This semester, all labs for college physics and general university physics classes adapted the online homework system WebAssign for the pre-lab assignments. The new assignments have upset some students in the course, which is the largest in the physics department and is required for most STEM majors. Students protested the length and bugginess of the new pre-labs, circulating a petition and plastering copies around Shineman Science Center, bringing the department to change its policies.
Unlike pre-lab assignments in previous semesters, which focused narrowly on a few questions related to the week’s experiment, the new online pre-labs were designed to accomplish broader goals. These include review problems in algebra and material that was not yet covered in lecture.
Anne Caraley of the physics department took a sabbatical from teaching this semester in order to develop and maintain the new online pre-labs. They are created through WebAssign, an online homework system with automated grading. According to the company’s website, WebAssign is used by over 2,300 educational institutions.
The department chose this system in order to address the fact that the 250 students who enroll in the labs start with very different levels of competency for the material.
“The pre-labs were designed at providing a solid background in introductory physics, strengthening students’ algebra skills and preparation for the upcoming lab,”said Sashi Kanbur, the physics department chair, in a statement on behalf of the department. “They were developed during the summer and during the fall as part of Dr. Caraley’s sabbatical project.”
There were, however, a number of unpleasant surprises with the new pre-labs. Caraley expected each assignment to take an hour to complete for those who had already developed mastery and two hours for novices. The WebAssign software allowed Caraley to see how long students spent on each pre-lab, but she could not tell whether they were actively working on the problems or merely had them open. Therefore, she did not have an estimate of how much time students were really spending.
Many students, however, claimed to take more time than one to two hours. This is in addition to other work for the lab, including weekly reports and a quiz.
“Most people I spoke with said a pre-lab would take them four to six hours to complete on average,” said Brice Rebeor, a senior geology major who started the student petition against WebAssign.
Rebeor thought in addition to being unreasonably long, the online pre-labs suffered from many other problems.
“WebAssign often does not accept equivalent answers,” Rebeor said. “Sometimes it accepts the wrong answers, which puzzles and discourages students. The wording of the questions is often confusing. Similar questions would be repeated two, three times. The tolerance for the significant figures in the answers is so strict that you have to carry through a dozen decimal places into each part of calculation to get an answer right. And we had to deal with all of this while teaching ourselves the concepts necessary to do these problems.”
Kenny Roffo, a junior physics, math and computer science major, saw the same problems when tutoring for the two physics classes.
“A lot of people came to me for help on the pre-labs,” Roffo said. “But I find it difficult to help. My job is to make sure my tutees understand the material. When I’m sure they are using the right method to solve problems but they still get the answer wrong, it’s really frustrating.”
Roffo, who has had an interest in physics, said he understood the frustration of students taking the lab.
“If I had to do these pre-labs in my first year, I would still be a physics major because I already had a passion for physics,” Roffo said. “But if I was just considering majoring in physics, the pre-labs would be very discouraging to pursue it further.”
Many students took issue with the new pre-labs right from the start of the semester. It wasn’t uncommon for pre-class discussions to be devoted to complaining about WebAssign.
“People started to complain about WebAssign starting the first week of labs, and kept complaining as the semester went on,” said Ian Evans, a freshman physics major taking the lab.
The physics department claimed it was keeping abreast with any problems with the pre-labs upon their introduction.
According to a statement issued by the physics department, “the department was continually monitoring the program from the start. Making immediate changes one or two weeks from the inception did not make sense.”
The only item of feedback for which the students were explicitly asked in the first few weeks was a question about the references they used to complete each assignment. The complaints students were voicing were largely within talk among their peers.
Dale Zych, a physics professor who teaches two lab sections, said he only got feedback about the pre-labs when he asked the students for it. The feedback he got suggested little more to him than vague discontentment about the length of the assignments.
Mohammad Islam, a physics professor who teaches one lab, had a similar experience.
“I never had a student approach me with a problem about the pre-labs,” he said.
Neither Caraley nor Kanbur, the two professors in the best position to make changes to WebAssign, are teaching sections of the lab. Kanbur teaches one section of lecture. It was not until a Sunday in mid-October that Caraley became aware of the significant figures issues with the pre-labs, after helping a student with an assignment via email.
“Until that particular Sunday, I had no clear details of what students were experiencing,” Caraley said.
She announced she was changing the tolerance of the answers and asked students how she could make up for the difficulties they had been experiencing.
This lack of an explicit avenue for feedback differs from what is typically considered good practice in the rollout of a new software project.
James Early, a computer science professor currently teaching software quality, described how software developers approach their work.
“What we strive for is a process that involves testing with the user from the very beginning,” Early said. “We call it user-centered design. That’s the ideal.”
At the beginning of October, Rebeor became frustrated enough to compose a petition with complaints he had come to believe students shared and sent it around in his physics classes.
“Nobody had anything bad to say when I brought out the petition. The general reaction was ‘I’ll sign it,’” Rebeor said.
The petition collected over 80 signatures, including some students not taking the class. He brought the petition to Kanbur but did not get the response he was hoping to get.
“Every time I went to see Dr. Kanbur, he would tell me to give it another week, give it another week and wait to see what the next pre-lab is like,” Rebeor said. “All the time I knew something was wrong with WebAssign, and I couldn’t let it keep going for another week. I decided that I had to go to the dean.”
Rebeor went to Brad Korbesmeyer, the associate dean of arts and sciences, to see what could be done.
“The people best fit to make decisions about the curriculum are those that teach it, not the dean’s office,” Korbesmeyer said. “I suggested that the department should look into reviewing their policy.”
A few days later, an unidentified student posted copies of the petition on the doors of physics faculty and elsewhere around the science center. They were soon taken down.
Roffo, who signed the petition, now expresses some regrets about it.
“I was rash and thought I should sign it to help my tutees,” Roffo said. “Now I look back on the petition and see that some of the wordings were a little hurtful and personal. I feel really horrible about that, and I’m sorry. Most people just signed it without reading it because they thought it would fix the pre-labs.”
The physics department declined to comment on the petition.
For the past few weeks, the department had been working on fixing the issues with the pre-lab and deciding how to reconcile the difficulties students had been experiencing. Last week, the department settled on a solution.
“The department implemented a new policy regarding the pre-labs in WebAssign and communicated this to students. We feel this policy is fair to all whilst still maintaining the integrity of the program,” the department said.
The pre-labs were shortened for the rest of the semester, and everyone’s pre-lab grades were raised by 50 percent for the whole semester. Rebeor approves of these changes but still thinks that many problems with the WebAssign pre-labs remain unresolved. He also questions why the department thinks it is appropriate to treat students as a means for testing the quality of the pre-labs.
“This policy is an exceptional reward and should be taken with grace and respect because we, the students, should recognize that the physics professors and lab instructors have put in an exceptional amount of time just to help us,” Rebeor said.
Rebeor is already thinking about pre-labs in college physics II and general university physics II, the next required course in the physics sequence for many STEM majors.
“If the issues continue into next semester, verily I say that I will step up once again,” Rebeor said.
The nature of next semester’s pre-labs has not been finalized. But the department is intent to move forward in a positive way.
“Even with some growing pains, we are committed to the educational value of pre-lab programs,” the physics department said.
The author is currently taking the lab and signed the petition.