Practical Tips for Using Web-based Assessment Systems

Computer-based homework systemsare both praised and derided because they allow faculty members to be lessinvolved with the student homework process. Proponents advocate these systemsas indispensable tools for grading homework for large numbers of students. Thisresults in time savings for the faculty member, more time on task for studentsand cost savings for the department that would otherwise need to pay forgrading services.

Critics argue that faculty members who use such systemsaren’t doing their jobs if they aren’t grading student homework, and that studentsfocus too much on getting the “right” answer at the expense of the learningprocess. Although all of these arguments may have merit, Web-based assessmentsystems that include homework grading capabilities can be used in a number ofways to enhance the teaching and learning process.

This article highlights some of the creative ways thatfaculty members use WebAssign, a Web-based homework delivery, collection,grading, and recording system. The information presented here was taken frominterviews with 20 faculty members at 10 institutions in six differentdisciplines who were part of a broader evaluation of WebAssign’s use in theuniversity environment.

Using WebAssign, students submit answers to questions andreceive feedback almost instantly. Questions can be multiple choice,fill-in-the-blank, numeric, or essay and can be created by the teacher orselected from a bank of provided textbook questions. Students can submitanswers as many times as their teacher allows.

Certainly the most common way teachers use the system is todeliver and grade homework problems. A major component is the availability ofquestions from a number of popular textbooks whose publishers have partneredwith the service. However, many faculty members have moved beyond this simpleapplication to create their own questions for a number of needs, which includeteaching online courses, ensuring that students come to class prepared andencouraging participation in class activities.


Online Courses

A math professor at North Carolina State University beganoffering a completely Web-based version of his pre-calculus math course in1997. At that time, he provided Java Script tutorials to help students learnthe material, but until exam time he had no way to collect and grade studentwork or to determine if they understood the material. Homework was optional andonly assigned for student practice. In 1998, he introduced WebAssign into hiscourse for grading homework problems that he created. Students had weeklyproblem sets to complete, and feedback on their progress was available toteacher and student alike. In 2000, he began to use the system to offer testsand exams, although students were required to take the tests at a designatedcomputer lab on campus in order to verify their identities. Because ofWebAssign’s ability to randomize variables within questions, there was littleconcern about student’s cheating on the exams. Each student had five chances tosubmit his or her exam so that careless errors could be caught and eliminatedbefore final grading.


Class and Lab Preparation

Instructors are often frustrated when students come to classunprepared. They don’t want to waste valuable class time reviewing materialthat the students should already know. WebAssign helps faculty members makebetter use of their class time by allowing them to quiz students before classon required reading. Some then tailor their lectures to emphasize those areaswhere the students had difficulty understanding the material. A historyprofessor at North Park University gives students daily quizzes on requiredreading and weekly quizzes on factual material (e.g., names, dates, battles)that he formerly put on tests. Class time is spent analyzing primary sourcedocuments with the students rather than lecturing on historical facts.

In chemistry and physics, lab time is precious. Students mayonly have limited time in the lab to perform their experiments, so they can’tafford to waste it reading over the preparatory information. Professors inthese classes have used WebAssign to quiz students about the pre-lab readingsand calculations to ensure that they read the material before entering the lab.



Although it is certainly easy for university faculty to setup a semester’s worth of homework on a system like WebAssign and then forgetabout it, it is also possible to use such a system in creative ways to enhancethe learning process. Some of the faculty members interviewed indicated thatthey work harder than before to make their classes better. And since they don’tneed to spend time grading homework and can check on their students’understanding of course material, they use their class time more wisely. Thosewho were concerned that an automated grading system impedes the learningprocess by focusing on only the “right answer” have found that collecting worksamples randomly from students ensures that they are using the properprocesses, while not imposing too great a grading burden on the faculty member.

With the proliferation of distance learning and demands on universityfaculty to be more productive in their teaching, there is an increasing needfor tools to help with these endeavors. Web-based assessment systems such asWebAssign can assist in this process.



Catherine E. Brawner, Ph.D.




Contact Information:


(800) 955-8275

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.