Online homework helps students learn in ways traditional textbooks may not

Back view of man looking at the screen on a laptop computer

How many times have you told your students that they should spend two to three hours outside of class on homework for each credit hour that they spend in class? As you likely know, some students dutifully complete their homework and/or reading assignments, but then they fail to spend any additional time making sure they genuinely understand the material. Upon observing this ongoing problem, we decided to engage in an educator study for our developmental and 100-level math classes. We wanted to examine whether the expansion of assignments would encourage students to spend more time doing what would ultimately make them successful college students—i.e., actually learning the material outside of class.

Furthermore, we wanted to see which “extra work” would ameliorate their grades—mandating tutoring center hours or assigning additional homework online. Although both of these techniques improved students’ course grades that semester, only their extra online homework persisted through to help boost their grades in the next level math class the following semester. We hypothesized that doing more practice and getting the immediate feedback from the MyMathLab online learning system actually taught our students their gapped content knowledge and made them feel more mathematically capable.

Since the completion of this study, we have changed our courses in two ways. We now mandate one hour of study to be completed in the tutoring center per week. This enables our students to get help as they need it. The drop-in tutoring center is staffed with faculty and peer tutors and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Students are often overconfident in their mathematics abilities; thus, via mandating that they complete their homework in our tutoring center, we can provide guidance and correction before erroneous methods become an entrenched problem. We also regularly use the online learning program more in-depth by increasing the number of assignments. Students can expect to get weekly (rather than bi-weekly) online homework. In this way, our developmental math students truly get their content knowledge rounded out prior to starting their college-level math courses.

As a result, instructors are able to focus on higher-level mathematics work during class sessions. The students can practice their foundational skills and receive feedback on those skills daily online, thereby freeing up time in class to emphasize the applications of those skills, such as WHY the intersection of two lines is meaningful rather than HOW to find it. We now have more time in class to work in groups and discuss alternative methods and meanings, rather than “I do, you do” problem sets wherein the instructor demonstrates a procedure on the board and the students proceed to emulate it. Students no longer ask when will they need to use this because they are learning in class why they will be using these tools. Students can then see how, as James Joseph Sylvester eloquently put it, “Mathematics is the music of reason.”


About the Author
Leslie Goldstein

Leslie Goldstein

Leslie B. Goldstein is an award-winning senior lecturer at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. She teaches developmental math classes, 100-level math classes, and math methods for elementary teachers. When she is not teaching, or researching about teaching, Leslie can be found on the slopes, on a trail, or hanging with her husband Brian, son Bailey, and canine Checkers.