What's involved in WeBWorK?
by Peter Alfeld.
This page is intended as an overview of ww for instructors who are
considering its use for their class.
The possible types of WeBWorK answers include:
- Decimal numbers. By default ww considers them correct if they
agree with the specified answers within one tenth of one percent.
This tolerance can be modified.
- Algebraic expressions. ww evaluates the student supplied answer
and the solution given with the problem
at some random values of the variables, and compares the values so
Thus there is a large range of possible answers.
- Multiple Choice questions
- True/False Questions
- arbitrary strings
- Matching items (like algebraic expressions and graphs)
- ww problems can include graphics and html links.
- You can have students write text that is then mailed to you.
- Students can have different numbers in their problems.
You can send mass mailings to your class containing individual
information, like test scores and and current grades. This feature is
most useful, and quite underused.
Tasks involved in running a ww class
The list of tasks involved below is sorted roughly by decreasing
instructor involvement. Only you can decide what problems to include
in your ww assignments. But you don't need to be savvy in Unix or
know how to write ww problems. On the other hand, perhaps the most
satisfying way to run ww is to have control over all of its aspects.
We can accommodate both extremes and anything in between.
- Decide what problems to include in your ww homework. These can
be from existing courses, problem banks, your textbook, or you can
make them up yourself.
- Once problems are ready to be opened to the students they need to
be tested. This is crucial, fixing a problem after a hundred
students have been frustrated by it is vastly more aggravating and
time consuming than making sure the problem works in the first place.
- Email is an integral part of ww, and email queries by students
need to be answered in a timely manner.
- Class lists need to be maintained, students need to be added (and
- ww assignments need to be assembled (and perhaps written), and
put on the web.
- The initial class directory has to be set up at the beginning of
the semester. This usually happens right when the semester
starts, so that we can use as up-to-date a class list as
- At the beginning of the semester someone needs to demonstrate ww
to your students and give them the relevant information about their ww
- Occasional problems (a student having forgotten a password, a
ww question not showing up properly) need to be addressed.
Here are some suggestions, based on my own
experience. All of them are just my personal opinion, and some of
them may be controversial.
- Make the ww assignments a significant part of your grade. I
usually count them for about 40 percent of the student's grade.
- It usually does not work to fix a problem with a ww question -
like it having the wrong answer - after your class has been exposed
to the set. Instead, if there is a problem with a webwork question let
the students know and have ww give all of them credit for that
problem. Apologize profusely.
- It is possible to have different (random) numbers for parameters
in each students' problem. This feature is overrated. It is often
better to settle on a specific set of well thought out parameters that
keep the required arithmetic at the appropriate level. This also
makes it easier to communicate with the class as a whole about the
Instructors are sometimes worried about ww assignments being answered
by people other than their students. Students who cheat only cheat
themselves by depriving themselves of the learning affect. I ignore them.
- Assignments should be wordy, with examples and explanations, and links to
relevant web pages where appropriate.
- The greatest source of frustrations and wasted energy is the fact
that students new to ww don't understand arithmetic precedence. They
think 1/x+y means 1/(x+y). It is well worth it to spend time, and
perhaps the entire first assignment, on explaining these issues.
- Make sure your students understand that upper and lower case
variables are distinct.
- Have your first assignment due at least two weeks into the
semester, to allow for late comers.
- Use and update the "message of the day" that goes with your class.
- Encourage your students to work together on ww home works.
- Take care to use hw sets where problems cover a wide range of difficulty.
It's OK to have a lot of routine problems and a few difficult ones.