New "Homework Laboratory" May Close the Files on College Homework Cheating

As professors Craig Henderson and Richard Lowhorn faced grading 4,000 homework problems during one semester, they feared they had again lost the battle against an annual collegiate rite of passage -- the handing-down of homework files.

It's a problem engineering professors nationwide contend with year after year. Students in classes characterized by complex equations pass along commonly-used homework problems and answers to friends, study groups and fraternity members. Professors on most college campuses commonly recycle homework problems because equations are difficult to design and time consuming to grade.

But recycled homework problems bring a reoccurring dilemma -- students with near -- perfect homework grades who can't apply the same principles on exams.

"Students with terrific homework scores who perform poorly on tests often have relied heavily on other sources for help with their homework," said Henderson, a Tennessee Technological University engineering assistant professor. "We needed to give students unique homework problems so they would have to learn the material. And we had to find a way to keep instructors from spending hundreds of hours grading all those problems."

Henderson and Lowhorn's brainstorming session more than two years ago produced a recently completed project, "The Homework Laboratory," labeled "very likely the most important learning software developed to date in any field," according to Wallace Fowler, president-elect of the American Society of Engineering Education.

"The software's navigation is adaptable to most any subject, and its design makes it easy to pop in new databases and create a number of subject-specific Homework Laboratories," said Henderson.

Operated directly from a CD-ROM or executed via a campus network, the multimedia software package acts as an interactive textbook patterned after the book students use in class. The illustrations, chapters, even the colors, are identical to the book. Unlike the textbook, the software produces problems unique to each student by taking the textbook's illustrations and assigning random values for the variables.

The instructor distributes assignments to students over a network, by e-mail or on diskettes. Using encrypted files to prevent student tampering, the instructor chooses the type of problems to be worked. When students open their files, the software generates the same type of problems for every student, but the variables are different; no two answers are the same.

The Homework Laboratory grades problems, gives partial credit if the problems aren't completely correct and coaches students on incorrect answers. It also scores and assists with unassigned textbook problems for practice and creates randomized and timed practice tests. Students can use the Homework Laboratory on their personal computers as well as in university computer labs.

When an assignment is completed, students turn in the encrypted file on which their work is recorded. The instructor version of the software records and averages grades and tells the instructor how many times the student used the software and when each problem was completed.

For the initial project, Billy Tindall of Tennessee Tech's Educational Technology Center replicated the colors, graphics and information of a widely-used statics textbook published by Addison-Wesley Longman Professional Publishing Group.

More than 20 instructors have test driven The Homework Laboratory under the direction of Michael Slaughter, senior editor at Addison-Wesley Longman. Slaughter spends a lot of time in the field, listening to what instructors want out of new software.

"This is the first software I've seen that blends benefits for students and instructors in one package," said Slaughter.

The National Science Foundation funded a two-year test program for The Homework Laboratory, which began this fall at Tennessee Tech and at the University of Texas at Austin, to evaluate the software's effects on students' overall class performances. Early results in Henderson's classes show a promising correlation between frequent use of The Homework Laboratory and higher test grades.

But Henderson and his Tennessee Tech colleagues aren't just interested in making their students smarter and their own lives easier.

"The flexibility of the programming makes it valuable for other publishers to consider," said Tindall. "The framework is generically written so that other textbook information can be 'plugged in.' The Homework Laboratory could potentially be a companion for most college textbooks in use today."

Jerry Ayers, Tennessee Tech's associate vice president of research, sees a broader application extending to higher education's efforts to prepare education majors headed to teach in the nation's middle and high schools.

"There's an opportunity for universities to increase the value of undergraduate teacher education program and reach out to public schools," said Ayers. "Our student teachers may learn how to adapt The Homework Laboratory to a variety of textbooks used in public schools and put it to use for their students."