University of Rochester

Project to Encourage Nationwide Use of Rochester's Math Homework Software Receives $1.2 Million Grant

November 4, 2009

More than 200,000 students from 150 universities around the country are already using University of Rochester's online homework system WeBWorK to help them with their math homework. The program is so successful that the National Science Foundation has just issued a $1.2 million grant through the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) to support the training of WeBWorK consultants to help other colleges, universities, and high schools deploy the software at their institutions for the use of their students.

The MAA is partnering with Rochester's developers of WeBWorK to create a permanent supportive home for WeBWorK, thus providing the mathematical sciences community with dependable, long-term access to WeBWorK while at the same time strengthening the on-going maintenance and development of the program.

WeBWorK was started in 1995, at the University of Rochester by Arnold Pizer and Michael Gage, professors of mathematics, and has been developed under a succession of NSF grants directed by Vicki Roth, assistant dean of Learning Assistance Services. The program was originally used mainly in calculus and physics classes, where freshmen typically spend long hours wrestling with complex homework problems. Students submit homework answers through the Web interface, and WeBWorK responds instantly, informing students whether their answers are right or wrong and giving them a chance to correct their mistakes.

"Traditionally, homework is returned to students several days after the assignment is completed, but by then the students may already have forgotten what they did right or wrong," says Gage. "WeBWorK either reassures them that they're doing the problems correctly, or it lets them know that they ought to think about the concept a bit more."

WeBWorK also spurs students to work together because it gives each student slightly different problems. Once the professor has created the template for a problem, the software customizes it, keeping the concept but generating different numbers for each student. This makes it impossible for students to simply copy each other's answers. Instead, students often end up helping each other learn the concepts necessary to solve the assignment.

With input from peers and teachers, and feedback only a mouse click away, more than half the students keep trying to solve homework assignments until they get all the answers right, says Pizer. The system also allows teachers to keep tabs on which problems students are having the most difficulty with, which questions may have been worded poorly, and which students are especially persistent in understanding the assignment.

Though the software will now officially be administered by the MAA, Gage, Pizer, and Roth will still be actively involved. They will conduct two consultant training sessions each year at the American Mathematical Society's Joint Mathematical Meeting and MathFest. They will help train other professors and administrators of WeBWorK to help them use the program to its potential as well as help those users to train new users.