute and then run out of time, getting little or no exam benefit from the process. This is especially true for the group of students that need these assignments the most, so be prepared to reiterate this message loudly and often.

Also, be sure to make it clear to your students that they cannot complete the Dynamic Study Modules after the deadline because the system does not allow it. Homework assignments and Adaptive Follow-Up assignments can be completed late, but I impose a 20% penalty. The rationale is of course that studying only benefits the student if it is done before taking an exam, and my deadlines are always the night before the exam. There are always a number of students that miss the deadlines for the first exam. But I have found that with encouragement (and occasional reminders), they make an effort to manage their time for subsequent units, and it usually does not happen again. Higher exam scores also contribute to the increase in motivation.

Finally, caution your students to avoid thinking that the MasteringA&P assignments are an all-inclusive recipe for exam success. They really want to think that high scores in Mastering will guarantee them success on exams, and that is simply not always the case, because there are too many other variables. I tell them that it certainly increases their odds, but not to rely on Mastering alone.

Q: How has the online homework changed how you teach?

Pundt: The use of MasteringA&P has increased my course transparency, and in particular how much I communicate my rationale for choosing MA&P and the other components of the course. For example, I provide a lengthy explanation for my requirement of an expensive textbook (which includes an online homework system), even though more open access resources are available every day. I also explain why I leave material out of the PPT files that I provide, exactly why we have two online exams and two in class, and why we answer questions in class with “clickers”. I have found that most students are more invested in the whole experience if they understand the logic behind the course structure. And unexpectedly, my efforts to articulate my choices have also sparked some new ideas for course improvement.

It has also changed how I think about course activities, shifting from a focus on assessment to one of engagement.

Mastering also allows me to monitor student progress during the exam period, and identify concepts that are problematic. I can then either address them in class as time permits, or ask my Supplemental Instruction leaders to emphasize them (or both). I can also use the analytics to see how my students are doing with respect to all of the other users of the system. I am planning to add or modify my coverage of topics that seem problematic.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Pundt: I think that one of the keys to success with any online learning system is a willingness to be flexible and to keep trying different approaches and combinations, until you get the right mixture to maximize effectiveness. Small changes can make a big difference. So if the initial results don’t meet your expectations, keep tweaking things until they do. And talk to your students about it, because they can help you figure out how to help them learn.


About Suzanne Pundt
Suzanne Pundt

Suzanne Pundt

Suzanne Pundt received her undergraduate degree in Medical Technology (Clinical Laboratory Science) from Texas A & M University. Upon graduation, Pundt worked for a year in a hospital laboratory until becoming the Assistant Director of the Clinical Laboratory Science program at UT Tyler. She completed the master’s degree while continuing to teach full time at UT Tyler. The clinical lab program was closed in 2001, so after teaching Human Physiology and Pathophysiology, Pundt began teaching Anatomy and Physiology in 2003, developing the two semester course sequence (both lecture and lab), as it had not been previously taught at UT Tyler. She became the Coordinator in 2006 when the expanding Nursing program increased the demand for laboratory sections. Since then, Pundt has been intensely focused on increasing student success in her courses, since most students find them very challenging. She received the University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award in 2010, and the University of Texas at Tyler’s 2012-13 White Fellowship for Teaching Excellence.