Volume 9, Number 4: December 20, 2002
by Thomas Holme,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
This paper presents some fundamental information about using easily obtained database software to build online homework exercises. The database software we have used in the General Chemistry Department at UW-Milwaukee is called Filemaker® Pro. It allows an ordinary PC or Mac to be a web server for this purpose. In conjunction with HTML editing software, course registration, homework, scores and other "bookkeeping" functions of college courses can be readily handled online, without the necessity to use any large web course software system (such as Web-CT or Blackboard.)
The ability to provide exercises
to students in an online format is a feature of a number of commercial
packages, such as WebCT or Blackboard, that are available to university
faculty in their courses. While these packages are generally powerful,
they tend to be "black boxes"--tools that work without the
faculty member actually knowing how they work. Moreover, the level of
control of these software packages is rather minimal for the average
faculty member. Computer services staff is responsible for maintenance
of the servers. Crashes are not entirely rare. There is therefore, some
benefit in being able to provide some of these functions in a low-cost,
local environment where the faculty member maintains essentially complete
control. Database software that includes a web server component can
provide this "do-it-yourself" environment.
The Process: From Beginning to End
Upon purchasing and installing
database software, how does one begin to utilize it in a course? There
are several key features to consider. First, for security reasons, students
must complete a registration exercise in order to create or be assigned
individual "accounts." Second, instructors must make choices
about the types of questions they will construct for the homework exercises.
Third, instructors should consider the amount and type of feedback they
will provide to their students. Finally, they must also determine how
they will integrate the scoring of the online component with the rest
of the course. We begin with a description of each of these components
and then note the pedagogical and attitudinal benefits of the use of
online homework assignments.
To use the database as a homework vehicle, instructors must consider the types of questions they will use. Our perspective is that homework generally supports several types of learning, one of which is the building of factual knowledge. The set of facts needed to answer questions is reinforced by utilization. This goal can be accomplished with multiple choice questions, which also have the advantage of being easy to grade automatically. It is certainly possible for students to gain points by guessing homework problems, but we assign only around 5% of course points to homework, so the overall benefit of guessing is modest.
The amount of feedback provided
to students also needs to be considered. It is possible with database
software to let students know the correctness of each answer. To discourage
cheating, we have opted instead to provide each student with an immediate
score (number of questions correct) but not identify which questions
were correct. When the assignment due date is reached, we post a key
for the questions, so students can check their answers at that time.
In addition to immediate feedback on the homework, course score feedback
can also be enhanced with the databases. Because students have password
protected access, they can look up their scores for all aspects of a
course in a secure fashion. We take this advantage one step further
by providing grade calculator web pages, where students can input their
scores and projected scores on the final exam to determine what they
need to accomplish in order to meet grade expectations.
Using the scores that students obtain from homework assignments in the course grading system is readily accomplished. Databases for individual assignments can be easily combined to create a homework total score (based on the student username, or the "posting" code). These scores can be exported into a spreadsheet program for grade calculation purposes, or grade calculations can be carried out within the database software.
The Value of the Assignments
Online homework using this philosophy provides the same benefits normally expected from traditional homework assignments. Our studies indicate that there is a positive correlation between homework performance and test performance in the courses where we have used it. The linear correlation coefficient is typically between 0.4 and 0.5, so there is a large amount of scatter in the data, but that too is not particularly surprising.
UW-Milwaukee is an urban campus with a preponderance of commuter students. One benefit we have seen from these assignments is the formation of study groups who utilize our learning center to work on them. The learning center is staffed by graduate students who report a more cooperative atmosphere in the semesters when the online homework is active. On our campus, this is a significant benefit.
Student surveys in several courses (with over 300 total students) provide additional insight into the use of the online homework. 73% of students surveyed perceive the homework helps at least "somewhat" (either somewhat or very helpful). 65% of students report working with others on these assignments. 53% of the class spends between one and two hours doing the homework--so the value is not associated with long hours spent on the homework, but rather the regular, weekly exposure that helps students "keep up" with classwork. 81% of students indicate that cheating is not a problem on the homework, despite the fact that students can and do work together on homework that is ultimately individually scored. Ultimately, we have found that the online homework becomes a seamless part of the course where we have significant control of how the homework system is built. Students perceive it as a normal component of the course that is generally viewed as positive.
A web site with links to
several classes that have used the online database software is located
A paper which outlines various uses of the online database including
the homework component was published in 2000.1
Many of the technical issues
associated with the implementation of this database scheme were addressed
by Luke Fisher, a graduate student in our department at the time. Funding
from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation was instrumental in establishing
this technology in the chemistry courses where it has been utilized.
1. Fisher, Luke and Thomas Holme. "Using Web-based Databases in Large Lecture Chemistry Courses." Chemical Educator, 2000, 5, 269-276.