In one of my previous posts, I described how happy I was to implement Norton’s online homework system, Smartwork, for my organic courses. For my students’ learning, nothing beats the instant feedback they get when they click “Check Answer,” which immediately helps them assess whether or not they understand the problem at hand (it’s hard to describe the exuberance in my students’ faces when they see the green check marks appear shortly after they submit). And Smartwork does a very nice job with mechanism and arrow-pushing types of problems, having students build their own molecules and add their own curved arrows. Smartwork, however, is not perfect. No online homework system is. The authors of the Smartwork problems have done an admirable job coding for multiple correct answers and anticipating numerous wrong answers students might submit. But it is next to impossible to code for EVERY variation of an answer a student might conjure up, particularly for a mechanism problem. Therefore, on occasion, a student will run into a situation where Smartwork did not anticipate the answer they submitted, which can cause frustration. As an instructor, I have to be concerned about that frustration level because it has the tendency to get in the way of the student seeing online homework for its true worth: as a means by which to learn the material. How, then, can we prevent students from getting frustrated in situations like that? I found a way that works in my classroom.

In most cases, students are frustrated because of the points they will miss from their Smartwork grade, and the impact they think it might have on their course grade as a result. I make Smartwork worth 4% of the course grade, so I know that a few Smartwork points missed will be negligible, but students have a very difficult time believing that—at least to the extent where they stop worrying about those few points. The bottom line is that a large percentage of my students believe that every hundredth of a percentage point on their course grade matters, and nothing will convince them otherwise. One way to address the problem, then, is to assure students that an adjustment will be made to their Smartwork grade at the end of the semester to account for points that might have been lost undeservedly. I did this a few years ago on an individual basis for each student, but it could be an across-the-board adjustment instead. Certainly, this adjustment allowed my students, at the end of the semester, to see their Smartwork grade as being “fair.” But it did little to address the larger problem, which is that, throughout the semester, students remained overly focused on each point they missed out on.

To fix the problem, here’s what I did the last time I taught organic. Each Smartwork assignment was worth five points, independent of the number of problems I added to the assignment. To earn the five points, students needed to receive an 80% grade from Smartwork. Anything less than 80% would result in a zero for that assignment. I told students on the very first day of class that this all-or-nothing stipulation was my way of adjusting for anything they perceived to be unjust from Smartwork. At the same time, I told them that it’s not okay to shoot for an 80% grade and quit. Rather, their job was to aim for 100%, and to ask questions when there was something they got wrong or didn’t understand. But I stressed that they shouldn’t sweat a few missed points, because a grade of 97% or 89% would earn them the same five points.

This seemed to do the trick. In fact, it did wonders. Throughout the semester I still had a large number of visits to my office from students to get help with Smartwork problems, but the frustration with Smartwork remained very low, almost nonexistent. I noticed that it was not too challenging for students to earn an 80% grade, at which point they could breathe easier, maintaining focus on learning the take-home lessons from each problem. This was evident from the fact that the vast majority of Smartwork grades exceeded 90%, and many exceeded 97%.

I am implementing this same all-or-nothing grading policy for Smartwork this year, but I am increasing the threshold grade to 85%. I am encouraged to increase the threshold for two reasons. One is that, as I look back at the Smartwork grades from last time, most students surpassed 85% on each assignment. The other reason is that, over the past year, the folks at Smartwork spent considerable time and effort going through every problem to ensure accuracy, enhance user-friendliness, and yes, predict the myriad of student responses. Because of their efforts, there should be far fewer triggers for student frustration this year. Smartwork continues to improve, as well as my students’ performance, and that’s what it’s all about in the end.

-Joel Karty

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