University of Rochester

The Exam's Not Over 'Til the Modem Says So

October 9, 1995

When most University of Rochester students walk out of their mid-term exam this week in Frank Wolfs' physics class, they won't be sauntering (or slinking) out with the same resigned "what's done is done" attitude of most of their peers.

That's because, if they choose, their mid-term exam won't be over. For 40 hours after the exam, students will be able to dial up a computer dedicated to their education and check the answers they gave during the test. For wrong answers, students will receive a few small hints pointing them in the right direction. If they discover the correct answers in the allotted time, they'll receive partial credit even though they missed the questions during the exam.

"Now we have computers everywhere, but oftentimes we're teaching exactly the same way as we were 50 years ago. That's silly," says Wolfs, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. "We can put this technology to good use. This system, for instance, helps students learn from their mistakes."

Wolfs introduced the use of a computer program originally developed at Michigan State University to customize the exams and the homework problems he assigns, so that each student has a different set of problems to solve. For weekly homework assignments, students can dial into the computer whenever they want, from any computer wired up to the internet, and submit their answers. The computer immediately tells them whether an answer is right or wrong. A student can try over and over until finding the right answer.

The system uses instant feedback to capitalize on the crucial moment when a student is knee-deep in the work -- usually when professors and teaching assistants aren't holding office hours. In many classes, weeks pass before a covered topic is assigned as homework and then reviewed between student and teacher together. "By that time, the student has forgotten what the problem is all about," says Wolfs. "The student is worried about the next problem set."

Quick feedback isn't confined only to mid-terms or homework assignments. Wolfs also makes himself available through e-mail, answering dozens of questions a week from students late at night, on weekends, or while traveling for research. Every couple of hours he checks his e-mail and responds as quickly as possible.

Freshman Tyler Brown frequently finds himself on-line with Wolfs or mathematics Professor Michael Gage, who is also using the system in his calculus class. "Several times I'd send a message to Professor Wolfs at 10 or 10:30 at night. An answer would come back right away. Sometimes we'd exchange several notes until I understood the problem." Brown is one of 90 students in Wolf's introductory physics class; more than 300 additional students in Gage's class and in another physics class are also using the system.

Brown's classmate, Mary Kokinda, also likes the system. "This system gives me instant gratification that my answer is right, or it lets me know that something I did wasn't quite right. It gives me a chance to rethink concepts on my own which I didn't understand at first."

Wolfs says the automated system creates more quality time for teacher and student. "Before, students might come in and say they're clueless about how to begin the homework. Now, they begin telling you the different things they've tried. My teaching assistant is spending less time simply grading tens of homework assignments, and more time interacting with students."

The software shows which students called in, how many times, how many problems they got right and wrong, and how many attempts they made trying to solve each problem.

This is the second year that Wolfs has used the computer- aided learning system in class. Since the exams, homework and lecture notes are all available via the network, he says the course could be taken over the internet by high school students who are interested in the class but cannot attend because of its meeting time or place.

Last year, because of the introduction of this innovative system and high marks from students for the way he demonstrates complex physics concepts, Wolfs was awarded the G. Graydon and Jane W. Curtis Award for teaching excellence. tr

Editors: A color slide of a student doing homework through e-mail is available.