With the advent of increasingly sophisticated, convenient, and useful online homework programs, is there any place left for the classic pencil and paper textbook problems?

I will have to preface this by going ahead and stating my general biases. Probably the most effective way to do this would be to tell you all that in the era of the smart speaker (Alexa, Google Home, etc.), I still prefer to have an analogue option. For example, I went out to a thrift store in town and bought an old clock radio which is about the size of a small shoe box complete with chrome dials and wood paneling on the side. It is in my kitchen and it cost me about $2.00. I love it. I’m pretty sure it isn’t listening in on my conversations. In a high-tech world of convenience, there are some advantages for taking it back to the old school.

In the classroom, assigning textbook problems, giving students a week to do them and then collecting their sheets of paper in class encourages them to use their textbook more.

Karty’s textbook is structured perfectly for assigning homework questions turned in on paper. I always assign them to read the chapter and complete the “your turn” questions, which are perfect low-stakes practice questions. I find they help students stay focused on the reading in a more active way rather than passively as they tend to. The “solved” questions generally always have a second question right underneath where the student has to do it themselves but has the guided example to help them through it. This encourages critical thinking and independent application of the concepts. What I am really excited about in the new second edition is how the end of chapter questions are now separated into sections matching the in-chapter section numbers. Now if I tell my students the quiz Friday is going to cover chapter 17 and the reactions of hydride agents, they have a whole built in section right there for them to focus on and practice with. It is one of those simple things that I didn’t know I needed until I got it. I am very excited about the new end of chapter questions now, and I can’t wait to assign them in the Fall. Another advantage is that these in-text features and the organization of the end of chapter questions help students get better at using reference material and learning on their own. I would say this is the key value that a good college textbook offers.

Additionally, working through these problems by hand simulates the test taking experience. I just started thinking about this recently and, for my course at least, writing structures and mechanisms on paper for homework is much more similar to them writing on an exam than using software. My gut tells me that I wouldn’t want my students writing a mechanism for the first time on a graded exam. I do realize how non-scientific I sound right there.

A more general benefit as an educator is it is easier for students to bring questions to me in the office with their homework as a reference. I can write directly on the page and point them to the section in the book that covers the problem in question. This also encourages face-to-face time with students, which generally helps me get to know them and their strengths and weaknesses better, allowing me to tailor the classroom experience.

Things I like about pen and paper homework for people that like lists:

  • Encourages use of textbook
  • Closely approximates writing answers in tests
  • Encourages student office visits
  • Quick and easy to make personalized assignments
  • The “Your Turn” questions compliment them well
  • Chance to get creative with grading system that consists of check marks, stars or motivational teacher stickers
  • Students can’t use power outages as an excuse

However, there are certainly strong benefits to technology in the classroom. I am guessing if you are reading this and you teach a large section of organic chemistry, the biggest one is quite obvious: grading and time. Grading is the biggest drawback because it is time consuming since the main reason we grade homework is to give feedback to students. However, the SmartWork5 homework system has the ability to give instant feedback to a student on each problem, and that can be incredibly powerful.

For now, I’ve chosen to stick with the classic “paper and pencil” platform of assigned homework. I have done one full year of online homework before and I generally reevaluate my plans every year. I may switch back if I feel like I can get a better result. I’m curious though, so please reply back in the comments: Which method do you use? Are there effective ways to incorporate both methods? Is there a third, better way I didn’t think of? How much of their overall grade does it count towards? I’d love to hear from you.

ROBAK IMAGE_11.26.2018
-Andrew Robak, Keuka College
Click here to learn more about Dr. Robak

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