Online Homework Systems Can Boost Student Achievement

Online homework has great appeal for instructors, especially those teaching large courses. By using online assignments, instructors don’t have to collect, grade, and promptly return large quantities of homework assignments. Online programs provide instructors with feedback on student performance that can be used to modify the presentation of material in class. Online homework is also beneficial to students. They get feedback promptly, even more promptly than that provided by very conscientious instructors. Online homework can also be designed so that it allows students to work on areas that frequently cause trouble and/or on areas where the individual student is having difficulty.

Despite these beneficial design features, there is a need to document quantitatively that completion of online homework positively impacts student achievement. Some work in this area has already been done, and somewhat surprisingly, the results to date are mixed. Some studies reported a positive impact. In some studies, the correlations were weak, and in others online homework had no impact on exam scores. “The lack of consensus on the effectiveness of online homework highlights the need for further investigations.” (p. 71)

This research team decided to go with an online homework system that had showed better student performance than text-based homework in previous research. “For our study, we examined whether the previously reported learning gains for this online homework system were an isolated instance of success, specific to an instructor, or whether the system had the same efficacy when taught by multiple instructors over multiple years.” (p. 72) To answer that question, researchers collected data from 13 sections of the same course, enrolling 3,806 students and taught by five different instructors over a six-year period.

The course was the first term of a yearlong chemistry sequence. Each course was taught using the traditional lecture-discussion format. Individual instructors did make course-related decisions. “We designed the study to examine whether there was a correlation between success and the use of this online homework in different settings in which the instructors were free to make all the teaching decisions.” (p. 72) Instructors had to agree to use the online homework consistently across the course sections.

“The study revealed that the online homework system provided an overall benefit that promoted student learning in large-scale introductory science instruction.” (p. 77) Completion of the homework led to higher scores on the finals. Even when the researchers adjusted for students’ level of preparation for class, “the online homework substantially influenced exam performance.” (p. 70)

Students also noted the value of the homework. In response to a survey question that asked how much each of several aspects of the course helped their learning, they rated the online homework problems in improving their understanding of course material a 3.55 (SD 0.91) out of 5 points possible. In a summary of the student assessments, the researchers write, “Overall, students appreciated online homework most when it was easy to use, carefully planned and integrated seamlessly with course material, and supported by the instructors and teaching assistants.” (p. 77) Among a number of recommendations made for implementing online homework across multiple sections with different instructors, they point out the importance of faculty and teaching assistant attitudes toward online homework. “If the instructors and teaching assistants enthusiastically embraced the approach, integrating the assignments with their course materials, their students embraced it too.” (p. 76)

Reference: Arasasinghma, R. D., Martorell, I., and McIntire, T. M. (2011). Online homework and student achievement in a large enrollment introductory science course. Journal of College Science Teaching, 40 (6), 70-79.

Reprinted from Online Homework Makes a Difference, The Teaching Professor, 25.10 (2011): 2.