UMass Amherst Students Log on to World Wide Web To Do Their Chemistry Homework

AMHERST, Mass. - When roughly 1,400 UMass students sit down to do their introductory chemistry homework this semester, they won’t need to sharpen their pencils. Instead, they’ll log on to the chemistry department’s homework site on the World Wide Web.

While college students are increasingly using computers in their studies, the UMass system is unusual because it is located on the Web, and because its software was tailor-made at the University. Students log on to the OWL (Online Web Learning) homepage from their residence halls, off-campus apartments, the chemistry Resource Center, or anywhere else that provides Web access. Students in 35 different majors are required or recommended to study chemistry, including those majoring in nutrition, engineering, and nursing.

Although the chemistry department has used computer-assisted learning since 1986, the World Wide Web has provided a new way to present information to students, says chemistry professor Roberta Day: "Today’s students have grown up with computers," she says, "and they find computers a comfortable, natural medium in which to learn."

Creating the software was a collaborative project between the chemistry department and the University’s Center for Computer-Based Instructional Technology (CCBIT). The center’s staff works with faculty members from across the campus to produce instructional computer software. The University made an initial investment of $60,000 in the system, which will be enhanced in July with a $358,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

David Hart, executive director of CCBIT, scrolls through the site: it offers course information that is updated as necessary, serving as an electronic bulletin board -- answers to exams, for example, can be posted. Reference materials are also posted, such as an interactive periodic table of the elements, for example.

When it’s time to do homework, students click on a set of questions that deals with specific course material. Questions that pop up on the screen are multiple-choice, matching, short answer, and numeric answer. Students can do the assignment any time they wish, but must complete the work by the due date in order to receive credit. The system will not allow the student to move to the next level until the requisite number of questions are answered correctly, indicating that the student has mastered the concept.

The program allows the faculty to track students’ progress: "I can tell whether students have done their homework on time," says Day. "And if I want to, I can tell how many passes it took them to get it correct."

Students taking Chemistry 111 and 112 still attend lectures, study textbooks, and conduct experiments in the lab. But the Web homework site replaces weekly, hand-graded quizzes, and, more recently, an electronic homework system that did not link to the World Wide Web. Both the quizzes and the earlier homework system were aimed at preventing students from falling behind while studying complex material. In addition, they can go to the on-campus Chemistry Resource Center for one-on-one help, or to use one of the 50 computers there which offer Web access.

"The objective is not to reproduce a classroom or textbook experience, but to speak to the strengths of the computer," says Day. Current software in the Resource Center allows students studying molecular geometry to "rotate" a molecule on the screen, to see what molecular structures actually look like. Future plans for the homework system will allow students to do these kinds of tasks on the Web. The upcoming NSF grant will allow software enhancements including animation, interactive simulations, and intelligent tutoring, in which the software adjusts itself to what the student needs to learn.

One key feature of the system is that a student sees a different set of questions every time he or she logs on to the site, notes Hart. The questions are drawn randomly from a database of approximately 2,000 questions. This increases the likelihood that the student will truly learn the material, rather than resorting to rote memorization, Day says.

Thirty-seven students used the Web system last fall as part of a pilot program. A comparison made over the past decade has shown that students participating in electronic homework programs do as well as students in traditional discussion groups, Day and Hart say. Students can log on to online homework as often as they want, with OWL counting the highest grade. Many use it to practice for exams, according to Day.

The department’s previous, non-Web homework system included a "feedback" feature: when students entered an incorrect answer, a box popped up on the screen, explaining why they were wrong. That was deliberate: students learn best when they are given immediate feedback, says Hart. So feedback has been expanded in OWL; the Web allows programmers to include more than just a few lines of text, and also permits multimedia elements.

"On a quiz, you had one shot and if you blew it, you didn’t get a second chance. You didn’t know why you were wrong," says Day. "We intend for our students to use this to learn, not just to be tested."