Online Homework Options: The Pros and Cons

It is uncommon to find a class that doesn’t utilize online capabilities. Whether they have an online program for homework assignments or just use Blackboard, Piazza, etc., we all need computers to complete our assignments. In all honesty, I find online homework convenient and arguably better than book work (for example: Knowing whether you did a problem right or wrong right after you answer, as opposed to a week after when you’re now covering new material and the problem’s not fresh in your mind). Of course, everyone has their reservations about each, whether it’s Lon-Capa’s consistent lagging and crashing or whatever the heck Principle of Economics’ homework software is.

I, myself, have reservations and preferences regarding each one I’ve used, and I think I’ve found which traits seem to work best for me and what don’t.

The reason why I like Mastering is because they give you a fair amount of tries (usually 5) and don’t knock off too much for a wrong answer. Additionally, it comes with the “hint” feature that let’s you try to solve a related problem to learn how without using up your tries (and thus, your grade) and even post-incorrect-answer hints, usually regarding sign error. By deducting a little bit, you have an incentive to get it right in as few tries as possible, yet also not penalizing you too hard for small errors, like incorrect signs, or for learning how not to do it.

Despite what most people say, I actually like Lon-Capa. Now I’m not saying it’s perfect or that I love it, but compared to most programs, it is actually quite fairly done. And to those who know I’m a Physics major, that is not why I speak in favor of it. Trust me, there are Physics people and TA’s who curse it as well (I know I’ve done my fair share).

Its main problems are that it tends to lag with increased traffic and crashes at least once per testing period. Aside from that, it’s a fairly good system for homework. It gives you a generous amount of tries (10, 15, 99…) and it doesn’t deduct points. This portion might seem a bit flawed given the context of Mastering’s incentives in regard to correct answers, so the learning part may get skewed, but a learning student should still be able to use it effectively. It does give you certain post-incorrect-answer hints like sign error and close-but-not-quite answers, but it also has a comments section below for students to ask questions and work through particularly hard problems. The fact that professors and TA’s consistently browse these comments also help‒both in helping students and deleting comments that outright give the answer, requiring no work or learning on the troubled student’s behalf.

Overall, if you can get past the technical difficulties, it can be an effective program when used correctly. And we can’t knock off the happiness, however short-term, it can give students (green boxes *hint hint*).

Let me get this next one out of the way: Econ. We all (most?) dislike(d) Principles of Economics for various reasons, but one source of frustration was definitely the online homework problems. We’ve probably all had that True/False question that said “Wrong” for both answers, and when you clicked “Give Solution” it said “Undefined.” It’s buggy. It’s weird. I’m not in favor of it. Thankfully, however, the 3500 points system they use for homework doesn’t require you to use it, so you can still pass (and even get an A) if you don’t touch it at all. But I do feel sorry for those who bought the book for the access code only to find a buggy program and that it comes with an online book (I know I did).

Finally, we have Sapling. *sigh* It’s an okay program, but I have a few complaints that frustrate me to no end (well, technically that end is May, so I’ll spare the dramatics). Let me start with the good attributes. It does come with a “hint” option, so if you get stuck you aren’t entirely screwed. Additionally, it also gives post-incorrect-answer hints which have saved me quite a few times, teaching me how it is done and overall helping me learn (which is its purpose, right?) User interface is also friendly, though you can’t use the scroll wheel on your mouse to scroll up and down a long problem, so that can get annoying.

With all of these attributes, I’d say it’s a fairly nice program that’s even nice to look at, aesthetically (unlike others *cough*Lon-Capa*cough*). But with Sapling, you don’t lose 3% for a wrong answer. For most problems, which are write-in, calculated answers with only one part, one wrong answer deducts ten percent. TEN.

Homework is really a tool to help you learn, become familiar with, and eventually master new content. You’re supposed to make mistakes, so long as you can learn from them. Sapling doesn’t encourage mistake-learning all that well. I’ve been too afraid to try something and eliminate or confirm a method based on the answer because I didn’t want my grade to suffer too much. This also penalizes you for sign errors and typos. Furthermore, it doesn’t even tell you if you typed in an answer that you have already tried before, nor does it avoid deducting points. Lon-Capa and Mastering tell you if you have already tried a certain answer, which you should know to be wrong, and Mastering doesn’t reduce points for identical answers.

Given my comments about each of the different online options that I have experienced, I would have to “rank” thank in the following order, based on helpfulness to learning and effectiveness as a method of homework: Mastering, Lon-Capa, Sapling. Though I commented about it, the homework Economics gives was not included in the list mainly on the grounds that it is only used for one class, to my knowledge, regardless of major, and that it is not essential to earning all of the points available for that class. If another class does, in fact, use it, then disregard those two reasons and place it at the end of the list behind Sapling.


Hey, all! If you're reading about me, you are probably thinking, "who the heck is this guy and why is he writing in my newspaper?" Though probably not in those exact words. Well, as you probably know, my name is Braden Egtvedt. As you probably don't know, I am a graduate student in Electrical Engineering here at Mines. I am also a Staff Writer for the Opinion section. You will mostly be seeing my name on satirical articles, particularly the horoscopes by Bob the Astrologer.

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